In Energy Crunch, Germany Turns Down Heat but Won’t Limit Highway Speeds
BERLIN — Germany is trying any range of measures to combat an energy crisis that is only expected to worsen this winter. Public buildings can be heated to just 66 degrees and most private pools not at all. Starting this month, billboards and other landmarks go dark at 10 p.m. The government has even extended the lives of two of the country’s last nuclear reactors.
But the one thing Germany will not do, apparently, is put a general speed limit on the fabled autobahns, a proposal raised — and shot down — even though it could save gasoline and cut carbon dioxide emissions.
The speed-limit issue has a special resonance in Germany, akin to debates over gun control in the United States. So sacrosanct is the absence of limits that when a Czech developer posted a video of himself on YouTube last year driving nearly 260 miles an hour — or as fast as a prop plane flies — prosecutors could bring no charges.
A vow of no general speed limits on autobahns was even part of the agreement that allowed the current three-party coalition, which includes the environmentalist Greens as well as the libertarian-minded Free Democratic Party, to take power.
“The F.D.P. has made this into an issue of identity,” said Wolfgang Schroeder, a political science professor at the University of Kassel, in central Germany, who studies the coalition. “They’ve said, ‘We are the party of drivers and freedom, and we don’t want any state interference.’”
Still, the mood on speed restrictions has been shifting over the past two decades, with the current oil crisis seeming to accelerate the change, at least perhaps in the public mind, if not in the political class.
In April, two months after Russia attacked Ukraine and as Germany tried to reduce its energy dependence on Russia, Ricarda Lang, co-leader of the Greens, proposed a temporary speed limit to help save gasoline.
While the idea was blocked by coalition partners, a recent poll commissioned by the magazine Der Spiegel found that 55 percent of Germans supported the idea of an immediate, if temporary, speed limit, with 39 percent against.
The German Environment Ministry found that if a speed limit of 100 kilometers per hour, about 62 miles per hour, were put in place on the autobahns, with an 80 k.p.h. limit on other roads, Germany’s 48 million automobiles could save 2.1 billion liters of fuel every year.
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If drivers actually kept to that speed, 5.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions could be saved, about 3 percent of all CO2 emitted from transportation. If drivers kept to a speed limit of 130 k.p.h., or 80 m.p.h. — a more realistic limit — the savings would drop to 1.9 million metric tons, or just above 1 percent of total transportation emissions.
Currently, about 30 percent of the autobahn system has permanent restrictions. Other sections have temporary limits linked to construction work.
In 2020, the A.D.A.C, a nearly 120-year old automobile club in Germany with more than 20 million members, stopped lobbying against limits. Surveys of their members found that, for the first time in nearly three decades, most were no longer opposed to a limit.
“It’s pretty straightforward: Society is changing, and with it, the A.D.A.C.” Katrin van Randenborgh, a spokeswoman for the club, said.
Another part of the debate involves accidents. Even though the autobahn is lauded for its safety when compared with other highways, official figures show that where the autobahn has no speed restrictions, there are 75 percent more accidents involving a death than on stretches that have speed limits.
Nonetheless, Bernd Reuther, a traffic expert for the Free Democratic Party, defended the status quo. “We rely on people’s sense of responsibility, and we don’t want to regulate,” he said.
With the coalition agreement cementing no new speed limits, Mr. Reuther and the F.D.P. say that they feel the issue is settled, at least until the next government.
Putting speed limits in place would be an easy, if modest, step toward helping get to the country’s emission goals, according to Swantje Henrike Michaelsen, a Green lawmaker and member of the parliamentary traffic committee. But, she said, “It’s become this glaring symbol in politics.”
Her party had chosen to focus “on the progress we can make together,” rather than push the divisive issue, she added.
With the dominant member of the coalition, the Social Democratic Party, playing more of a mediator role, things look set to remain as they are. “It is a kind of nonaggression pact that we are seeing among the members of the coalition that is especially important when it comes to ideological positions,” Professor Schroeder, the political scientist, said.
As the energy crisis worsens, the speed limit issue could cause tension within the coalition, but it is unlikely to break it, experts say, especially since other measures can do more to save emissions, like concrete steps to reduce emissions that are being discussed as part of budget negotiations this week in parliament.
For the Free Democratic Party, speed-limit-free driving is an important issue for its base, which skews wealthy, well-educated and privileged. As the smallest coalition partner, the party is the most vulnerable governing member, and, political analysts say, that means it has to be especially careful about giving up its positions, no matter how symbolic.
“The F.D.P. will do everything in its power to stay visible in this coalition,” said Uwe Jun, a professor in political science at Trier university, in western Germany.
The Greens, by contrast, are polling at 22 percent and — if nothing changes drastically in the next three years — have a good chance of ending up in the next government, where they might be expected to take a more assertive stance on the issue of speed limits.
For now, probably, nothing will change.
Considering the difficulties, “Is it worth playing up such a clearly symbolic question?” Professor Jun asked. “Is it worth making it so important?”