Why the German Environmental Minister doesn't support a speed limit on autobahns

Speeds upwards of 240 km/hr (150 mph) on the German autobahn decrease fuel efficiency considerably, but few politicians have the will to set speed limits.
CC BY 2.0 Jon Rawlinson

No one questions that a national speed limit in Germany remains a political hot potato. Dodging the issue has become an art form, but the German Environmental Minister's reason for not supporting a speed limit could be the craziest yet.

Unlimited Speeds

German highways (the autobahns) are famed the world over for stretches of tarmac where unlimited speeds are allowed. Drivers need only look for stripes slashing across the speed limit sign to know that they have entered a part of the highway where no officer of the law can inhibit them testing the mettle of their motors. Andrew Butitta/CC BY-SA 2.0

Every so often, the movement to slow drivers down gains attention, as it did earlier this month when Sigmar Gabriel, chairman of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), called for a national speed limit. Safety advocates have a particularly strong argument when you think that a driver motoring 240 km/hr (150 mph) comes up on a car going 90 km/hr (55 mph) as if hitting a wall at at 150 km/hr (93 mph). Only the strict discipline of German drivers keeping to the right lane to leave the left free for passing prevents routine disasters.

Gabriel's position set up a "speed bump" in the SPD campaigns. After all, the right to fly down the highway goes hand-in-hand with German pride in their automobile industry and the image of the German driving machine in the global markets -- two forces not to be taken lightly in politics.

Karl Baron/CC BY 2.0
Flying down the autobahn

Forest of Traffic Signs

But as the argument for a speed limit now reaches beyond the issue of safety to the question of reducing CO2 emissions, the German paper Welt am Sonntag (World on Sunday) put German Environmental Minister Peter Altmaier on the spot in an interview, asking Altmaier his position on Gabriel's 120 km/hr (75mph) speed limit proposal.

After insinuating that the opposition has lost touch with the issues important to the people, Altmaier comically grounds his position that a speed limit is superfluous for the foreseeable future on the fact that German roads suffer from a "forest" of traffic signs:

Given the forest of signs that we already have now on the German Autobahns, I consider a speed limit in the foreseeable future expressly unnecessary.

For those who want to read the original: "Angesichts des Schilderwaldes, den wir jetzt schon auf deutschen Autobahnen haben, halte ich ein Tempolimit auf absehbare Zeit ausdrücklich für entbehrlich."

The comment must be perceived as particularly curious by those familiar with the German highways, where relatively few signs pollute the view on open stretches -- one must be attentive to find the speed limit sign as one enters from the on-ramp, because it will not be repeated. The places where signs abound, mostly more populated areas, do currently have speed limits due to the higher traffic density, noise control, and assistance for finding a destination.

Dennis Yang/CC BY 2.0
Forest of traffic signs?

Altmaier goes on to admit that he has collected a few points on his license before becoming Minister and that he likes speed:

I am happy when I have an open, clear stretch of road in front of me. And I think speeding not morally reprehensible, as long as you stick to the traffic rules.

Adding to the irony of his comments, the main focus of the interview consists of Altmaier defending his agency for naming and shaming a couple of journalists for climate-change denial.

Acid Pix/CC BY 2.0

Tags: Carbon Footprint | Fuel Efficiency | Germany

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