Why Germany put the brakes on

For generations, they have enjoyed the right to drive as fast as they wish on their nation's motorways. But now every Porsche owner's dream is set to be shattered. Yesterday, the governing party voted to impose a blanket 80mph limit. Tony Paterson reports on the end of an era

Boris Becker may be the most successful German tennis star on record, but in one respect he shares an obsession cherished by millions of his fellow countrymen: he likes getting into a fast car, driving it to the nearest Autobahn or motorway and simply putting his foot "through the floor".

Shortly before the 38-year-old celebrity had his licence taken away from him for a speeding offence in Switzerland earlier this month, he told one of Germany's glossy magazines what he liked doing most in his free time: "I switch on the sound system in my car and put on a Techno CD – then I just drive fast. I just do it to relax."

It is perhaps no surprise that Becker is referred to as "Brum Brum Boris" in Germany's tabloid press. It's not difficult to understand why he gets his kicks from motorway driving. Germany is not only the home of fast, gas-guzzling limousines from the Audi, Mercedes, Porsche, BMW and Volkswagen stables. It is also only place in the world where these mechanical monsters can be driven at the speed they were built to go at.

The German Autobahn or motorway is the planet's last bastion of unlimited foot on the floor driving. The country has more than 12,000km (750 miles), of such motorway, and driving as fast as you like or can, is permitted on 6,000km of the network.

Its only rivals in terms of limitless speed of driving are hardly an equal match: they include the winding roads of the Isle of Man, which has no motorway, a state in the American far west and a state in India.

The normal driver who visits Germany may experience only road works and endless "Staus", or traffic jams, on the most frequented sections of the Autobahn system. But get into one of Germany's high powered cars and drive along the brand new motorways recently constructed in the former Communist east of the country and the seduction of speeding with impunity becomes irresistible.

On such empty and pristine roads, cars "cruise" at 220kph (130mph). Yet cars are being built to go even faster. A reminder of which way the German car industry is going in terms of future automobile development was provided at the recent Frankfurt motor show: the star of the event was the Audi R8 – a 420 horsepower vehicle that can be driven in excess of 300kph or 180mph.

Yesterday, however, what has since become every Porsche driver's dream moved a step closer towards being shattered for ever. Germany's ruling Social Democratic Party voted in favour of imposing a speed limit on the country's legendary Autobahn.

At a key party congress in Hamburg , the Social Democrats (SPD) voted by a slim majority in favour of a blanket 130kph (80mph) speed limit on the 6,000km of the Autobahn network where driving as fast you can is still legal.

The decision by one of Germany's two main political parties to break with a tradition that has existed as long as the Autobahn itself was as controversial as an attempt to ban guns from America.

Ernst Dieter Rossmann, a spokesman for the left wing of the party, which backed the idea, said yesterday that the limit was a logical response to global warming. "A speed limit is simply common sense. With the price of car fuel constantly on the rise, everyone knows that we cannot carry on as we are," he said.

The SPD's new initiative came only days after the Nobel laureate Al Gore criticised Germany for not having motorway speed limits during a conference on climate change in Berlin.

The policy brings the party into line with the Greens and Germany's recently formed Left Party which both advocate blanket speed restrictions on all Autobahns. The upshot is that Germany now has a de facto parliamentary majority which is favour of bowing to deepening environmental concern and abandoning speed limit free driving.

However, the likelihood of a limit being imposed across Germany's motorway network before the country's 2009 general election remains remote. Although the SPD is in a grand coalition government with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), the conservatives remain opposed to the idea. Ronald Profalla, the CDU's general secretary reflected the strength of deep conservative loathing of any attempt to tamper with free driving. "The value of an across-the-board speed limit is out of all proportion to the restrictions it would impose on car drivers. The CDU is not going to be party to nanny-state rules like these," he insisted yesterday.

Sigmar Gabriel, Germany's Social Democrat Environment Minister, said that despite Ms Merkel's reputation as a champion of Green causes and her aims to cut carbon emissions by 20 per cent, imposing a blanket Autobahn speed limit would be difficult to realise in the short term. "We won't find a majority for this with her Christian Democrats," he said.

