Row over speed limits on German motorways takes environmental twist
Ryan Thompson in Bavaria

When European nations added speed limits in the 1970s to tackle rising traffic deaths, Germany surprised the world by not following the trend.

Engineers had finished an impressive national motorway system years earlier and leaders felt it wasn't their place to regulate citizens' speed on the open road.

"The idea of the autobahn emerged in a new way," said Christopher Neumaier, a contemporary German historian. "Drive wherever you want. Drive at whatever speed you want."

To this day, Germany does not have a maximum speed limit on its national motorway or "autobahn." Drivers traveling from Cologne to Frankfurt, for example, can go as fast as they like if they're not in a reduced speed zone. 

It is not uncommon to spot sports cars and other powerful vehicles driving at more than 200 km/h.



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The lack of speed limits has made the autobahn perhaps the world's most famous highway. 

It has inspired musicians, writers and directors. Hollywood actor Tom Hanks once told a talk show host: "When you go past the sign that says 120 with the line through it. The gloves are off baby!"

The autobahn is not immune from its share of traffic accidents, despite some Germans, including transport minister Andreas Scheuer, billing it as "the safest in the world."

The fatality rate averages 30.2 percent, according to 2019 European Union data, which is well above the European average of 26.4 percent.

The debate over adding a speed limit has been highly controversial. 

"The autobahn is an emotionally charged topic in Germany, like the right to keep and bear arms in the United States. It's mostly not argued rationally, but on an emotional basis," said Neumaier. 

In recent years, more Germans have voiced public support for a 120 km/h speed limit, which is common in neighboring EU countries. 

Many say climate concerns, on top of safety considerations, should be enough to force the government to consider the issue closely. 

"If a vehicle drives very, very quickly, the car also uses significantly more fuel than a vehicle that travels at a maximum of 120 kilometers per hour," Jens Hilgenberg of Friends of the Earth Germany told CGTN Europe. 

Nearly half of the autobahn network has some kind of speed restrictions for construction, low visibility, or curvy roads.

Police have become more active and have increased the number of fines issued for speeding in recent years. Speed traps can be hard to spot and officers often use unmarked vehicles.

Whether or not a speed limit is added, the autobahn of tomorrow is likely to look a lot different.

Roads are likely to be built with special asphalt that limits car noise and digital traffic monitoring would keep cars flowing more seamlessly.

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