Germans resist call to put the brakes on autobahn motorists

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 February, 2004, 12:00am

Driving at high speed on autobahns is as German as beer and sausages. But the conviction of a reckless motorist who caused the deaths of a young mother and child has sparked a debate that could put the breaks on the country's amateur racing enthusiasts.

Rolf Fischer, a test driver for carmaker DaimlerChrysler, was sentenced to 18 months in jail last Wednesday for negligent manslaughter in Karlsruhe.

Nicknamed 'Turbo Rolf' by some of his colleagues, Fischer is thought to have been tailgating the young mother, at speeds near 250km/h, when the accident happened last July. Both the mother and child died when their vehicle spun off the road.

Fischer was sacked by DaimlerChrysler, but he has appealed against his sentence.

The court's decision to impose a severe punishment has rekindled discussion on whether Germany's motorways need speed limits.

On Friday, a number of politicians from the Greens Party, the junior partner in the country's ruling centre-left coalition, called for a cap on autobahn speeds, saying it would reduce the number of accidents and would help cut car exhaust emissions.

Other proponents of speed restrictions point to Germany's unique position in allowing drivers to go as fast as they like on some stretches of the nation's roads.

'All our European neighbours have limits on their motorways,' said Rene Wassmer, the head of the traffic lobby group Verkehrsclub Deutschland. 'They've been waiting for a long time for Germany to change things.'

But many Germans believe that careering down the autobahn at breakneck speed is a national right. In the land of Mercedes, Porsche and BMW, putting your high-powered car to the test is considered to be a basic freedom.

The German automobile association, ADAC, rejects the idea that speed limits would make the motorways any safer and the German Transport Ministry also remains unmoved by the latest calls for action.

'We don't think it would be reasonable to set an overall speed limit,' ministry spokeswoman Sabine Mehwald said.

'It would be excessive. The autobahn is the safest part of the road network.'

She also said reckless behaviour would not be easier to control with new speed restrictions.

'Unfortunately you cannot domesticate those kinds of drivers with limits,' Ms Mehwald said, referring to Fischer.