Will Germany use autobahn speed limits to cut carbon emissions?

A national commission has laid out a number of steps to help Germany meet EU emissions targets. Though desperately needed, they will face resistance from citizens and the country's influential auto industry.

The German government tasked a commission known as the National Platform on the Future of Mobility with finding ways to lower the country's carbon emissions in order to meet EU targets.

Nature and Environment | 08.12.2018

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Although a final report is not due to be published until late March, draft proposals seen by news agencies on Friday are likely to face fierce resistance from citizens, industry and politicians fearful of angering any of them.   

Among the proposals featured in the paper were a fuel tax hike from 2023 onward, an end to tax breaks for diesel cars, electric and hybrid vehicle quotas, and a 130 kmh (80 mph) speed limit on freeways — which is the norm in other EU countries.

Speaking of the concept of limiting how fast Germans can drive on their famously speedy autobahns would seem a non-starter, and that point was made by Ulrich Lange, deputy chairman of Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU/CSU parliamentary group, "I don't think the suggestion of a speed limit is expedient."

Sensationalized and out of context

Commission members complained that the publication of their working paper misrepresented an early phase of their work and had been made public in a sensationalized manner lacking proper context.

Aware of the unpopularity of such suggestions, the commission noted: "Not every instrument and every measure will be accepted. It will take political deftness, diplomatic skill and a willingness to compromise to achieve the climate change goals."

The Federal Ministry of Transport was quick to point out that the report represented "initial brainstorming" and that none of the measures had been "discussed, agreed to, or passed."

Germany could face hefty EU fines if it fails to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, and observers see the transport sector, alongside energy and housing, as a key to meeting emissions reduction targets.

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Transport emissions on the rise

Transport emissions in the country have not gone down since 1990. Instead, they have been going up due to increased overall car sales as well as that of more powerful sports cars and larger SUVs. Germany's Federal Statistical Office said that in 2017 automobile traffic was responsible for 115 million tons of CO2 emissions — 6.4 percent more than in 2010.  

Beyond environmental groups, the commission is stacked with a number of members representing the rail, metal and automobile industries as well as automaker Volkswagen.

The issues of speed limits and fuel tax hikes are highly unpopular in Germany — not least due to the work of the country's powerful automobile lobby — and reactions to Friday's publication of the working paper were swift.

Frank Sitta from the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), for instance, was livid: "After the ridiculous diesel bans, now they want a speed limit, quotas on electric vehicles and fuel tax hikes. That will just make mobility in Germany even more expensive."

More than speed limits

Beyond its suggestions for cutting automobile emissions the commission's paper underscores the necessity of strengthening public transport, as well as facilitating bicycle and pedestrian traffic.

Commenting on the lack of progress Germany has made in changing its approach to environmentally sustainable mobility, Greenpeace transport expert Tobias Astrup decried the fact that, "We have made absolutely no headway in terms of climate protection and transport since 1990."

How to navigate the German autobahn

The sky's the limit

The only European country without a general speed limit on most parts of its highways, Germany has an excellent system of motorways. They are generally well-maintained, inviting you to explore them. The minimum age for obtaining a driver's license used with a legal guardian present in Germany is 17. An unrestricted car driver's license can be granted at age 18.

How to navigate the German autobahn

Bracing yourself

According to statistics by ADAC, Germany's national automobile association, traffic jams increased by around 15 percent in 2016 as compared to the previous year. That's a lot for a relatively small country. The increase resulted from both more cars on the highway, and more construction sites. So brace yourself for more time and stress in the car, especially around big cities.

How to navigate the German autobahn

Tailgaters

Even when you think you're soaring down the autobahn, you may get the distinct impression it's still not fast enough. Some German drivers may drive right up behind you and try to "push" you over. They may even flash their headlights to rattle your nerves. You aren't supposed to block the "fast" lane — the aim being to only use it for passing. But don't let pushy drivers bully you!

How to navigate the German autobahn

Smile for the camera!

Watch out for speed cameras! They are used widely in Germany, from the autobahn to inner city areas. These box-shaped devices are installed next to the road, and will often catch you unawares. Should you be driving over the speed limit, a ticket will be sent to your house, complete with a picture of you at the wheel and the license plate confirming your offense.

How to navigate the German autobahn

Cell phones a no-no

Holding a cell phone in your hand while driving is an absolute no-no. If caught, you could be fined 100 euros ($124) and get a one-point penalty against your driver's license. Penalties spike up if you cause an accident, and you may have your license revoked. Fines were raised in 2017. Investing in a hands-free car kit is smarter. Penalties also apply to bicyclists using their cell phones.

How to navigate the German autobahn

Make way for help

The same thing goes for not making way for emergency vehicles. Once traffic jams up, you are required to create a lane for ambulances and police, even before you see the flashing lights behind you. If not, you could be fined at least 200 euros (around $250) and get points on your license. The emergency lane is always between the far left and the rest of the lanes.

How to navigate the German autobahn

Be on the alert

You are also required to set up a warning signal should you break down or have an accident. This means placing an orange metal triangle on the road, donning a fluorescent jacket, both of which you must have in your car. You must also have a first-aid kit stored in your vehicle.

How to navigate the German autobahn

Driving under the influence

In Germany, there's zero tolerance for beginners, as well as for professional drivers. There's a 0.05 percent blood alcohol content (BAC) limit to driving under the influence. Bicyclists may not exceed 0.16 percent. Penalties start at a €500 ($623) fine, points off your license and even a one-month license suspension. Best bet: don't drink and drive!

How to navigate the German autobahn

Snow tires

Snow tires are required once streets become slick with slush, ice or snow. In Germany, the rule of thumb is that this can occur anytime between October and Easter. Should you not have snow tires installed on your car and still drive on slippery streets, you could be fined and have points taken off your license. Without proper snow tires, your insurance may also not cover an accident.

How to navigate the German autobahn

A relaxed approach

To navigate both the German autobahn and city streets, the best approach is a zen one: take your time and don't let yourself get frazzled. Besides, with an expansive train and public transportation system in the country, you might not even want to hop into your car, but board a train and put up your feet!

js/sms (dpa, Reuters)