COLUMN ONE : A Brake on Speed Demons : Germans have long seen racing on the autobahn as an inalienable right. But a speed limit finally looms, championed by ecologists, police and terrified European neighbors.


One of Klaus Ludwig's favorite Sunday drives is the nice, smooth ribbon of autobahn between Frankfurt and Bonn. When the night is clear and the road is empty, he hits the gas on his Mercedes-Benz 500E and watches the speedometer climb to 155 m.p.h. He can make the 115-mile trip in about 45 minutes.

Sometimes people pass him.

Although Ludwig is a professional race-car driver, the lead foot is a national affliction in a country that considers speeding an inalienable right and its prized autobahn as much a symbol as a superhighway.

With everyday life in Germany so tightly regulated that the government tells you when you can mow your lawn and how late you can take a shower, the autobahn represents the final frontier, an untamed wilderness, a place where Porsches and Mercedeses and BMWs can roam free in their native habitat--ideally over smaller, slower cars.

But the end of the road may finally be looming for Germany's notorious speed demons, thanks to a controversial new court ruling and pressure from exasperated police, irate environmentalists and terrified European neighbors.

Now, the prospect of a speed limit for the Western world's last unrestricted freeway network seems inevitable.

"The age of unchecked reckless driving on Germany's autobahnen is past," declares Gerhard Schroeder, governor of Lower Saxony, which, along with other eastern states, has witnessed a 130% increase in its highway death toll as Western muscle-mobiles zoom across crumbling, Communist-era highways and inexperienced eastern drivers swap their Trabant go-carts for used luxury sedans.

Added the European Community's traffic commissioner, Karel van Miert: "I'm certain that speed limits are coming to Germany, too."

Life, liberty and the pursuit of land speed records is argued here with the same passion as the right to bear arms in America, and the debate is just as divisive.

Federal Transportation Minister Guenther Krause has publicly opposed a speed limit, arguing that it would merely make drivers more aggressive and lead to more accidents. He also denies ecologists' contentions that a speed limit would cut emissions and improve the environment.

Although many politicians, including Chancellor Helmut Kohl, resist the idea of imposing a federal speed limit, public opinion seems to be tilting the other way, to the point that the newly founded Car Drivers' Party was a surprise flop in recent state elections.

Most alarming to the "free driving for free citizens" movement is a recent federal court decision. The ruling said that any drivers going faster than the "recommended" but not compulsory autobahn speed of 80 m.p.h. are partially liable for damages in any accident they are involved in, regardless of fault.

"This ruling is a shock for German drivers," declared the tabloid daily Bild, the country's most widely read newspaper.

It is also a shock for the powerful automobile industry, which has dropped dark hints of speed limits leading to unemployment, if the demand for high-performance cars falls.

A poll of 1,043 drivers commissioned by Stern magazine last month showed that 65% favored an 80-m.p.h. speed limit. If a speed limit were introduced, 56% of the drivers said they would buy a slower car. About 20% of the respondents admitted that they routinely drive 125 m.p.h. or faster.

According to research, the average German driver already keeps to around 70 m.p.h., but "psychologically, the autobahn is seen as one of the last open spaces," said Cologne traffic psychologist Edgar Spoerer.

People cling to this promise of freedom and efficiency even though reality--six-hour traffic jams, countless construction sites and irksome detours--has become something else, Spoerer said. Even when uncongested side roads guarantee a quicker, easier and safer trip, he said, research shows that drivers "feel much more content on the wretched autobahn."

However, Spoerer dismisses popular theories that hostility in the fast lane reveals deep truths about the German psyche. "For many people, the autobahn now amounts to continuous frustration, and frustration leads to aggression," he said. "It has nothing to do with national character."

Still, car ads here routinely emphasize how fast a vehicle can accelerate and how smoothly it can handle sharp curves at high speeds. Driving gloves are a common accessory, and computer chips in car radios allow traffic reports to break into broadcasts with mile-by-mile updates on autobahn backups nationwide.

Even the German language reflects the road warrior mentality, providing a single word for driving pleasure ( fahrvergnugen , popularized by the VW jingle) but none for tailgater .

The sight of a massive Mercedes snapping at the bumper of a slower car is common enough on the autobahns, and though it is illegal for motorists to flash headlights, flick the turn signals or otherwise harass other drivers, the practices are routine.

