May 10, 2013 6:00 pm

Speed limit gaffe puts Germany’s Social Democrats in spin

Debate on speed limit on the German autobahn©EPA

In the view of many observers, the greatest sacred cow in US politics is the right to carry a gun. In Germany, the same extraordinary devotion is attached to the motorist’s right to drive flat out along the country’s famous autobahns.

Sigmar Gabriel, national chairman of the centre-left opposition Social Democratic party, discovered that fundamental truth this week when he unguardedly called for a national speed limit.


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It has left his party reeling in the ongoing German election campaign, and laid it open to charges of chaos and confusion in its leadership, just as it was starting to close the gap on the ruling Christian Democratic Union.

To the delight of his opponents in the government headed by Angela Merkel, German chancellor, and the consternation of his colleagues in the SPD, Mr Gabriel suggested the imposition of a maximum speed of 120 kilometres an hour (75mph) on the network of highways laid down by Adolf Hitler in the 1930s.

“I think a speed of 120 on the autobahn is sensible because accident statistics show it would cause the number of serious accidents and fatalities to fall,” said Mr Gabriel in an interview with the Rheinische Post, the daily newspaper in Düsseldorf.

Within hours, the SPD leader – supposed to be the main spokesman on his party’s policy – had been contradicted by many of his fellow Social Democrats, including Peer Steinbrück, the man leading the party’s challenge to Ms Merkel in the current election campaign.

The question of a speed limit was not an issue in the election, Mr Steinbrück declared. “I see no reason to start it.”

Some of his fellow SPD leaders were even more forthright. Christian Ude, the mayor of Munich and Social Democrat leader in Bavaria, where high-powered BMW motor cars are manufactured, said: “We need such a debate like a hole in the head.”

“It was incompetence combined with incontinence,” said Andreas Busch, politics professor at Göttingen university, of Mr Gabriel’s intervention. The SPD was actually narrowing the 15-point gap behind the CDU, thanks to a scandal over tax evasion. “For once, when Mr Steinbrück managed to avoid a pitfall, Mr Gabriel jumped right into it.”

Mr Gabriel’s idea, which would be regarded as perfectly sensible in any other European country, was roundly denounced by lobbyists for motorists and motor manufacturers.

The ADAC, Germany’s leading automobile club with more than 18m members, came out storming: “Mr Gabriel is wrong if he is using accident statistics to support his argument,” the club declared. The number of deaths per billion car-kilometres on the autobahns was 1.8, ADAC insisted – and in neighbouring Austria, where a 130kph speed limit exists, it was 50 per cent higher.

The organisation of motor manufacturers (VDA), representing such mighty marques as Daimler, Volkswagen, Audi and Opel, as well as BMW, dismissed the idea of a general speed limit as “pure symbolism” without any practical effect on climate protection, traffic jams or autobahn safety. Around 98 per cent of German roads already had speed limits on them, and as for the highways, they were “the safest roads in Germany”.

The only support for the embattled Mr Gabriel came from the Green party, which backs a national limit, and the pro-environment Traffic Club of Germany (VCD), which says that 70 per cent of fatal road accidents occur on unrestricted sections of the autobahns.

German opposition to any hint of a speed limit was emotional, said Gerd Lottsiepen of the VCD. “It is a question of psychology. But it isn’t just in Germany where you have such irrational behaviour. It is just like the issue of gun ownership as a human right in the US.”

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