Rather as the US is an outlier among developed countries in equating freedom with gun ownership, Germany is almost unique in defining liberty as the absence of speed limits on the autobahn. That mentality, however, is now slamming into the imperative to save energy, which is in turn part of the West’s common effort to resist the warmongering of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In Europe, only the Isle of Man keeps Germany company in eschewing categorical highway limits. But driving on the curvy roads of a windswept island is hardly the same as surviving in the fast lanes of the world’s most obsessive car culture.
Here’s what driving on the autobahn is like for me, an average dad in an aging minivan trying to get the people whining in the back row to their next potty break. The other day, I was coasting in the right lane but briefly had to venture into the middle and left lanes — in Germany you never, ever, pass on the right.
I checked my rearview mirror, which showed only tiny dots in the distance — basically empty highway. Seconds later, I was in the left lane, going 130 kilometers per hour (about 80 mph), and looked in the mirror again. Three Porsches were suddenly on my tail, each a car’s length apart, all signaling left and flashing high beams to bully me out of the way and back into the slow lanes.
In an otherwise bureaucratized, over-regulated and rules-obsessed society, limit-less autobahns have come to symbolize the last remnants of freedom. At least they play that role for about half of Germans. That demographic skews male and conservative-libertarian. Politically, it’s represented by the center-right, including the Free Democrats, one of the junior partners in Germany’s current government. They made autobahn freedom a condition for joining the coalition.
The other half of the country mostly considers autobahn racing self-indulgent, dangerous and crazy. And yet it’s surprisingly hard to argue that the absence of speed limits kills more people. Germany has relatively few traffic deaths compared to other countries, and the fatalities that do happen occur mostly on rural roads that have speed limits.
But there’s also that other line of argumentation, having to do with wasted energy. Owing to the laws of physics, driving faster requires a lot more fuel. In an era of climate change, that counts against speeding. In a time of war, it does so twice over.
Putin’s war machine requires Russia to be a petro-state. He uses his country’s coal, oil and natural gas in two ways. One is to earn money to pay his army. The other is to make other European countries, including Germany, dependent on his pipelines, and thus vulnerable to blackmail.
He’s already turned off the gas to Bulgaria, Poland, Finland, the Netherlands and Denmark, and throttled it to Germany and other countries. Germany’s energy minister, Robert Habeck, warns that Putin may shut off the pipelines completely, and has declared the second of three stages in an emergency plan that could end in rationing.
Salvation, if it exists, will come from all of society conserving energy, Habeck suggests. He’s asked people to take shorter, cooler showers, which makes sense. So does turning down the air conditioning in summer and the thermostat in winter, to take the train instead of flying, and to cancel unnecessary trips altogether. And why not dry your laundry in the sun when it shines? The list of other tricks is long.
But lowering speed limits is at the top. It’s the first of ten suggestions by the International Energy Agency, based in Paris, to reduce oil consumption. In Germany, of course, that means rekindling the old controversy about introducing a limit in the first place.
The average speed on German autobahns in 2019 was 125 kph (as I said, I’m average). The German Environmental Agency reckons that introducing a limit of 100 kph (about 62 mph) on autobahns, as well as lowering the limit from 100 to 80 kph on rural highways, would save 6.4 million tons of carbon dioxide — and many lives, especially on those rural roads. Greenpeace, an environmental lobby, estimates that this would reduce German oil imports by about 2.5%.
Is that a lot or a little? Here politics take over again. About 57% of Germans now favor a — temporary — speed limit. The Free Democrats would certainly put up a fight, and have to be seen to do so by their supporters. But they should remember that they’re also asking their coalition partners, the Greens and the Social Democrats, to reconsider their ideological aversion to nuclear power. In a time of war, everybody has to keep an open mind.
My own instincts happen to be liberal (in the classical sense, not the American). I’ve always taken short showers and recently made them even shorter — and I didn’t need Habeck or a law to convince me. By the same token, I’m now driving more slowly, too, and would be happy if other people voluntarily did the same. But if it takes a statute, so be it.
We must hope that at some point in the future we’ll get all the energy we need from the sun, wind and oceans, so we can stop polluting our atmosphere and funding petro-dictators such as Putin. Until then, the best we can do is to change our lifestyles — sometimes a little, other times a lot. The Ukrainians are fighting for freedom with their very lives. We’re being asked to decelerate. It’s not too much to ask.
More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
Europe Must Declare a War Economy: Andreas Kluth
Many Winters Are Coming. Start Saving Energy Now: Javier Blas
We’ll Need Sanctions and Stamina to Defeat Putin: Clara Ferreira Marques
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist, he is author of “Hannibal and Me.”
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion
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