Every country has its own fetish – an object of irrational obsession that touches something deep inside. Something so deep it’s almost sexual. Three symptoms always betray what that thing is:
1) Mocking it can only be done by the country’s radicals.
2) Rational debate on the subject is impossible within that country.
3) Even the mention of legislation to limit its power is categorically taboo.
You’ll see where I’m going: in America the fetish is guns, in the UK it’s deranged people wearing crowns, and in Germany? The autobahn.
Last week, Sigmar Gabriel, chairman of the centre-left Social Democratic Party – a man who should know better – veered onto the hard shoulder of Germany’s obsession with their beautiful concrete strips.
As a casual aside in an interview with the Rheinische Post newspaper, an interview that was mainly about the joint SPD-Green tax programme, Gabriel mentioned that he agreed with the Green party’s long-held policy of introducing a 120 kph (75 mph) speed limit on German motorways.
“The rest of the world has been doing the same for a long time,” he reasoned. “I think a 120 limit makes sense, because the accident statistics show that the number of serious accidents and deaths sink.”
Reasonable enough, no? Apparently not. The reaction was immediate. It was as if Gabriel had suddenly become radioactive. Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer was adamant. “There won’t be a general speed limit on my watch,” he told Der Spiegel. “Our motorways are among the safest roads we have. The worst accidents happen on country roads: around 60 percent of deaths, the latest traffic statistics say.”
More tellingly, Peer Steinbrück, the SPD’s own lead candidate in September’s general election, immediately began the damage limitation, as he watched votes flutter away like sweet-wrappers from the car window. “This is a debate that I’ve known about for over 20 years,” he told state broadcaster WDR. “I have no intention of re-activating this debate now.”
Steinbrück had every reason to be exasperated with his party colleague – Gabriel had gone rogue, veering off the SPD’s election programme that had been unanimously agreed at the party conference in Augsburg in April. The last thing the struggling Social Democrats needed was for their notoriously unguarded chairman to draw fire with an unpopular issue.
But the fact is that Gabriel is clearly on the right side of reason on this one. Ramsauer’s argument is at the same level of fatuous logic as the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” twaddle that Europeans like to mock so much. The traffic statistic the minister didn’t point out, for instance, was that there are 28 percent more deaths on the stretches of autobahn that don’t have a speed limit as those that do.
If that wasn’t reason enough for a speed limit – and surely it should be more than enough – there are also countless environmental benefits. As long as car manufacturers, for instance, have reason to believe that people want to buy cars that can do 300 kph, obviously they will fill the market with powerful, fuel-guzzling engines whose full power can hardly ever be used. It’s obviously time Germany got over its high-speed fetish.
But no, once again, the debate is being poisoned by a dishonest appeal to “freedom.” Well, if it’s freedom you want, I have a better idea: Why not get rid of those annoying traffic lights and those pesky white lines that divide up roads? Then people can finally drive wherever the hell they want.