Last week I was able to experience a privilege not found anywhere in this bastion of freedom otherwise known as the United States. To find it I had to travel all the way to the arguably much less free and more socialist Germany. Yes, I am speaking of the Autobahn, that driving Nirvana that every red-blooded American and teenage boy with a newly minted driving license dreams of. Now, not to burst anyone’s bubble but it is not the 10-lane super highway we all manage to conjure up as we imagine speeding along at 200 mph. In fact, it in many sections it has more in common with two lane I-20 than any roadway utopia. But the crucial (and fun!) difference is there are stretches of highway where there is no speed limit.
Like “Red” from “Shawshank Redemption” who only recognized his own “institutionalization” after he had been released I was a bit reticent at first. “Someone must be watching,” and “I’m going to get in trouble,” flashed through my mind. But then slowly I experimented. First cruising at 85 mph (the super-speeder speed here in Georgia that would get you a $700 ticket), then 95, then 100! Hard to believe, safely moving at 100 mph! That became old pretty quick and I eventually worked up the courage to hit 200 km/h (125 mph). Still a bit of a chicken I slowed back down to a mere 110 mph all while people still passed me.
And then they all suddenly slowed down. Was it an accident? Was it a cop? No. It was simply a speed limit sign (yes, the autobahn does have speed limits). And everyone quickly and uniformly obeyed it. Why? Not because they might get a ticket (indeed I never saw a single police car the entire time driving on the Autobahn – tickets are only given for speeding if you actually are involved in an accident) but because they all respected the message of the sign. In Germany the speed limit sign is not there as a matter of revenue collection, it is there as a matter of genuine safety. Their speed limit signs are the equivalent to our yellow safety signs that warn a driver that conditions might be slippery when wet, that a bridge may ice over in the winter or that one really should slow down to 45 mph on that tight radius exit. You don’t get tickets here for ignoring those signs unless you actually cause an accident, so people obey them. Speed limit signs in the US are often flouted because we all know they are for the most part set artificially too low in order to enhance revenue collection. If the rules are structured to benefit a third party more than you, they will be ignored. If the rules are structured to benefit only you, they will be respected. This respect can clearly be seen on German roads. Actually slowing down when appropriate makes the roads far safer. One is about twice as likely to die on US highways than on the Autobahn in terms of deaths per distance driven (1.7 vs. 3.4 deaths per 1 billion kilometers). And yet we are told that speed kills. While it is true that all things equal higher speed is more deadly, all things are not equal. There exist different cars, different tires, different road conditions and last but not least, different levels of driving skill.
So when Bernie tells us we should emulate the European model, I agree! Let’s copy those Germans and bring freedom back to our roads here in the States. If it could save upwards of 8,000 lives per year, why not try?