speed limits

On September 23, 1989, one of the worst days for accidents on the German Autobahn, five huge pileups involving 256 cars with a large number of series injuries, occurred due to heavy fog in the area. The Autobahn in Germany has no speed limits, and cars often travel as fast as 140 miles per hour, which in foggy conditions, is a recipe for disaster. Most of us would think that driving at the speeds seen on the Autobahn would be catastrophic. Here in the United States, where most such highways have a speed limit of 80 miles per hour, travelling at 140 miles per hour would seem more like something you might need a pilot’s license for, rather that a driver’s license.

Given the speeds on the Autobahn, one might expect it to be one of the most dangerous roads in the world, but their assumption would be very wrong. In reality, the Autobahn is statistically safer than any interstate or other such highway in the world. That seems strange given the speeds seem there. Of course, not all of the Autobahn is speed limit free. The German Autobahnen are widely known for having no federally mandated speed limit for some classes of vehicles, with classes of vehicles being the operative word. There are limits posted, and enforced, in areas that are urbanized, substandard, accident-prone, or under construction. On speed-unrestricted stretches, an advisory speed limit of 81 miles per hour applies. While driving faster is not illegal, as such in the absence of a speed limit, it can cause an increased liability in the case of a collision…which the mandatory auto insurance has to cover. Courts have ruled that an “ideal driver” who is exempt from absolute liability for “inevitable” tort under the law would not exceed the suggested speed limit.

The Autobahn was conceived in the 1920s, and with Hitler’s embrace of the system in 1933, construction was scheduled and began 1936. It was a bold idea to put into motion, and probably the only Hitler back idea that is still in operation today. Of course, Hitler didn’t have many “good” ideas in his lifetime, so this one was an exceptional feat, and obviously not an idea of his making. Nevertheless, the very safe Autobahn continues to be utilized by all of Germany today. It is not accident free, as we have seen by the awful accident of September 23, 1989, but these tragedies seem to be few and far between.

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