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Law of Jungle Rules the Autobahn

October 19, 1998

BONN, Germany (AP) _ Driving on the broad, well-maintained autobahns in Germany can be a test of nerves. The road rules here have more to do with the law of the jungle than any German sense of order.

With no speed limit, everyone’s out to prove who’s the fastest.

Big sedans and zippy roadsters rocket along at 125 mph or more, appearing seemingly out of nowhere to fill the rearview mirror of lesser models that wander into the fast lane to pass a truck.

Those who don’t get quickly out of the way must endure a tailgater flashing his lights until they do.

There’s even a pecking order: Volkswagen drivers pull aside for an Audi, Audi for BMW, and BMW for Mercedes _ depending, of course, on the driver’s testosterone level. And everyone bows to the occasional Porsche.

``I love driving really fast,″ says Peter Kadel, a sales director from Heidelberg who stopped at a rest stop near Bonn in his purple BMW. ``The faster I drive, the safer I am, because then I concentrate completely.″

But the time-honored pedal-to-the-metal tradition faces an uncertain future under the incoming center-left government. The ecology-minded Greens, the likely junior partner, are intent on slowing down traffic and raising gas taxes to break the German love affair with their cars.

Tabloid headlines expressed shock when the Greens proposed a 60 mph limit. Daytime TV talkmeisters skipped the usual sex and relationship fare for shows with themes like ``I drive as fast as I want.″

Gerhard Schroeder, who sat on Volkswagen’s supervisory board until he was elected chancellor last month, quickly squashed the discussion, warning against anything that might hurt the auto industry.

On Saturday, the two parties reached a deal that gives municipalities more leeway to reduce speeds on city streets, while leaving the autobahn alone _ for now.

Both sides remain open to an eventual ``harmonization″ of traffic laws with the rest of the European Union, where speeds are generally capped at around 80 mph.

Studies have shown slower driving is generally safer driving, but Germans passionately defend their status as the only country in Europe without a superhighway speed limit. ``Free driving for free citizens″ is the rallying cry for speed junkies who see themselves as defenders of a basic human right.

``Personally, I don’t understand why other countries have speed limits,″ says Wolfgang Wuthe, spokesman for Germany’s ADAC auto club.

``Why should you put a speed limit on the safest roads in the country?″ asks Franz-Josef Schneiders of the federal Transportation Ministry. ``It’s not necessary.″

Of course, about 30 percent of the 6,800 miles of the German autobahn system already has a permanent speed limit, mainly through urban areas and dangerous stretches. Another 20 percent is temporarily limited _ due to construction or when weather is bad.

On the rest, the government ``recommends″ drivers not exceed 80 mph. But hardly anyone listens.

Even as the roads get more crowded and the stretches where drivers can really floor it shrink, support for autobahn limits has dropped, from 71 percent in 1991 to about half in a poll this year.

Some speed limit advocates blame German carmakers for fueling the lust for speed with advertisements for sleek, fast cars, like tobacco companies hawking cigarettes.

``That’s why it’s so hard to stop,″ says Werner Winkler, a traffic psychologist in Hanover. ``An addiction can’t be cured by a ticket.″

Yet in a society where everything from shopping hours to appropriate names for children is strictly regulated _ and accepted _ many Germans view the wide open autobahn as a last escape.

``Germans are under pressure from the government, under pressure from their employer,″ said Manfred, a Muelheim layer who only gave his first name. ``They have no say in their profession or at home. But on the autobahn, they can let it all out.″

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