July 7, 2021 - 11:37am

Autobahn. The word alone conjures up images of long, wide empty roads — an endless network of pristine concrete on which one can travel freely and unimpeded. Germany’s motorway network is famous the world over, its very name is singularly evocative.

In the minds of foreigners, the feature most commonly associated with the autobahn is the the lack of a general speed limit. True, there is a recommended maximum speed of 130 km/h (81mph), but drivers are free to go as fast as they like unless there are explicit restrictions in place. Currently around 70% of the autobahn network is unrestricted.

But the autobahn has also been a source of controversy, particularly for environmental campaigners concerned about the levels of pollution caused by fast driving. Others fear about the lack of safety on the roads. Currently the Social Democratic party (SPD) and the Greens both advocate a slowing down on German roads, with one Green spokesperson calling for a limit of 130km/h. The SPD is already pressing their coalition partner, Merkel’s CDU/CSU, in the German parliament on the issue.

Armin Laschet, the conservative candidate who hopes to succeed Merkel and is currently leading the polls, meanwhile, argues that this is a ‘nonsense debate.’ He would much rather invest in new technology and asks, ‘why shouldn’t an electric car drive faster than 130km/h if it’s not causing CO2 emissions?’ This caused an immediate rebuttal from his opponents who argued that electric cars still indirectly cause pollution when their energy is produced. 

There is a distinctly Germany flavour to this debate. A car-loving nation with a powerful industrial lobby is naturally going to be protective of the autobahn as a uniquely German experiment. After all, the motorways were a symbol of hope in the country’s darkest years. They promised prosperity in the difficult period of the 1920s. Hitler used them to rebuild injured national pride. In contrast to the bombed cities and destroyed lives, they remained largely intact at the end of the Second World War and were key to West Germany’s economic miracle and reinvention of itself.

On the other hand, many Germans care deeply about the environment. It has been estimated that the suggested speed limit of 130km/h would reduce the carbon emissions produced on motorways by 5% — equivalent to just under two million tons, about the same as the output of the Easyjet fleet over 6 months in a normal year. Concerns about safety tend to be more subjective, as official accident figures prove that German motorways are safer than any other type of road, only causing around a quarter of deaths compared to regular roads.

The ADAC, the Germany equivalent of the AA in Britain, has shown that since 1985, opinions on autobahn have divided the nation, traditionally hovering around a fifty-fifty split. With elections looming, who wins may end up deciding the future of one of the country’s most iconic institutions. But even if Laschet wins the largest vote share, he will most likely have to work with political parties that want to see autobahns slow down.

This issue is about so much more than speeding. The autobahn is so deeply rooted in the German soul that this debate is unlikely to slow down any time soon.

Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and writer. She is the author, most recently, of Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990.