No More Fun on the Autobahn?

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Comstock Select / Corbis

Autobahn 9 South of Nurnberg, Germany.

You could almost hear the brakes being slammed on across Germany. If there is anything Germans love more than their luxury cars, it's driving those cars fast. So the proposal by one of Germany's governing parties to introduce a speed limit on Germany's famous autobahns, the only highways in the developed world (outside the Isle of Man) that don't restrict speed, is meeting with serious resistance. Under the proposal, approved by the Social Democratic Party (SPD) at a convention this weekend, Germans would be required to keep to within a 130 kph (about 80 mph) on the regional highways in order to save the planet — "a fast and unbureaucratic path to climate protection," according to a statement from the party.

The party elders reasoned that driving slower uses less gas and therefore contributes less CO2 to the atmosphere. But many Germans are not impressed. The idea of a speed limit left Franz Joseph Wagner, a columnist in the daily Bild, a mass circulation paper, frankly fuming. After musing in German fashion on the virtues of automobiles generally as "the horses of modern times, "the best horse that ever was," the commentator wrote: "Leave me my car that I can fly in."

In order to become law the proposal requires the approval of the Bundestag, or Parliament, and the conservative Christian Democratic Party (CDU), which governs in coalition with the SPD, are opposed. Angela Merkel, the otherwise environment-friendly German Chancellor and a member of the CDU, said that no such change would take place on her watch. She said that Germany would be better off improving traffic circulation in order to reduce the amount of time cars spent in traffic jams. Other parliamentarians said Germany should push technical fixes such as more fuel efficient cars.

The go-slow idea was what grabbed the headlines out of a sweeping new agenda set out by the SPD at a convention this weekend. Since Merkel edged into a power at the head of a "grand coalition" of the CDU and the SPD two years ago, the Social Democrats have been divided between centrist and left-leaning factions. The party has also been forced to watch as Merkel and the CDU co-opted some of the party's traditional turf on questions ranging from human rights to family benefits. The new platform demonstrably shifts the party to the left, a move that commentators say provides it with unity at least.

In addition to the speed limit idea, the party voted to put the brakes on several economic reforms introduced by Merkel's predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder. The party called for the introduction of a minimum wage, for example, and the expansion of the period of eligibility for unemployment benefits for workers over the age of 50 — from 12 to 24 months. The party also urged a rethink of the government plan to partially privatize the national train company, Deutsche-Bahn, next year in a policy that has thrown the multibillion-euro deal into question. Merkel even came in for criticism from her own foreign minister, Frank Walter Steinmeier, a senior SPD leader, who took her to task for failing to use back channels effectively to promote her human rights agenda in China and Russia.

"'Democratic Socialism' for us remains the vision of a free just and solidly united society, " the party declared in its closing statement. That statement, like the speed limit idea, drew a rebuke from Merkel. "We don't want a return to socialism," said the Chancellor, who who grew up in communist East Germany. "We had enough of that in [there]." Analysts say the new ideas from the SPD have the virtue of bringing out in the open policies that had divided the party — and the government — for some time. "The cards are now on the table," the Suddeutsche Zeitung editorialized. As the case of the speed limit proposal demonstrates, however, some cards are more welcome than others. With reporting by Stephanie Kirchner/Berlin