Need for Speed: U.S. vs. Germany

Nearly 46.9 million Americans will travel over the long Thanksgiving weekend – the busiest U.S. travel holiday of the year.  As we take to the airports and roads to visit family and friends this Thanksgiving, words of caution fill the air and safety tips cover notice boards.  Wednesday is not just the busiest travel day, Progressive Insurance found accidents also increase by 25 percent the day before Thanksgiving.

But just as you thought safety regulations were tightening, there is nationwide debate brewing about questionably risker regulation.  The U.S. wants to raise the interstate speed limit.

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Early this month, Wisconsin’s freeway speed limit increased from 65 to 70 mph.  Utah bumped the limit to 80, and officials say highway crashes have dropped annually on stretches of rural Interstate 15.  Last year, Utah also as raised the speed limit from 65 to 70 on urban interstates around populated Salt Lake City, which officials say prompts more regularity on the road, hastening even the slowest drivers.

Furthermore, those in support of the U.S. speed-limit bump have a famous international standard for comparison.  The Autobahn, Germany’s longest and most populated highway spanning over 8,000 miles, does not have a speed limit.   Hard to believe?  The real shocker is that reports say the U.S. has more car accidents on its speed-limited highways than the ultra-speedy German Autobahn. texas-speed-limit-sign-85-mph.jpg

Why does the U.S. surpass Germany in accidents considering the stricter highway structure?  The statistics have sparked a nationwide conversation.

Counterintuitively, many attribute the higher accident rate to a slower U.S. speed limit.  Their argument?  Well the Autobahn has a lower accident rate with no speed limit, so if the U.S. also doesn’t have a speed limit then our accident rate will go down too, right?

Hmm…interesting.

Still, many use the anti-speed limit Autobahn to back up their argument, comparing the strictly monitored U.S. interstate to the “unregulated” German highway.   Are they correct? Let’s look at the facts. According to marketing expert and blog master, Brandon Gaille:

The accident rate on the Autobahn is consistently lower than many other interstate style highway systems, partly because of its better construction – it has a 40-year rating. The US highway system has a 20-year rating.  The fatality rate on the Autobahn is 2.7 per billion kilometers traveled. The U.S. has a 4.5 fatality rate for the same distance, and highly controlled speeds to boot.

However, there’s another side to the coin.  There are many lesser-known reasons that may be the reason for fewer accidents on German roads.  Unbeknownst to many who think of the Autobahn as a free-for-all speedway, in fact, the Autobahn has more restrictions than the U.S.  First, German laws make it illegal to pass a vehicle on the right side, reducing the typical weaving between multiple lanes of traffic that is seen in the U.S.  Second, it is far more difficult to get a German driver’s license and somewhat cost prohibitive with a price tag upwards of $1500, so drivers will have more knowledge about safe driving and think twice before signing away their paycheck.  Third, German autobahns are an engineering marvel of road surface construction: they are unbelievably well maintained and smooth, with none of the poorly constructed undulations, bumps, and dips of American freeways.

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While U.S. speed limits are rising nationwide, especially in wide-open Western states, many safety officials are still scratching their heads over a perilous trend they say will lead to more fatalities.”  The research is clear and consistent on the safety consequences of raising speed limits,” said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “Higher speed limits get people to their destinations faster, but there’s always a cost:  Ultimately, there will be more severe crashes and more deaths on those roads. At the end of the day, it’s simple physics.”

To me, it doesn’t seem like the speed is the problem.  It’s the lack of driver education, poor equipment, overall road regulation and an overall U.S. driving culture.  Most Americans couldn’t handle the greater responsibility required by higher speed limits and derestricted stretches of highway.   Combine the responsibility with a general sense of entitlement – with large SUVs sitting in the passing lane doing 55 mph while surrounding traffic is doing 65 – and most of the problem remains in a U.S./European cultural divide.  All things considered, it doesn’t look like a smart move for the U.S. to continue raising the speed limit.

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6 thoughts on “Need for Speed: U.S. vs. Germany

  1. Interesting analysis of a debate I wasn’t aware was currently underway in the United States. I tend to lean on the side of raising speed limits, simply for selfish reasons and the fact that posted speed limits aren’t observed anyway. I’d prefer to remove policing discretion from traffic laws by raising the speed limits, and strictly adhering to those limits. For example, when I’m driving up the 395 (a sparsely-populated one-lane highway), the speed limit is 65, but I can very safely drive at 75 mph, and possibly more. Usually I can drive past a parked HWP officer without incident, but I was once pulled over for speeding at the rate I normally drive. The ambiguity in speed limits is incredibly frustrating, and it is unreasonable to assume that people will drive 10 mph slower than they safely can. So from my perspective, speed limits should be raised and strictly enforced not for safety reasons, but to rid the road of legal ambiguity and potentially unfair policing.

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  2. Interesting point of discussion. From my experience, most drivers on the freeway generally cruise about 10-15 miles above the speed limit. I wonder, if the speed limit was raised, would drivers remain at the speeds they are at now (70-80 mph) or would they then pushing against the new speed limit to speeds of 90-100? Another thing to think about is raising the speed limit would most likely result in greater use of gas – is that someone the country should really be encouraging right now? It’s a tough trade off.

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  3. I think that the idea of comparing the safety of the German Autobahn and the safety of the US freeway is a creative idea. However, I think you really hit it home in your conclusion when you suggested that the safety of a freeway system is dependent upon several other factors. A huge flaw in the logic of comparing the fatality rate of a single freeway and a country is that they the single freeway could be an outlier. Statistically speaking, you are comparing one point in a distribution to the average in another distribution. In simple terms, a US freeway might have a fatality rate of 0, another could have 17. There are so many confounding factors to be considered that this comparison really is not feasible. For all we know the Autobahn might have a low rate just because drivers are highly alert when driving on it, or consistently sober.

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  4. That is a good point. Most people do not drive at 65 mph, but drive at least 70-80 mph on freeways. Raising the speed limit might make people feel like its okay to drive even faster than 80. Also, I completely agree that we cannot mirror our highway regulations with the Germany’s autobahn. We do not, in any way, have the same driving culture. Our roads are worse, our traffic rules are different and highway traffic is prominent. Raising the speed limits to decrease fatality rates is not the solution. A better means to solve this problem starts with better roads and driving practice.

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  5. You mentioned that the conditions of the roads play a factor during crash rates, and yes you are correct. A common issue that happens is that when roads are used frequently the weight exerted in the pavement creates wave movements into the reinforcement of the concrete. Sadly, this is a problem that will not go away in the United States unless we change the way we do business when it comes to public work. Currently, most of the projects are awarded based on their lowest cost which makes general contractors use cheaper material and thus causing a lower standard for our roads.

    On another topic, I am also curious to find out whether or not raising the speed limits to 70-80 mph will make people drive 90 mph. My reasoning tells me that we wont or at least not in the near future, since driving around 80 mph seems a little unsafe at times, but that’s just my personal opinion.

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  6. I have also heard that Germany has stricter requirements for car maintenance as well, meaning you wouldn’t be likely to see a 20 year old civic cruising on the Autobahn. Your point about the cost of a German drivers license is definitely a huge factor as well. In America, getting a drivers license is as easy as passing a driving test after the age of 18 in many states. The ease of acquiring a license makes driving less of a “privilege” and more of a “right” in the states. Even with these differences, however, I highly doubt raising the speed limit 5 MPH will have too much of an adverse effect. Plenty of people already drive above the speed limit all the time, and many speeding tickets are up to discretion of officers. Our speeding laws are basically “catch me if you can,” so it makes sense that the US wouldn’t trust citizens with more speed leeway.

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