Call for Speed Limit Has German Blood at 178 m.p.h. Boil

New York Times, March 16th, 2007

PFAFFENHAUSEN, Germany, March 14 - Ask Marc Bongers about the wisdom of introducing a speed limit on the German autobahn, and he answers by impatiently revving the 435-horsepower engine of a specially modified Porsche. Slowpokes, he said, already spoil half the fun. ''A lady,'' Mr. Bongers sniffed, as a Mercedes scuttled out of his way in the passing lane on a busy highway in southern Bavaria. ''And she's talking on her phone,'' he said the other day, shooting her a sidelong glance. ''Doesn't she know it's against the law to do that on the autobahn?'' With a stretch of empty road ahead, Mr. Bongers floored the gas pedal, and within seconds the speedometer registered 286 kilometers an hour (178 m.p.h.) - something that is still legal here. That, by way of comparison, is about the speed of a commercial jet taking off. Few things are closer to the German heart than the freedom to drive like Michael Schumacher, the fabled Formula One champion. Rule-bound and risk-averse in so many other ways, Germans regard driving on the autobahn at face-peeling speeds as close to an inalienable right. Now, though, Germany's love of speed is colliding with its fears about global warming, as it becomes clear that its Sunday race-car drivers are spewing tons of carbon dioxide into the air. Last week, the European Union's environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas of Greece, set off a national debate here by suggesting that the German government introduce a general speed limit on the autobahn.

To be sure, at least half of the 7,500 miles of autobahn already have either permanent or temporary speed limits. But the autobahn's anything-goes stretches are the world's fastest public roads. ''Speed limits are useful for many reasons, and are the order of the day in most of the E.U.'s 27 member states and the United States,'' Mr. Dimas said in an interview with the mass-market newspaper Bild. ''Strangely enough, it is only in Germany where they are controversial.'' No kidding. His mild words were met with heated indignation from politicians and automotive groups here. Some acted as if Brussels were demanding that Germany outlaw beer and bratwurst. This is ''a trivialization of the climate problem,'' declared the German environment minister, Sigmar Gabriel. The German Association of the Automotive Industry said Germans needed ''no coaching'' from other Europeans on how to protect the environment. Even Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has put climate change at the top of her agenda as current president of the European Union and the Group of 8 industrial nations, opposes a uniform speed limit. She is hardly a car buff. Unlike her predecessor, Gerhard Schroder, she is rarely photographed behin the wheel. But she seems to realize that, like Social Security in the United States, the autobahn is the third rail of German politics - potentially deadly to those who dare touch it. Critics brandish statistics that show a speed limit of 120 kilometers an hour (75 m.p.h.) would reduce Germany's overall carbon-dioxide emissions by a few million tons a year, less than 0.5 percent. Better, they say, to focus on building more efficient power plants and houses. Yet, as environmental groups and a few lonely politicians point out, a few million tons of carbon dioxide is still a considerable savings. Unlike other measures -- clean coal plants or hybrid cars, for example - a speed limit could be imposed tomorrow and at relatively little cost.

''Our politicians like to say that Germany should not have to do more than other European countries on climate change, but in this area, we are doing less,'' said Josef Goppel, one of the few conservative members of Parliament who favor a limit. For years, speed limit advocates tried to argue their case on safety grounds. The autobahn, though, is statistically safer than highways in many countries, even if its crashes are singularly horrific. Saving the planet, it turns out, may be more persuasive than saving lives.

''Given the pride of Germans about being No. 1 in protecting the environment, this could lead to a breakthrough,'' said Peter Schneider, a writer who limits himself to 90 m.p.h. on the autobahn. Mr. Schneider is realistic. Driving fast, he said, is deeply rooted in the German psyche -- a form of expression that survived even World War II. It is an addiction that crosses social and political boundaries. ''I have friends who are left-leaning intellectuals, and they're proud to tell me they can get to Hamburg from Berlin in two hours,'' Mr. Schneider said. (That requires driving an average of 87 m.p.h.) Germany also has a powerful economic incentive to resist a speed limit. It builds some of the world's fastest cars, and the autobahn is a valuable showcase and marketing tool for the industry. A tour operator even organizes driving tours of the highway for Chinese visitors. Car connoisseurs from around the world flock to Pfaffenhausen, a one-horse town where the local company, Ruf Automobile, makes cars with many horses. Mr. Bongers, the sales manager, said people who bought these custom-modified Porsches often took them for a spin on the autobahn. For most, it is the only place they can legally test the top speed of their new toys.

''It's a kind of freedom,'' said Mr. Bongers, 40, who once pushed his own Porsche 911 to over 187 m.p.h. to prove he had the guts to do it. ''Speed is relative on the autobahn.'' Alois Ruf, a courtly, nattily dressed man who took over the family business from his father in 1974, said he did not know enough about the science to judge whether a speed limit would significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But the debate feels oddly familiar to him.

In the depths of the oil crisis in late 1973, West Germany imposed a speed limit of 100 kilometers an hour (60 m.p.h.). Four months later, the government rescinded it. Mr. Ruf recalls worrying during those dark days that the family's sports car business was doomed. ''This is a dream we are selling to the world,'' he said. ''It's a tradition I think we have to defend.''