Slow Down German State Introduces Autobahn Speed Limit

For years, Germans have worried that speed limits may be coming for the autobahn. On Wednesday, the first state-wide slowdown went into effect. Are more such regulations on the way?

Say the word "autobahn," and people's eyes light up around the world. Immediately, dreams of bombing down the highway at unheard of speeds pop into their heads.

Now though, at least in one German state, that dream has been dashed. As of Wednesday, drivers in the state of Bremen will no longer be able to put the pedal to the metal. From now on, the maximum speed allowed is 120 kilometers per hour (75 miles per hour).

In practical terms, the change is not a big one -- it only affects 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) of autobahn connecting the cities of Bremen and Bremerhaven. The rest of the tiny city-state's 49 kilometers (30.5 miles) of autobahn has long had speed restrictions aimed at fighting congestion, noise and pollution.

Nevertheless, the change is symbolically huge in a country where the freedom of the road has been both an escape from regimented urban life and a chance to celebrate the achievements of Germany's proud tradition of automotive engineering.

The change was announced earlier in the week by Rainer Loske, Bremen's environment minister, who cited environmental concerns as the principal reason behind the decision. It is the product of the center-left coalition of the Greens and Social Democrats, which took power in the state in 2005.

In a Wednesday statement, Loske called the move "a signal for the protection of the environment and climate. Bremen is a pioneer."

Another issue is, of course, safety. "On all stretches of autobahn with a limit," Loske added, "the danger of severe accidents with human injuries is significantly lower. For this reason, the speed limit protects not only the environment and climate but also -- first and foremost -- people."

Despite the small size of the affected stretch, the limit in Bremen could symbolize the beginning of a larger change in Germany, as it will give impetus to an initiative by the states of Bremen, Berlin and Brandenburg in the Bundesrat, Germany's upper house of parliament, to impose a countrywide limit of 130 kilometers per hour (81 miles per hour).

It is far from a new idea. The Green Party in Germany has long been in favor of a country-wide speed limit as a way to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The Social Democrats, part of the current governing coalition led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, have also voiced support for the idea of a speed limit, but the issue continues to be a divisive one in the party.

It may not matter, however. Jürgen Resch, director of the environmental advocacy group Deutsche Umwelthilfe, said earlier this week that the European Commission may force Germany to introduce an autobahn speed limit by 2010.