According to the transport ministry, the number of traffic fatalities on the autobahn has steadily dropped since 1970 from an all-time high of more than 21,300 deaths in one year. By 2008, there were fewer than 4,500 fatalities on the roadways despite a three-fold increase in the number of cars and miles driven per year in that time [source: BMVBS]. The drop was credited to better engineering and construction of the roads, more stringent enforcement of driving laws and licensing procedures and better car manufacturing standards. Currently the German autobahn system is rated as one of the safest in the world.
There is some discussion over imposing an 80 miles per hour (128.7kilometers per hour) speed limit on the autobahn. The limit has less to do with speed and more to do with new concerns over carbon emissions. Proponents of lower limits argue the current speeds are polluting the environment around the country. After all, a vehicle's fuel consumption increases with speed. More fuel consumption increases exhaust, which equals more pollution.
While the debate still rages over the environmental cost, only few of the citizenry or government officials have proposed lowering the limit for safety reasons.
In 2007, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was reported as saying she would not support any measure to limit speeds on the nation's highway system. Saying a traffic jam was at least as environmentally damaging as high-speed driving. Instead, she called on automakers to increase fuel efficiency and reduce emissions.
Merkel's opposition serves to illustrate the German love affair with cars. The country has been characterized as a "nation of drivers," and one that seems loathe to relinquishing its right to speed.
Yet the tide is shifting. Autobahns in Austria and Switzerland have implemented speed limits where once they were free from restrictions. Germany may, in time, be one of the last of the developed countries without speed restrictions, even if those restrictions are lifted only on a portion of the road.
The history of the autobahn is as controversial as its present debates. On the next page, we'll take a look at how the German national road system came into being.