Autobahn Deaths Force Germans to Rethink Passion for Speed
It's a myth that German highways have no speed limits. On about a third of the autobahn, limits are posted. On the rest, authorities recommend that drivers keep to 130 kilometers (about 81 miles) per hour, but drivers are legally free to ignore that and generally do. Congestion, bad weather and engine limitations are about all that constrains velocity.
When the crash occurred, Fischer was traveling an unregulated stretch of road between the cities of Esslingen and Papenberg. The Kia was moving fast, too, according to testimony in the trial. It had been pressed into its own upper limits, about 95 mph, as it raced down the left lane, designated for higher-speed traffic, in an attempt to pass another car.
Fischer did not stop after the Kia spun off the road, but he later aroused suspicion by making inquiries about what had happened to it. Police eventually tracked him down using witness accounts, cell phone records and gasoline receipts.
His trial was in many ways tailor-made for speeding opponents -- if a professional driver for one of the country's premier high-speed cars couldn't handle such speeds safely, how could the ordinary person? According to the German media, Judge Brigitte Hecking received death threats after making remarks that suggested she favored speed limits.
The court ruled that Fischer was responsible for the deaths, but it accepted his explanation for leaving the scene, that he did not see the Kia go off the road. He remains free pending appeal.
The German Automobile Club says that the deaths were tragic but held no lessons about the dangers of speed. "The autobahns in Germany are Germany's safest roads," Schaepe said. "The probability that you would die in an accident on an autobahn in Germany is less than it is on an American highway," where limits are posted.
He said that deaths per 1 billion kilometers (about 625 million miles) traveled on highways was 4.5 in Germany and 5.4 in the United States.
But Weis, of the Social Democrats, said that his own experience told him that slower speeds made sense. "If you drive in the Scandinavian countries or in France, you can see a very different way of driving," he said. "Traffic flows better, and it is not as stressful for drivers there as in Germany. For me, that indicates a safe and better way of driving."
Special correspondent Shannon Smiley contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Rolf Fischer, a DaimlerChrysler test driver, was convicted of negligent manslaughter for his role in a high-speed accident.
(Pool Photo Winfried Rothermel -- AP)
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