Speed is scary

2012-10-24

Pushing the limit: 85 mph on Texas tollway

Pushing the limit | Bob Daemmrich/Texas Tribune

Americans, as a rule, are a fearless people, except when it comes to driving faster than 55 miles per hour on their ridiculously wide open roads.

Growing up in Germany, we always thought of American speed limits as typical government overreach, infringing on the God-given right to drive at any speed you like. Only after moving here, I learned that in this one case, it’s not the government’s fault. Americans are genuinely scared of speed.

Not only do you go to jail in many states when you driver faster than 100 mph, but people think of 100 mph as a totally reckless speed. Which is funny because even my mother who is a rather timid driver will regularly hit 100 mph on the autobahn. Over there, recklessness starts around 160 mph, sanctioned not by jail time but by the electronic cut off built into most commercial cars these days.

When it comes to driving, America is just the nanny state that most Americans despise. Every inch of roadway is meticulously signed for curves, for no-passing zones due to short visibility, and with recommended speeds usually at half the speed a reasonable driver would chose (or a quarter the speed of a not totally reasonable sport biker).

So it’s not surprising that today’s opening of Texas state highway 130 with a record 85 mph speed limit made local, national and (according to the local paper) international headlines (ok, we’ll count CNN as international). No article fails to take an eager look at the danger of high-speed crashes and other perils that now face innocent Texans.

Which, again, Germans find funny – 81 mph is in fact their legally “recommended speed” which is considered particularly safe and prudent.

Americans will often politely point out that Germans have a reputation for being excellent drivers, so they can afford the higher speeds. And it’s true that getting a driver license in Germany is an expensive proposition, with mandatory driving school and rigorous testing (with, however, the nice benefit of a license for life, no renewal required). It’s also true that the roadways are generally in excellent condition, bridges won’t crumble, and cars undergo mandatory biannual inspections. As a result, the rate of traffic fatalities per capita is dramatically lower.

But there is a more fundamental fact: In the vast open spaces of America, driving is much more of a necessity than in Germany. If you do not want to be confined to your home, or dependent on Mom’s shuttle service, you have to drive. As a result, teens as young as 16, and seniors way out of their comfort zone will take to the road.

In urban Germany, or Europe for that matter, there are many alternatives for getting around. Travel the Paris subway on a weekend and you will find the trains crowded with kids until well beyond midnight. (Yes, all of their parents would be arrested by Youth Protection Services if they did that in the United States.) People of all walks of life take to buses or bicycles to get around, and many errands can be run on foot. Many college students will have a driver license but not a car.

I believe that very much changes the demographics and the mindset of the people on the road, and while there are some pretty bad drivers (both of the slow and the fast variant), driving is generally quite disciplined.

Why, however, do Germans have that need for speed? I really don’t know. I just enjoy driving a fast car as much as the next guy. Maybe it’s a compensation for the lack of space, a raw feeling of strength and freedom that Germans normally lack so much.

Somehow, unlimited speed is for Germans what the Second Amendment is for Americans. Whatever its pros and cons, no politician who wants to stay in office would dare to abolish it.

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