Out of Germany: A nation of racers hooked on speed

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The Independent Online
BONN - It was, perhaps, too good to last. It was foolish to think otherwise. Still, we all have to indulge our little dreams. The recently-leaked draft election programme of Germany's opposition Social Democrats' revived proposals to introduce a speed limit throughout Germany of 120kph (75 miles an hour). At which point the driver familiar with German motorways might be forgiven for careering into the central reservation from sheer astonishment. 'Revolution' would be an understatement to sum up the proposed change.

German autobahns, after all, provide a travel experience that makes internal Aeroflot flights seem positively relaxed. Here, the right to drive at extraordinary speeds is an entrenched part of the system.

Mad drivers exist, of course, in every country. It can scarcely be denied, however, that Germany is a little different. In America, people cherish the right to own a gun; in Britain, they cherish the right to beat children; in Germany, they cherish the right to drive fast. There is a 'recommended' maximum speed of 130kph, which few except the poor Trabant drivers (who venture on to the motorways at their peril) would dream of keeping to.

Anybody driving at less than maximum speed is considered to be holding up the traffic. Drivers flash at and sit on the tail of those who are dawdling along at 160kph or 100 miles an hour. Officially, such behaviour is banned; but it is common none the less. And as for those who drive at 130 or 140kph - woe betide such sloth, for the BMW 7-series driver now appearing in your rear-view mirror shall swiftly vent his wrath.

Even critical analysis of the high-speed driving sometimes seems to be infected by the speed culture. Thus, a cover story in Focus magazine on 'Hate in the Car' talked of the 'extraordinary rage' on German motorways and gave a host of statistics to prove its point, together with anecdotes about lethal motorway duels. For its survey, Focus divided motorists into 'racers', 'normal drivers' and 'crawlers'. Interestingly, however, those who drove at 120kph (5mph above the British speed limit, and the same speed as the SPD's proposed new limit) were categorised not as normal drivers but as crawlers.

Even where there are speed limits there are ways of ignoring them. You can buy a map produced by one of the motoring organisations that marks radar traps across the country. Sweetly, the map explains that this is intended to help the motorist to 'adjust to the possible dangers' of accident black spots. It even cajoles the reader: 'Please keep to the speed limits and thus protect yourself and other drivers from the risks of increased speed.' Sure.

Not surprisingly, the Fetisch Tempo, as it has been described, feeds into the road-death statistics. As in other countries, the number of deaths has steadily declined as safety measures have improved over the years. None the less, Germany is still in a different league when it comes to the body-count. Just under 10,000 people died in car crashes in Germany last year, compared with fewer than 4,000 in Britain. Proportional to population that is around one and a half times as many. On the motorways alone 1,200 died - again, per mile of motorway, almost half as many again as in Britain.

The SPD's proposals received a less than warm welcome, however. First, there was the 'Whose car is it anyway?' argument. Then there were the objections of the big-timers, summed up in the headline over an interview with the Volkswagen boss last weekend: 'Speed limit would destroy tens of thousands of jobs.'

Sure enough, by midweek it seemed the SPD might be having second thoughts. Gerhard Schroder, the powerful SPD prime minister of Lower Saxony, where Volkswagen is the biggest employer, publicly insisted that the idea was nonsense. Yesterday when Rudolf Scharping, the SPD leader, presented the new draft programme, the proposed speed limit had been quietly dropped. For the moment at least, the racers are safe.