So routine, in fact, that while the turn signal elsewhere may mean, "I'm going to change lanes now," in Germany, the tacit message is, "You're going to change lanes now." The price for ignoring such a warning may well be a hood ornament embedded in your kidney.

From a police helicopter over the Stuttgart region, high-speed tailgaters are so close to the cars ahead of them that they appear to be under tow. The officers in the chopper don't even bother to videotape them or report them to patrol cars.

Of Germany's 6,743 miles of autobahns, 2,373 miles already have speed limits because of construction or dangerous conditions. Where there are limits, authorities usually rely on high technology to catch offenders, who get tickets in the mail without ever having seen a police officer.

Cameras that photograph license-plate numbers (and guilty faces) are hidden under overpasses, and some states even employ invisible light barriers ($40,000 per device) connected to sophisticated radar machines. But some critics feel that the lack of visible deterrents--like police cars--contributes to the dangerous mood of autobahn autonomy.

"There are drivers who believe the autobahn was built exclusively for them," said psychologist Spoerer. "They cause tremendous fear for a lot of people; many see them as a very powerful threat."

The more horsepower such people have, "the more important they think they are in society," he said. "They're full of arrogance. It's a form of class consciousness."

Even Ludwig, a German national champion driver and Le Mans veteran, finds himself surprised by the risks ordinary drivers take on the autobahn.

"Sometimes it will be raining heavily and I'll be doing 70 m.p.h. with brand-new tires and some idiot passes me," he said, adding, "If you look at skiing or golf, there's a big gap between the professional and the hobbyist. People readily accept that they are not professionals. With cars, it's a different thing altogether. Everyone thinks they can drive perfectly."

Ludwig, who is sponsored by Mercedes-Benz, opposes a general speed limit but advocates a five-year renewal process instead of the current lifetime German driver's license. He believes anyone wanting to drive faster than 80 m.p.h. should be required to take a special course to "get some finesse."

Dr. Walter Rau, a Berlin surgeon, was surprised that his German driving instinct failed to impress the examiner when he applied for a California license while living in the state a few years ago.

Following the examiner's instructions, Rau pulled out of the Department of Motor Vehicles lot and drove a few blocks. When he spotted the DMV lot again, he zipped right in and triumphantly parked the car.

"Why did you do that?" the peeved examiner demanded. "I didn't tell you to come back here yet!"

Rau was chagrined. He had assumed the test was to see how quickly he could get from point A to point B and back. (He then completed the test drive and got his license).

Anton Marth, a 50-year-old automotive journalist in Stuttgart--home of Porsche and Mercedes--regards the looming speed limit as just one more insult to be endured by German drivers. Marth became so frustrated with "drivers being treated as enemies of the state" that he founded the Car Drivers' Party, which now claims 3,000 members and hopes to break into big-time politics with the 1994 national elections.

The Car Drivers' chief complaints are high gasoline taxes, disappearing parking lots and discrimination by the justice system.

Marth, who drives a 15-year-old diesel Mercedes and goes only 125 m.p.h. "if I'm in a real hurry," fears seeing the autobahn overrun with police, "like in America, where they're behind every bush and bridge with their radar guns."

"What's fast?" he asked. "Fast is 155 m.p.h. A driver who pays so much money for a good car wants to go 95 m.p.h. once in a while."

Like the automobile industry, the German Automobile Club and other members of the so-called "asphalt lobby," Marth points to relatively low accident rates on the autobahn as proof that no limits are needed.

The Federal Statistics Office reports that the total number of traffic accidents involving death and injury has been steadily declining overall on the western autobahns. In the east, where most highways do have a 60- to 75-m.p.h. speed limit, the toll has increased dramatically.

"There have been various tests and research, all with the result that a speed limit does not bring improvement," said Andreas Kippe, spokesman for the 3-million-member Allgemeine Deutscher Automobil Club, the German equivalent of America's AAA auto club.

Edgar Droesslich, a 30-year-old computer programmer from Burgbrohl, fondly remembers the time he got his Opel Vectra 2000 to hit 143 m.p.h. "I'm against 80 m.p.h. ," he explained, "because our roads are good enough to permit high speed. Everyone should be responsible enough to adjust their speed to the circumstances."

Anna-Maria Gottwald, a 40-year-old translator from the eastern city of Cottbus, is not so sure. "In general, I'm of the opinion that 80 m.p.h. is fast enough," she said. "There's no art to flooring the gas pedal, but you also have to be able to stop at any time."

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