New Laws Target Aggressive Motorists, Rising Accident Rates
CAROL J. WILLIAMS
Jan. 03, 1989
BONN, West Germany (AP) _ Handcuffed by public refusal to accept a speed limit on the autobahns, West German lawmakers have issued a compromise order to curb rising accident rates. It is now the law that drivers must be polite.
Aggression in the form of dangerously high speeds and daredevil maneuvers accounted for many of the 400,000 injury-causing accidents in West Germany in 1988, according to police and automobile club statistics.
The revised rules that took effect Sunday include a prohibition against blinking headlights to pressure slower drivers to move to the right, as well as a finder's-keeper's policy on parking spaces, which are at a premium in most cities.
A nation renowned for its fast cars and frustrated drivers, West Germany has more traffic volume than any nation in Europe. It also suffers the continent's highest injury-accident rate.
Fatal accidents - about 8,000 last year - have been considerably reduced in the past 10 years. But the number of collisions rose by more than 10 percent in 1988 and moving violations were up by 28 percent over 1987.
Recent mild winters, coupled with cheaper gas prices due to a strong West German mark, have intensified the problem of too many cars traveling too fast on too few roads.
''The problem is that drivers are becoming increasingly aggressive on the highways, borrowing the idea from Americans that time is money,'' said Andreas Zimmermann, regional traffic division chief for ADAC, West Germany's largest automobile club.
The new ''Intelligent Use of the Streets'' legislation aims to diffuse some of the aggression by punishing drivers for infractions that until now have been considered impolite but not illegal.
The more than 100 minor revisions to the 1971 driving code are seen as a token of consolation for the outnumbered advocates of speed limits and environmental protection.
Public opinion polls have shown the vast majority of West German drivers favor a retention of the status quo - no speed limits at all. They have rallied under the cry of ''Free Ways for Free Folks'' and through the powerful car industry and auto club lobbies fought off all attempts to cool their engines.
More than 1 million of the 28 million registered automobiles are capable of sustained speeds exceeding 125 mph, according to the ADAC, which is the world's second-largest auto club after the AAA in the United States.
Some politicians of the opposition Social Democrat party and the environmentalist Greens annually have put forward measures to establish a limit of 60 mph, but have been defeated by the dominant Christian Democrats and members of their own parties concerned about voter reaction.
Short of forcing drivers to slow down, the new laws require them to cease the widespread practice of using headlights and blinkers to pressure slower cars into moving out of their way.
Tailgating also has been outlawed, as well as passing too closely - a favorite punishment meted out by drivers miffed at having to change lanes to get by a slower car.
Truck drivers hauling dangerous cargo must pull into the nearest parking turnout when visibility drops to less than 165 feet because of fog, snow or rain.
Vehicles long have been prohibited from passing on the right, but the code revision makes the offense one that can damage a driver's record and eventually lead to license revocation.
Many drivers argue that despite the law, German practice on a three-lane autobahn dictates that slower cars use the right lane, fast cars the left and the middle lane is to remain open for passing from both sides.
Some of the more controversial and less-enforceable rules govern parking, including a requirement that the first car in a line of autos circling for a free space has claim to the next open spot - even if the driver has already passed it by.
Drivers are also required to activate their warning blinkers as soon as they see a traffic backup on an autobahn, with the aim of preventing the kind of multiple smashups that often occur in the fog or when backups are obscured by a rise or turn in the road.
Dieter Schulte, parliamentary secretary for the federal Transport Ministry and a member of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrat Party, said more than $230 million will be invested in improving signs and roads as part of the new legal changes.
''Not only will these changes reduce the hazards from backups and passing, but they will also save energy and reduce environmental problems like noise and exhaust,'' Schulte said.
Others argue, however, that drivers will begin to depend on the new signs to warn them of road-blocking hazards ahead and drive even faster when no warnings are visible.
''With the best intentions, the changes may have negative consequences for safety and the environment,'' Zimmerman conceded.
Some of the new rules, irreverently referred to as ''the Polite Driving Act,'' are virtually unenforceable, such as requiring drivers to alert one another about hazards they themselves may not react to in time.
But the regulations are expected to deter some of the aggressive practices because violations will count against a driver's record.
West German drivers are not required to renew their licenses once they have passed initial tests and a two-year probation period, unless they've accumulated a considerable series of citations in a short period.
The point system differentiates between character offenses and accidents, ascribing a higher penalty for drunken driving than for killing a pedestrian in a crosswalk.
Points also are recorded for offenses such as misuse of blinkers or following too closely, previously punishable only by fines.
The success of the new system will depend heavily on the driving public, which to date has shown little interest or understanding of the revisions.
Drivers questioned at gas stations over the New Year's weekend expressed amusement over the effort to get them to mind their manners.
''Sure I'll be polite,'' promised one BMW driver who gave his name only as Rudolf. ''As long as the trucks and the timid stay out of the left lane.''