Autobahns to stay without limits

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Andrew Frankel

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Spare a moment if you will for one Sigmar Gabriel, chairman of the German Social Democratic Party who took the highly courageous move last week of proposing a blanket speed limit be imposed on all German autobahns. For all the political good it did him, he might as well have advocated drowning puppies at birth.

Quite apart from presenting Mrs Merkel with the most open of goals just months before an election she was already on course to win, even his own party treated him as if he’d just trodden in something.

The only problem is he seems to have a point. Having a network of roads on which any person can drive any car in any condition as fast as its maker can make it go appears anomalous, not to mention rather dangerous in these risk averse times. No one questions the fact that if you lower speeds accidents becomes less frequent and less serious.

By Rl91 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

True, the evidence for the safety or otherwise of the autobahn is open to liberal interpretation by those on both sides of the argument, but one statistic I found compelling – despite the fact that it originates from a 2008 paper by the European Transport Safety Council – is that despite 52 per cent of autobahns being unrestricted, they accounted for 67 per of accidents.

And yet do I want Germany to act upon this life-saving logic? I do not and the reason why has nothing to do with a desire to drive at 200mph in public. In my experience, autobahns tend to be unlimited more in theory than practice, as traffic levels preclude all chance of visiting properly high speeds for more than odd frustrating instant at a time. To be honest I don’t much like driving on them and when a quiet French autoroute has been a viable alternative on my route across Europe, I have taken it every time.

In fact what the German government and others around the world including ours should be doing is not forcing to people to slow down because it’s safer, but making safer the business of going fast. One is progress, the other is not. Easy to say, but how to do it?

Of course in part it’s already happening: advances in braking and tyre technology mean that the extra weight and power of modern cars remains under proper control, but big motorway pile ups are rarely caused by cars: they’re caused by drivers. So we need to get better at what we do: for example in the UK, pre-test driving lessons at night, in the wet and on the motorway should be mandatory. But the cars themselves also need to help us more than they do.

Technology already exists for cars to maintain a constant dialogue with those around them. So if one comes to a stop on a motorway because of fog, an accident or some other reason, it should be able to broadcast the fact to other cars in time to prevent further chaos. Modern Mercedes cruise control already not only recognises cars ahead but displays the speed at which they are travelling and will slow you down accordingly to ensure you don’t hit them. It’ll also start bonging at you and flashing lights if it thinks you’re nodding off.

Of course we can’t all drive new Mercedes and it will take time for new technologies not only to come to market at a price the customer will pay, but also become sufficiently widespread to make a significant difference. But that is no argument for stepping back in time in the interim.

In the meantime politicians can argue until they realise just how impotent their words really are. People have been suggesting speed limits be imposed on German roads for well over 100 years and for well over 100 years, the talk has remained just that. As Herr Gabriel has just found out to his considerable discomfort, there is no appetite in the country for such a move and until there is and rightly or wrongly, the unlimited autobahn will remain.

For more on road cars from Andrew Frankel, click here.

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