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Are Germany’s autobahns really the safest highways in the world?

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Are Germany’s autobahns really the safest highways in the world?
Photo: DPA
11:23 CET+01:00
German roads are ‘the safest in the world’, according to Federal Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer. But new figures looking at accidents and fatalities on Germany’s world-famous autobahns have cast significant doubt on that claim.

Like bureaucratic efficiency, an underdeveloped sense of humour and an undying love for football, Germany’s no-limit autobahns are one of the symbols the country is known for around the world.

But like all of those - the undying love for football aside - plenty of expats and visitors to Germany have discovered that most of these symbols are more myth than reality. 

Does no limit really mean safer?

Most of Germany’s autobahns do not have a speed limit, a move justified on safety grounds. Just last week, Federal Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer boasted to the Bild Am Sonntag that Germany’s highways were ‘the safest in the world’. 

Minister Scheuer made the statement amid concerns that speed limits may be instituted on environmental grounds. But - environmental concerns aside - how safe are German highways? 

SEE ALSO: German government rejects speed limit on Autobahn

Research from the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) and the German Road Safety Council suggests that not only are German highways not the safest in the world, but they are not among the safest in Europe.  

According to OECD figures, highways are the safest type of streets, with the risk of fatality approximately six times lower than on other roads and streets. Despite this, the OECD says the risk of fatality increases significantly as speed increases. 

The fatality rate over each 1,000-kilometre stretch of German motorways is 30.2 percent, according to European Union data - well above the European average of 26.4 percent. Several European countries including France, Finland, Great Britain, Portugal and Sweden had lower fatality rates than Germany. 

How accurate are country-to-country comparisons?

There are however difficulties in determining the accurate number of vehicles travelling on German autobahns, which would potentially influence the overall rate.

Sigfried Brockton, the head of Accident Research for Insurers (UDV), says that like-for-like comparisons are difficult. 

“In countries like (Great Britain, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland) the road infrastructure is similar and therefore drivers may handle the road similarly,” he told DPA. 

“(However) as a scientist I note we are missing the reference size, i.e. inhabitants or how many kilometres are regularly driven.”. 

Per capita the results also shed further doubt on Minister Scheuer’s claim, with the Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK all having fewer fatal accidents than Germany. 

Per billion kilometres travelled on motorways, Germany’s fatality rate (1.6) is twice as high as that in the UK (0.8). Again, while the exact quantum of vehicles is hard to determine, it would indicate that Germany’s motorways are not nearly as safe as Minister Scheuer would assert them to be. 

Speed limits 'justified' on environmental grounds

As reported by The Local in late January, approximately 70 percent of Germany’s highways have no speed limit. 

The statement arose amid concern surrounding the potential imposition of a speed limit on Germany’s highways due to environmental concerns. The German government rejected calls for speed limits to be put in place, with the National Platform on the Future of Mobility arguing for a speed limit of 130km/h to be implemented for environmental reasons. 

The Federal Agency for the Environment has suggested that a speed limit would reduce CO2 (carbon dioxide) and HC (hydrocarbons) emissions by nine percent and NOx emissions (nitrogen oxides) by six percent.

SEE ALSO: Eight things you never knew about the German Autobahn

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