Energy crisis revives motorway speed limit debate in Germany

Supporters of 130 kph limit say slower driving would save fuel at time of high prices and potential shortages

epa07323793 Traffic on the German motorway A95 near Ohlstadt, Bavaria, Germany, 27 January 2019. A Federal Government working group on climate protection has proposed a speed limit of 130 kph on highways and higher taxes on diesel to contribute to meet emission target. However, the Ministry of Transport argued that a speed limit on highways would reduce Germany's total CO2 emissions by less than 0.5 percent, media reported.  EPA/LUKAS BARTH-TUTTAS

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Fears of an energy squeeze in Germany have revived debate over whether to introduce a speed limit on the country’s largely unrestricted motorways.

Supporters of a 130 kilometre-per-hour limit say driving more slowly would save energy at a time when prices are high and Germany’s reliance on Russian fossil fuels has exposed it to potential shortages during the war in Ukraine.

Germany’s autobahns are unique among industrialised countries for having no national limit, although there are some regional curbs and drivers who exceed an advisory 130 kph cap can face stiffer costs if there is an accident.

Liberals who oppose a nationwide limit appeared to have won their argument with environmentalists in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government after coalition talks last year ended with an agreement that there would be no speed cap.

But speed limit supporters want to reopen the debate after the war in Ukraine led to citizens being told to save power and shifted the focus of energy policy from tackling climate change to keeping the lights on next winter.

Economy Minister Robert Habeck last month invoked the first stage of an emergency energy plan and told people to save power as the government braces for the possibility of Russia turning off the tap.

Slowing down cars on the motorway could be done straight away, “costs nothing and helps immediately,” said Agriculture Minister Cem Oezdemir, one of the Green party members in Mr Scholz’s cabinet.

He urged liberals from the Free Democratic Party, the only coalition partner opposed to a speed limit, to think again and show “good sense” during the crisis in Ukraine.

But Transport Minister Volker Wissing, from the FDP, has rejected calls for a speed limit which he described as divisive in an interview with German media.

Any move to introduce a speed limit would be contentious in the coalition led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz, centre. EPA

Speaking to German media, Mr Wissing also put forward the practical argument that authorities did not have enough road signs to enforce such a limit at short notice.

Christian Lindner, the FDP leader and a car enthusiast, said he was reluctant to reopen “old debates” and said it was up to individuals to change their behaviour if they deem it necessary.

The German branch of Greenpeace is calling for a 120 kph speed limit and also urging people to eat less meat to ease potential food shortages arising from the war between wheat-exporting countries Russia and Ukraine.

Germany’s largest motoring association, Adac, is staying out of the speed limit debate but says its members are now more or less evenly divided on the question of a speed limit after years of mainly opposing one.

It said there was little evidence that a speed limit would improve road safety in Germany but acknowledged that driving more slowly could have a positive environmental impact.

Ministers in Mr Scholz’s government, which took office in December, say it was a mistake for their predecessors to allow Germany to become so reliant on Russia.

But they have resisted pressure to agree to a complete embargo on oil and gas by the European Union, on the grounds that such a measure would hurt German consumers more than the Kremlin.

A set of policies agreed by the coalition partners this month will see planning procedures changed in favour of building more wind turbines, with the aim of producing 80 per cent of electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

Updated: April 13, 2022, 3:12 PM
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