Whoosh!     (July 23, 2002)

We recently toured Austria and Germany and did most of it by train.  That's really the way to travel in Europe if the train route fits your travel plans (and they usually do).  The trains are quiet, smooth, relatively inexpensive, fast, and convenient.  As we left Munich, however, we were going to places which required we travel freely.  We picked up our car, a Ford station wagon, at the Hertz office in the Munich Hauptbahnhof and headed north up the Romantische Straße to see some castles.

Along the way I was able to stop and get a picture of an especially odd road sign.  You see them all over Europe but most people have no idea what they mean.  They are circular, yellow with black markings, divided into left- and right-halves.  On the right there will be an up-arrow and a number; on the left there will be a different (smaller) number with an up-arrow and a down-arrow.  They are always at a bridge and they are always mounted much higher than normal road signs.  The numbers are speeds in kilometers/hr and those speeds are always substantially faster than the ordinary marked speed for the road.  The signs represent the design limits for the bridge for one-way traffic and for two-way traffic, and they exist so that drivers of heavy military equipment, tanks and such, will know how fast they can safely cross this bridge.  Europeans have, unfortunately, had much more experience than we of tanks crossing bridges in a hurry.

German and Austrian speed limits are, in most cases, advisory.  Unless you are driving erratically you are unlikely to get a speeding ticket regardless of how fast you were driving.  The Autobahn is legendary for having "no speed limit", but this is not precisely true; there are sections — usually construction areas — where the speed limit is rigidly enforced.  "Rigidly" in this sense means you can get a ticket for 1 kph faster than the posted limit.

I have long wanted to experience the Autobahn because I had to know what kind of road supports the "no limit" mentality.  I got a rude shock when I first saw the Autobahn with my own eyes.

Most of the Autobahn in Germany is two-lanes each direction with a reinforced metal rail separating oncoming traffic.  Many parts are noticeably twisty and there is very little in the way of "shoulder" where you might pull off and fix a flat tire.  In rural sections it's not uncommon for the forest to come right down to the road.

Compare this with the typical U.S. Interstate highway: by law these must be designed (at a minimum) to handle 85mph traffic.  They typically have two lanes each direction in rural sections, at least three in busier sections, grassy medians normally three traffic-lanes wide and usually trenched to prevent crossovers, wide shoulders, multi-lane setbacks, and long sight lines.  A German driver would think about breaking the World's Land Speed Record on a road like that.  She would be convulsed with laughter when told that for twenty years the speed limit was less than 90kph, nor would she stop laughing when informed the limit has now been raised to 120kph.  On the Autobahn between Rothenburg and Frankfurt I cruised at 180kph (110mph, thereby setting my own personal speed record) while VW beetles blew by me doing at least 230kph and BMWs went by so fast I could only identify them by their shape.

* * * * *

Why do we have a speed limit on our Interstates?  After Congress repealed the NMSL the State of Montana went (April 1996) to "reasonable and prudent" as their speed limit.  During the last nine months of 1996 Montana saw a 28% decline in highway fatalities.  This lowered accident/fatality rate continued with occasional bumps through Memorial Day 1999 when Montana's legislature set 75mph as the replacement for R&P.  Since then Montana's crash statistics have shown a steady rise.  Counter-intuitively, having any speed limit appears to be more dangerous than having none at all.

During the early '90s most states raised their rural Interstate limits from 55mph to 65mph.  While it has not been widely reported, it is common knowledge among traffic safety types that these sections afterwards had a noticeable drop in both accidents and fatalities.  Counter-intuitively, having a too-low speed limit appears to be a positive danger.  A sheriff's deputy once remarked "55 is fast enough to kill and slow enough to make you think you're safe."  Oops.

Our government — which many people think looks out for our welfare — insists that our children be seat-belted and air-bagged... and driven on the highways at speeds which are manifestly unsafe.  Where are the outraged citizens demanding to know of Congress how many people have died since 1973 because they set the National Maximum Speed Limit too low?

If we're really interested in highway safety (more so than, say, the revenue our town or county gets from speeding tickets) then we probably should be looking at the Autobahn as a model.  Wouldn't it be nice to pass a Florida Trooper parked on the shoulder of I-75 knowing that he's there ready to respond to a driver-in-distress call and not, as today, to make sure you aren't violating a law that, we now know, puts you in danger each time you drive?

© Frank Clarke, 2002

By the way, people who should know suggest that Montana's surprising safety during the years of "no limit" was due partly to increased lane courtesy (yielding the left lane to faster traffic) and partly to marginal drivers abandoning the Interstates for roads whose limits more closely matched their abilities.  The most likely cause of "increased lane courtesy" is that without a fixed numeric speed limit drivers could no longer monopolize the left lane and still feel they were "doing the legal limit".

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