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TRANSPORTATION : Ozone Levels Curb Germans’ Need to Speed : A study relating pollution to fast driving has a country of car lovers choosing between clean air and putting the pedal to the metal.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The worst heat wave here in modern times has brought two great German passions--speed and the environment--into head-on conflict.

Normally, there are no speed limits on the German autobahns, and drivers like it that way. The right to drive with your foot to the floor is as dear--and as comprehensible to foreigners--as Americans’ love of guns. No small number of drivers routinely go as fast as 125 m.p.h.

“In Germany, there is a special car ideology,” says Karl-Heinz Ludewig of the small, Berlin-based Society for the Protection of Pedestrians. “We have sayings that reflect it. One is that a German man’s favorite child is his car. Another is that the German man treats his car better than his wife.”

Wife, schmife--what about the air? That is the dilemma facing German speed demons this summer, because the heat has sent ozone levels soaring, and many scientists, politicians and environmentalists say that the air could be protected if drivers would just slow down.

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The debate started late last month, when ozone research in the state of Hesse happened to be completed just as Germany was entering its fourth week of a record-breaking heat wave. Hesse, it should be noted, has a coalition government of the liberal Social Democratic Party and the Greens. The study seemed to show that, by limiting auto use and imposing speed limits, the state could reduce ozone-causing fumes by as much as 50%.

The next day, the government of Hesse committed the ultimate heresy: It imposed a speed limit. Drivers on the autobahns were supposed to slow to a most un-German 55 m.p.h. On secondary highways, they were told to go just 50 m.p.h.

Compliance was mixed, in part because the government didn’t announce the imposition of a speed limit until 5:30 p.m., and the crews whose job it would be to post the signs had already left. But police claim that four out of five drivers obeyed the new provision, which had been announced on the radio. An opposition spokesman says this compliance was achieved by sending police cars cruising two and three abreast down the autobahns at 55 m.p.h., trapping everyone else behind them.

And after four days, the Hesse environment ministry announced that ozone levels “had been reduced dramatically,” and some Germans began thinking twice about which activity they cherished more--speeding or breathing. A poll by German state television showed that 69.4% of Germans liked the idea of a speed limit--most thought 80 m.p.h. sounded about right--and 86.3% favored a speed limit at times of high ozone levels.

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Before long, other states were considering speed limits, and some even tried setting them. In Germany, that takes guts. People here insist that, even though they drive faster, their cars are safer--and would in fact lose their competitive edge if speed limits were imposed. And they say that, just because other countries have speed limits, that doesn’t mean people obey them.

Already, one lead-foot has sued the state of Hesse, complaining that his personal rights are being curtailed. The auto industry has rallied, sending forth representatives to explain that what is really needed is not a speed limit but the development of an environmentally friendly car--preferably with generous government subsidies.

Even Chancellor Helmut Kohl took the unusual step of interrupting his vacation to tell reporters that he opposed speed limits, but he said the idea could be “intensively considered” once federal legislators return from their summer vacations.

By that time, of course, temperatures will have fallen, ozone levels will be down, and the impetus for a German speed limit may be lost.

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Highway Safety

According to insurance-industry research organization HUK-Verbandt, following are the numbers of highway deaths per 1 billion kilometers driven per year in these countries:

Germany: 6.8

France: 9.2

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Austria: 15.7

Spain: 58.3

Britain: 3.9

United States: 5.8

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