In an otherwise rule-obsessed country, being able to drive as fast as you can on the Autobahn has become a potent symbol of what many Germans consider to be one of the few genuine freedoms left to them. As Der Spiegel magazine put it last week: "In a country where nearly everything is regulated, its a question of the joy one experiences in seeing the speed limit dropped – even if its only as far as the next road works."

The Nazis did not invent the Autobahn, however, they certainly realised it. Most Germans can summon up images of the grainy black-and-white Nazi propaganda newsreel of September 1933 showing Hitler, his sleeves rolled up, plunging a spade into the earth as the first German Autobahn project is launched.

Although they only completed some 3,800km of Autobahn, the Nazis left an almost insatiable demand for mobility, in terms of fast cars and fast roads, in their wake. There were no speed limits on the first Autobahns and Hitler dreamt of them eventually linking Berlin to the furthest corners of the captured German Reich.

Uwe Kirsch, a 41-year-old travelling salesman who drives 70,000 kilometres a year and makes it his business to challenge every speed restriction in the courts, says: "I feel it is my duty to fight these rules. We are the nation that discovered the car and the Autobahn. Cows should be banned instead of cars, because when they fart they are more damaging to the climate than cars," he adds.

The German "Economic Miracle" of the Fifties and Sixties were boom times for the car and road building industry. It was not until the world oil crisis of the early Seventies that the country's politicians were forced to contemplate the idea of speed restrictions on Autobhans. The then West German government reacted by imposing a ban on Sunday driving and introducing a 100kph speed limit for the duration of the crisis.

During the 111 days that the speed limit was in force, Germany's equivalent of Britain's Automobile Association, the 16-million member ADAC, got wind of government plans to make the restriction permanent. The immensely powerful organisation responded by promoting a slogan which has now become part of everyday German vocabulary: "Freie Fahrt Für Frei Bürger", which translates prosaically into (Limit) Free Driving for Free Citizens.

The massive public opposition to Autobahn speed limits that ensued had, until yesterday, stopped the idea from ever being taken up again by either of Germany's two main parties. Safety has hardly been an issue either, in fact the government has mounted campaigns stressing how statistically safe the Autobahn is in comparison to two-lane highways.

The German car lobby, headed by the influential giants, Mercedes, Volkswagen, Porsche and BMW, has for decades persuaded the political establishment to reject the idea of blanket motorway speed limits. To ensure the co-operation of the main parties, Daimler, BMW and Porsche donated a total of ¿2m (£1.4m) to them in the run up to Germany's 2005 general election.

One of the industry's main arguments is that the German car's success as an export stems from the fact that it has been "Autobahn tested".

Jörg Waldeck, the head of BMW's Berlin bureau, which lobbies intensively against the idea of speed limits and insists that the concept, if introduced, would do nothing to cut CO2 emissions: "We must hang on to the mythology of the Autobahn at all costs," he says.

The industry, which claims that every seventh job in Germany is car related, has dismissed a number of studies which have shown that speed limits could effectively slash polluting emissions by 5 per cent overnight and by some 15 per cent in the long term once more fuel-efficient cars came into use.

However, the conservatives, backed by Germany's ADAC motoring association, maintain that speed limits would discourage the car industry from developing more fuel-efficient engines. Michael Backhaus, a commentator in Germany's right of centre Bild am Sonntag newspaper, insisted yesterday that a speed limit would be the state "enforcing climate protection by slow driving instead of through technological advance".

Arguments such as these appear to have convinced Germany's allegedly "Green", conservative Chancellor, Angela Merkel, that the idea of speed limits on Autobahns should not be touched with a barge poll.

She has yet to explain how her philosophy tallies with her commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 20 per cent over the next 13 years and her success in persuading world leaders to do likewise at this year's German-hosted G8 summit.

Ms Merkel's conservative MPs know what to expect if they should have the audacity to speak out in favour of Autobahn speed limits. One of them is Thomas Göppel, from Germany's southern state of Bavaria. Spelling out the advantages of speed limits, he insists: "We would make the Autobahns safer, we would have less accidents. We would have fewer traffic jams and we would also be doing something for the climate."

Earlier this year , Mr Göppel planned to introduce a parliamentary initiative in favour of Autobahn speed limits. That was before he was rung up by his party's parliamentary leader and told to drop the idea. Thomas Göppel is unlike most of Germany's conservative politicians. He drives a VW Polo.

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