Do highway speed limits slow economic growth? Major car manufacturers in Germany say they do. After recent elections that ushered in the environmentally proactive Green Party, there has been a concerted push to implement speed limits throughout the country, leading to a backlash from German automotive companies. While the Green Party argues that speed limits will help to curb excess greenhouse gas emissions, German car manufacturers claim that implementing speed limits will curtail economic growth and rob the Germans of a cultural birthright. Nowhere has this argument been more acute than in the southwestern German province of Baden-Württemberg, site of an intense public relations Blitzkrieg to convince citizens of the value of limitless highways. (Coincidentally, Baden-Württemberg is also home to the headquarters of Porsche and Mercedes-Benz.)
On closer inspection of the debate, German automotive manufacturers assert that unlimited speeds equate to dramatic time-savings for drivers. They also point to the marketing bonus of enabling potential car buyers to test drive a vehicle at lightning speeds, which in turn stimulates demand for German vehicles. However, the most poignant argument being offered by automotive producers equates the implementation of speed limits to depriving Germans of bier and bratwurst, which would constitute a dramatic loss of what it means to be German.
Green Party arguments, on the other hand, are incorrectly centered on the need to limit greenhouse gas emissions through speed restrictions. While curtailing the speed lust of rocketing motorists may trim carbon dioxide emissions by a few million tons per year, the amount of savings will amount to less than 0.5 percent of Germany’s total output, enabling carmakers to rightfully argue that restrictions are better applied elsewhere. The enforcement of speed limits would be infinitely more palatable if Green Party arguments focused on how unlimited speeds actually hurt economic development and deprive Germans of something far more precious than a few, brief minutes – the contents of their wallets.
The world can only expect gas prices to continue their ascent, and dramatically so if an event similar to the attack on a Japanese oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz in 2010 proves to be successful. By clearly articulating to German people how higher speeds over and above the optimal energy consumption rate of 45 miles per hour burns greater amounts of gasoline, the Greens could illustrate the financial incentive for drivers to slow down to an acceptable speed. On a 25 mile daily commute, a driver will lose less than 10 minutes by slowing from 80 miles per hour to 55. But, more importantly, the speed reduction will extend the life of their gas tank by as much as 30%. Considering that it costs $125 to fill up a 60-liter tank, the additional $35 of savings is not a trivial amount.
Safety also increases dramatically when drivers slow down, translating into less time-consuming traffic jams, or Staus (pronounced sch-taow) as they are known in Germany. It also significantly reduces expensive wear and tear on the vehicle. This is especially true for the tires, where faster speeds create a higher centripetal force, causing the tire’s diameter to expand. This expansion decreases the thickness of the tire, leading to a higher probability of a blowout.
Higher speeds also cause greater amounts of damage to the roadway, leading to more frequent construction sites. While some will argue that this is good for suppressing unemployment by hiring large contingents of workers to repair frayed highways, I would argue that those Euros would be far better spent on something more productive. Plus, construction sites are usually accompanied by speed limits of 30 miles per hour or less, which defeats the purpose of higher velocities in the first place. A few weeks ago, my wife and I were stuck in a Stau that lasted almost three hours as a result of road construction on the Autobahn. While it was probably not the most economically productive use of our time, we did manage to have a great conversation during the lull!
The German automotive public relations campaign has done a tremendous job of giving the average citizen the sense that higher speeds offer greater freedom and more efficiency. However, my experience on the Autobahn has only delivered higher levels of anxiety and higher gas bills. After earning a few more grey hairs trying to keep up with traffic over 80 miles per hour, burning up too much of my $8/gallon gas, and hearing of catastrophic crashes that vaporize a car’s inhabitants on the Autobahn (video), I have found that unlimited speeds have “lost that lovin’ feeling.” I much prefer driving in France where the speed limit is a consistent 130 kph, or 80 mph. While the frequent tollbooths are both mentally and financially taxing, I could still sip a cup of coffee while driving, adjust the radio station, and intermittently glance in the rearview mirror without having to worry about being catapulted off the roadway by someone barreling along at 200 mph.
For the sake of preventing premature aging and for stronger economic growth in Germany, I certainly hope the Green Party is successful in implementing a nationwide speed limit. Perhaps a comprise could be reached by leaving a select few Autobahns limitless for the sake of car exhibitionists, German cultural stalwarks and prospective car buyers. In the meantime though, I’ll keep my eye on the rearview mirror and my pocketbook open as I continue to brave the world of unlimited highway speeds.