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EXPLAINED: Could Germany introduce a motorway speed limit?

More and more politicians are adding their voices to the call for introducing a speed limit on German motorways. But how likely is it that the policy will come into force?

A speed limit traffic sign on the A24
A road patrol officer holds a traffic sign on the A24 autobahn with the speed limit 130 kilometers per hour. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Jens Büttner

What’s the background?

The German Autobahn is the only stretch of motorway in Europe where many sections don’t have a speed limit, and the issue of introducing one is highly contentious.

During coalition negotiations last year, the Greens were forced to abandon their electoral promise to impose a 130km/h (around 80 mph) limit on German motorways, as keeping motorways free of speed restrictions was a red line for their liberal coalition partners, the FDP.

But as the war in Ukraine continues, and Germany looks for ways to reduce its reliance on Russian energy, there have been increasing calls for the FDP to put its freedom-loving ideology to one side in light of the exceptional circumstances. 

READ ALSO: Speed limits and ‘home office’: How Germany could reduce its oil consumption

So far, however, the FDP has been digging its heels in on the policy, but as fuel prices remain sky high and the war rages on, calls for them to concede to at least a temporary speed limit are increasing. 

What are people saying?

Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, leading politicians from the Green and SPD parties and environmental and public action groups have been calling for speed limits on the Autobahn.

The general public is also increasingly in favour of the measure: in the latest ARD Deutschland Trend poll, 57 percent of respondents were in favour of a temporary speed limit on highways, while 38 percent were against it.

Last month, the chief executive of the German Association of Cities, Helmut Dedy, told DPA: “As of now, we have to pay even more attention to energy consumption. That’s why we are calling for a speed limit to be considered now. This would allow us to immediately leverage potential savings.” 

READ ALSO:

But the most recent appeals for introducing speed limits have taken a more critical tone. 

In an interview with Tagesspiegel, Baden-Württemberg’s state premier Winfried Kretschmann (Greens) recently called for “entrenched dogmas” to be dispensed with. “In this crisis, we should do it immediately – it’s a direct way to save energy,” he said.

Kretschmann added that a speed limit was a moderate means of saving energy during the Ukraine war. 

The heads of the SPD in North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein, Thomas Kutschaty and Thomas Losse-Müller, also joined the appeal last week.

“I can’t explain to the normal commuter why he should subsidise the fuel of those who want to travel at 220 km/h and therefore consume more (energy),” said Kutschaty. “A purely selfish sense of freedom comes at the expense of the general public.”

Losse-Müller also spoke out in favour of a speed limit.

“With this measure, we will become independent of Russian energy imports more quickly,” he said. “And at the same time, the speed limit will not trigger any economic distortions in Germany.”

The deputy prime minister of Schleswig-Holstein, Monika Heinold (Greens), also called on the FDP to take off their “ideological blinkers.”

“The speed limit is more than overdue,” she told Tagesspiegel. She also said she expects Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) to make the 130 km/h speed limit a top priority. 

Why is the FDP still against the Tempolimit

The pro-business FDP have continued to speak out against the introduction of a speed limit, citing multiple reasons from ineffectiveness to personal responsibilty.

Recently, FDP leader and Finance Minister Christian Lindner argued that drivers who wanted to could voluntarily take their foot off the gas pedal. 

Meanwhile, FDP parliamentary group leader Christian Dürr called the debate over a speed limit “a distraction.”

“The debate about a speed limit must end immediately because it distracts from what really needs to be done now,” Dürr told Tagesspiegel. “The impact of such a measure on our energy reserves would be zero.”

Last week, Transport Minister Volker Wissing (FDP), also spoke out against introducing a speed limit – partly because he believes there aren’t enough road signs in stock. 

READ ALSO: Germany ‘doesn’t have enough signs’ for Autobahn speed limit, says minister

In an interview with the Hamburger Morgenpost, Wissing said a speed limit in Germany is “extremely controversial” and “divides society very strongly”. 

“You would have to put up appropriate signs if you do it for three months and then take them down again,” he said. “We don’t even have that many signs in stock.”

Perhaps more realistically, the FDP are keen to maintain their anti-speed limit stance to try not to jeopardise the support of their base.

The Tempolimit issue was a flagship policy of the liberals throughout the election campaign, and backtracking at a time when the FDP have made several concessions to their coalition partners on other issues relating to energy policy could be seen by the party leaders as a step too far. 

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German state environment ministers push for Autobahn speed limit

Environment ministers in Germany's 16 states want to see a temporary Autobahn speed limit to help cut down reliance on Russian gas.

German state environment ministers push for Autobahn speed limit

Calls have been growing for a temporary speed limit or Tempolimit on Germany’s Autobahn network to further reduce dependency on Russia’s energy amid the war on Ukraine.

But the move has seen severe pushback from some politicians – in particular the Free Democrats (FDP).

On Friday, German media site Spiegel reported that the Conference of Environment Ministers had come out in favour of a temporary speed limit on the Autobahn, which is the only stretch of motorway in Europe where people can drive as fast as they want in many sections.

It’s a significant move given that the issue is so contentious in Germany. 

Spiegel said that the ministers agreed a resolution on Friday to introduce a temporary nationwide speed limit. However, they did not specify what the maximum speed should be.

The Greens have campaigned for a number of years to impose a 130km/h (around 80 mph) limit on German motorways – but the party had to abandon this electoral promise last year during coalition negotiations to keep the freedom-loving FDP from walking.

According to environment ministers in the states, a general speed limit should be introduced as a “cost-effective, quickly to implement, and immediately effective measure” so that Germany consumes less petrol and diesel, and becomes less dependent on oil imports.

READ ALSO: Could Germany introduce an Autobahn speed limit?

At the same time, the step would help protect the climate, keep the air clean, reduce noise and make roads safer, they said. The speed limit could “initially be introduced for a limited period during the ongoing conflict”, the resolution said in reference to the war in Ukraine. In the long term, the focus is on the expansion of electric mobility and local public transport.

“I think it is absolutely right that we set a visible sign,” Lower Saxony’s environment minister Olaf Lies (SPD), chair of the conference, told Spiegel. “We did not have an ideological debate.”

Rather, he said, it was about a pragmatic response to the supply crisis because of the war.

The move was backed by all states. The environment ministers in Bavaria (Thorsten Glauber, Free Voters) and North Rhine-Westphalia (Lutz Lienenkämper, CDU) voted in favour, but issued a note stating that they only expect a speed limit to have a limited effect.

In the other 14 states, the ministries are led by the Greens or the SPD.

The federal states can’t implement the decision on their own – this would require a federal law.

“Now it’s the federal government’s turn,” tweeted Hesse environment minister Priska Hinz (Greens). 

So far, none of the states has announced an initiative in the Bundesrat, the parliament that represents the states – but they are sending a strong message to the federal government. 

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