New York Times Berlin bureau chief Katrin Bennhold, a native of Germany, doesn’t seem in tune with her home country, calling the idea of putting a speed limit on the autobahn a “no-brainer,” one tragically scuttled by the “far right,” and maybe, somehow, Hitler. “Speed Limit? Germans Voting With Lead Feet,” made the front page of Monday’s New York Times:
It seemed like a no-brainer: Lower Germany’s embarrassingly high carbon emissions at no cost, and save some lives in the process.
But when a government-appointed commission in January dared to float the idea of a speed limit on the autobahn, the country’s storied highway network, it almost caused rioting.
Irate drivers took to the airwaves. Union leaders menacingly put on their yellow vests, hinting at street protests. And the far-right opposition used the opportunity to rage against the “stranglehold” of the state.
A highway speed limit was “contrary to every common sense,” the transport minister, Andreas Scheuer, swiftly declared, contradicting his own experts.
And that was that.
As far as quasi-religious national obsessions go for large portions of a country’s population, the German aversion to speed limits on the autobahn is up there with gun control in America and whaling in Japan.
Bennhold included references to Hitler and the frightening “wild West” of America, while implying Germany was some kind of undeveloped country (worse than Afghanistan!) (click “expand”):
With few exceptions, like Afghanistan and the Isle of Man, there are highway speed limits essentially everywhere else in the world.
It’s also the country where, in darker times, Hitler laid the groundwork for a network of multilane highways that in the postwar years came to epitomize economic success – and freedom.
Call it Germany’s Wild West: The autobahn is the one place in a highly regulated society where no rule is the rule – and that place is sacred.
“It’s a very emotional topic,” confided Stefan Gerwens, the head of transport and mobility at ADAC, an automobile club with 20 million members, which is opposed to any speed limit.
So emotional, apparently, that facts and figures count for little.
Germany is woefully behind on meeting its 2020 climate goals, so the government appointed a group of experts to find ways to lower emissions in the transport sector. Cars account for 11 percent of total emissions, and their share is rising.
In 2017, 409 people died on the autobahn and in almost half the cases, the reason was inappropriate speeding, according to the German statistics office.
But that hasn’t swayed public opinion.
She found the enemy: Freedom, an argument as irrational as being against gun control, evidently.
“It’s all about freedom,” said John C. Kornblum, a former United States ambassador to Germany, who first arrived here in the 1960s, and has been living (and driving) here on and off ever since.
“In that sense it really is like gun control,” Mr. Kornblum added, albeit with far fewer deaths. “All the rational arguments are there, but there is barely any point in having a rational debate.”
Bennhold finally provided a little dose of reality at the end about why Germany may appreciate the freedom of the road, since it is denied in so many other parts of German life: “Off the autobahn, Germany remains rife with rules. Some local authorities even dictate the color of sun umbrellas.”
In December, she also pointlessly dragged the Nazis into a story about an anti-American reporter for a German publication who committed media malpractice.