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Old 28th September 2004, 05:59   #1
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Germany to rein in its autobahn speedsters
For 75 years German drivers have considered it a birthright: the ability to roar down an autobahn unhindered by anything so inconvenient as a speed limit. In the country of BMW and Porsche, being allowed to drive at Formula One speeds is regarded as fundamental as gun ownership is in America.

But now an influential all-party committee of German MPs has recommended a mandatory speed limit of 130km/h (80mph) across the entire 7,000-mile autobahn network - and, for the first time, there seems to be enough popular support for the proposal to be approved by parliament.

Ernst Ulrich von Weizsacker, the chairman of the German parliament's environmental committee and a member of the Left-leaning Social Democratic Party, which leads Germany's ruling coalition, said that the time was is right for change. "People can see that it makes sense in the face of rising fuel prices, and increasing concerns about the environment and public safety," he said.

"We do a lot of things to force industry and households to get their carbon dioxide emissions down. Why shouldn't we do the same for cars? We could avoid unnecessary accidents and keep Germany's fuel consumption down."

The plan has also, for the first time, found favour among the conservative opposition. Josef Goppel, a Christian Social Union MP, said that a rational discussion was now "unavoidable".

Germany is unique among industrialised countries in not imposing a nationwide motorway limit. Its luxury car-makers pride themselves on producing ever-faster high performance models, and German travel companies even offer foreign drivers "autobahn speeding" package holidays to foreign tourists.

The first autobahn was built between Cologne and Bonn in 1929. The network expanded during the Third Reich as Hitler recognised the military and economic benefits of a fast road system. In recent years, speed limits have been imposed on stretches of autobahn for safety reasons, but in many other areas a limit is simply "recommended" - and frequently ignored.

The so-called "left lane faction" - speed enthusiasts - are dismayed by the proposals. Reinhard Meier, a spokesman for the Three Roads Movement, said: "Anyone who has travelled on German roads knows that German drivers are the best in the world. They are the best because they have the freedom to act responsibly on the roads. Imposing speed limits on the autobahns would be a mistake."

The campaign gathered pace, however, after a test driver for DaimlerChrysler was jailed for 18 months earlier this year for driving up behind another car so fast that its 21-year-old driver swerved and crashed - killing herself and her two-year-old daughter.

Rolf Fischer, 34 - whose nickname was "Turbo Rolf" - was said to have been driving at up to 160mph in his Mercedes on the A5 near Karlsruhe. He was convicted of causing death through negligence and dangerous driving. The judge blamed the accident on Fischer's speed and "jostling" - approaching slower drivers at high speed, braking only at the last minute. Last week, Fischer appealed against the verdict and a decision is due on July 29.

Rene Wassmer, the head of the German Traffic Club - the equivalent of the AA - said that the case showed why speed restrictions were needed. "With a general speed limit of 120kmh [75mph], that deadly accident would not have happened," he said.

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