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Achtung Autobahn! Why Germany Needs A Highway Speed Limit

Going all out on the autobahn may be part of the German way of life, but speed limits are necessary to limit road accidents and lower CO2 emissions.

Not so fast ...
Not so fast ...
Thomas Hummel


Anyone sitting in one of those huge pieces of fine machinery for the first time and accelerating to more than 200 km/h (125 mph) will have felt the kick, the adrenalin. But it only lasts for about 20 minutes. As neurobiological researchers discovered, the brain switches quickly because, otherwise, it needs too much energy. So you push to 220 km/h. No big deal. Normal.

Perhaps this is the reason why there is an outcry every time someone in Germany utters the following combination of words: highway speed limit. Some people consider the highway to be a place of ultimate freedom, the one place where you can be wild and impetuous. It's no coincidence that the vast majority of opponents to such a speed limit are young and middle-aged men.

And then there's the simple force of habit: Yeah, 220 km/h, so what!? How else am I supposed to make it to all my appointments? Driving fast on the highway is part of the German way of life. Besides, don't we Germans build these wonderful speedsters ourselves?

For that part of the population with the motto "Free ride for free citizens," Jürgen Resch is increasingly becoming the enemy. Resch is the managing director of Environmental Action Germany (DUH), a non-profit organization that recently had courts enforce several driving bans on older diesel cars in city centers.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) recently demanded at its party conference that the DUH no longer receive any more subsidies from the federal government. In addition, they asked for the DUH's non-profit status to be reviewed. The CDU apparently overlooked the fact that the environmental agency only demands the implementation of laws long ignored by politicians.

A highway speed limit benefits the majority of the population.​

Resch is now considering taking the demand for a speed limit on motorways (120 km/h) and country roads (80 km/h) to court. The trigger is the new climate protection requirements. At lower speeds, cars emit less CO2. In addition, this would also be an incentive for the industry to build smaller and lighter cars, which in turn would save carbon dioxide in the production process.

Unfortunately, German carmakers earn most of their money with large, heavy, powerful cars. That brings in profits, returns to the shareholders, bonuses for the board. And the possibility of immediately threatening to have to cut jobs at the slightest prospect of unpopular proposals. For companies, speeding on the highways is invaluable publicity, admired all over the world. Except for Germany, there is hardly a country without a speed limit on all types of roads. Germans know this too from trips to neighboring countries. But the question is: are Austrians, Swiss, French, Italians and everyone else imprisoned in an ideological culture of prohibition?

The fact is that a highway speed limit benefits the majority of the population. The number of serious accidents would decrease (the effect is even more pronounced on the very accident-prone country roads). The flow of increasingly dense traffic would improve. Noise pollution would fall sharply (which is why Austria, for example, has drastically reduced the speed limit in its Alpine valleys). And, of course, all emissions would also decline considerably, including emissions of the climate-damaging carbon dioxide.

According to the Federal Environment Agency, these emissions would be reduced by around 9% with a 120 km/h limit for all vehicles on highways. Opponents to speed limits, such as the General German Automobile Club (ADAC), argue that the reductions are hardly significant in relation to Germany's entire CO2 problem. But this line of argument doesn't work.

All emissions would also decline considerably.

Coal-fired power plant operators too are resisting calls for them to close down by explaining that such a move is excessive and would change little. Similarly, the government continues to promote air traffic because, hey, it doesn't matter anyway, does it? The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and parts of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) argue that Germany doesn't actually have to do anything at all because the country is too small to have a noticeable effect in the global climate crisis. But the climate issue can only be solved if every sector contributes its share. Otherwise, some will always point the finger at others: If they don't have to do anything, then we won't either.

A speed limit on highways is an easy measure to implement, a very cheap piece of the mosaic to reduce CO2 emissions in Germany. That's also why it's long overdue. And as far as freedom is concerned, this freedom only applies to those who race along the fast lane at more than 200 km/h. The only way to reduce emissions in Germany is to reduce the speed to a minimum. Anyone driving at 120 or 130 km/h who wants to overtake a truck knows that feeling when a huge speeding car suddenly ends up right behind you and its driver hectically flashes his lights. That's also a kick. But not a nice one.

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Parenthood And The Pressure Of Always Having To Be Doing Better

As a father myself, I'm now better able to understand the pressures my own dad faced. It's helped me face my own internal demands to constantly be more productive and do better.

Photo of a father with a son on his shoulders

Father and son in the streets of Madrid, Spain

Ignacio Pereyra*


When I was a child — I must have been around eight or so — whenever we headed with my mom and grandma to my aunt's country house in Don Torcuato, outside of Buenos Aires, there was the joy of summer plans. Spending the day outdoors, playing soccer in the field, being in the swimming pool and eating delicious food.

But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.

Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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