Faced with energy crisis, Germans agonize over Autobahn speed limits

Although recent polls suggest a majority is in favor of introducing checks to reduce reliance on Russian gas, the FDP liberals in the government coalition oppose curtailing what they view as an expression of personal freedom

Cars driving on the A3 motorway, one of the busiest in Germany, near Leverkusen, in February 2020.
Cars driving on the A3 motorway, one of the busiest in Germany, near Leverkusen, in February 2020.WOLFGANG RATTAY (Reuters)

More than a few people were shaking their heads when the news broke earlier this year about a Czech millionaire named Radim Passer who drove his Bugatti Chiron at 257 mph (417 km/h) on the motorway between Berlin and Hanover, in Germany. The man recorded his feat and posted it on YouTube. Germany’s Transportation Minister criticized him in public and the Prosecutor’s Office announced an investigation, but in the end no charges were brought. His actions were legal because they took place at dawn on a section of the Autobahn without any speed limits. Germany is one of the few countries in the world, along with Haiti, Nepal and North Korea, without a general speed limit on motorways. But this could soon be coming to an end.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has turned the so-called tempolimit (speed limit) into the last untouchable topic in Germany. Since Vladimir Putin’s troops crossed the Ukrainian border, Berlin has reversed track on its foreign, defense and energy policies. From categorically refusing to send weapons to regions in conflict, a position that pitted it against allies like the United States, it went on to supply tanks to Kyiv. Germany previously condemned coal as the world’s most polluting energy source, yet the Russian gas shutdown has forced it to reopen closed plants and expand mining to produce electricity. Even nuclear power, a thorny issue on which virtually no one believed there was going back, is experiencing a resurgence, with the useful life of the last three plants being extended.

On the altar of the things that have defined Germany in recent decades, practically only the speed limit (or lack thereof) remains. Although it has been the subject of bitter controversy for years, it remained untouchable. But the war in Ukraine has brought the issue back to the center of public debate because it would contribute to energy savings and help wean the country from its dependence on Russian energy. Environmentalists say speed limits on Germany’s motorways are urgently needed. The country is not meeting its environmental commitments to reduce greenhouse gases, notes Juliane Dickel, Head of Nuclear and Energy Policy at the green group BUND Friends of the Earth Germany. “A speed limit would contribute to savings quickly and easily.”

Within the government’s “traffic light coalition” of social democrats, greens and liberals, the tempolimit has turned out to be trickier than the budget. During the negotiations to form a government, a year ago, the Greens unsuccessfully attempted to include the issue in the coalition agreement. Now, not even with a war in eastern Europe that is causing an unprecedented energy crisis, are the liberals of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) willing to end what is often viewed in Germany as the ultimate expression of individual freedom.

Germany is, after all, a country where the car carries enormous weight, in real and figurative terms. The automobile industry, the largest economic sector, contributes 7% of gross domestic product (GDP) and employs almost one million people. It is the cradle of the most prestigious brands – Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Porsche – which boast of the power and speed of their new models. For many Germans, their car is one of their most prized possessions, although this is changing in the younger generations. With public railway service becoming less and less reliable, the car is still for many a guarantee of punctuality and independence.

The tempolimit debate is essentially part of a culture war, notes Giulio Mattioli, a transportation researcher at the University of Dortmund who compares it with the gun control debate in the US. “It’s a hugely controversial issue that a very vocal minority defends with real passion,” he explains. Polls show that a majority of Germans are in favor of an Autobahn speed limit of 130 km/h (80mph), he adds. This was supported by 57% of respondents of a survey conducted by the pollster Forsa last May, when the debate over the price of gasoline and the fear of the consequences of cutting off Russian gas were in full swing. Social Democrat, Green and Christian Democrat voters were overwhelmingly in favor of the cap. Not so supporters of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the liberal FDP.

The debate is once again on the table because the FDP leader, Christian Lindner, who serves as finance minister in Olaf Scholz’s government, recently made an offer to the Greens in the political podcast State of the Nation. He proposed rethinking his refusal to introduce a tempolimit if the environmentalists were willing to leave the nuclear power plants running beyond next April, which is the last date agreed upon (with many difficulties) between the three partners. The proposal has been viewed more as a bluff than a real offer, because the Greens, who have already given up more than anyone expected, would never agree to buy the new nuclear fuel rods the plants need to keep running after April.

In Germany, there is no speed limit on about 70% of motorways. The Federal Environment Agency (UBA) has calculated that setting the limit at 100 km/h (62 mph) would save 2.1 billion liters of gasoline and diesel each year, or 3.8% of fuel consumption in the transportation sector. In terms of Germany’s dependence on Russian hydrocarbons, energy expert Claudia Kemfert, an economist at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), has estimated that a tempolimit would reduce Russian oil imports by 5 % and 7%.

More safety and less pollution

The agency recently updated its calculations of the savings in greenhouse gas emissions. A general limit of 120 km/h (75 mph) would reduce emissions by two million tons of CO₂ equivalent per year. Even setting it at 130 km/h (80 mph) would have a positive effect, with 1.5 million fewer tons emitted into the atmosphere. The tempolimit “would be a feasible, beneficial and effective contribution to reduce transportation emissions in the short term,” says a UBA report. “Traffic safety would also increase and noise and polluting emissions would be reduced.”

With the Social Democrats also in favor of the speed limit, the only stumbling block are the liberals, who also control the Ministry of Transportation following the distribution of government portfolios a year ago. Without them, there would be no majority. According to some experts, such as the constitutional expert Joachim Wieland, an old law from 1974, promulgated shortly after the oil crisis, would allow legislators to introduce a temporary speed limit. The Energy Security Law authorizes the Ministry of Economy and Climate, currently in the hands of the Greens, to decree the measure for a limited time. It would have to be extensively justified, and they would need to prove that the energy supply was in jeopardy or interrupted, and it is not clear that this is the case right now. But most importantly, such a decision would open such a rift between the government partners that it is difficult to envisage the Greens taking that risk.

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