Sir, I feel that perhaps I may be able to put your European Correspondent’s mind at ease by shedding some light upon the subject of the so-called “sleeping policemen” which he encountered in Austria (see European Letter, August 1973, p. 887).
I was motoring in the Vienna district in June and, as D.S.J. so rightly says, these wretched ramps were everywhere, particularly on minor roads into villages. Incidentally, I discovered my first one at night and at rather more than the prescribed speed, and I can assure you that thereafter they were treated with the utmost respect.
Their purpose, however, I think was to disinfect the tyres of vehicles, probably to prevent the spread of some sort of animal disease. I remember similar, but not such stringent precautions, being taken on some roads in Gloucestershire during the serious outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease a few years ago.
A number of these ramps just to the east of Vienna were in fact manned by very much awake policemen complete with sentry-type boxes. Every vehicle passing through was ordered to stop and all occupants asked to dismount and stamp around in the sawdust mixture (surely not a new fiendish Austrian punishment for speeding). As you can imagine my car was soon well-and-truly disinfected inside as well as out. An enquiry to one of the policemen was not all that informative. His answer was a single word, “Schwengel”, which to my suspicious mind sounded rather rude: recourse to the dictionary translated it most unhelpfully into English as “pump handle”. Allowing for local dialect, however, a further search produced a similar sounding word which meant “to impregnate”. This, I think you will agree, gives a clue as to their function.
S. A. Careless