Fast is Safe in Germany

It seems that the Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) of New South Wales just doesn’t get it when it comes to the principal causes of driver related deaths on our less than perfect roads. At least, that’s according to an article in last Friday’s Sydney Morning Herald.
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The blame game, played enthusiastically by the RTA, is summed up in the all too familiar words from one of their spokespersons.

“Speed remains a major factor in crashes throughout NSW, with 40 per cent of fatalities speed related”.

As we have come to expect from the rhetorical folks at the RTA, there is not a single mention of the fact that the poorly maintained roads in this state, may have been a contributing factor in many of these tragic deaths.

Moreover we have far too many people behind the wheel in this country, who seem utterly oblivious to their fellow drivers and as a result, are dangerously unpredictable and incredibly frustrating.

Let’s take the first issue, roads. I thought they had to be evenly surfaced structures rather than the all too familiar convex shaped roads that seem to form after the countless re-surfaces on the same stretch of road.

And if it should rain cats and dogs on this fresh piece of tarmac, then you might want to avoid driving on it, as the road is just as likely to crumble away under you. Worse still, it may also be littered with nasty little potholes, which would then require another Sunday night resurface job by the highly paid and ultra covert, RTA special ops road building unit.

Driving down the side of a hill while negotiating clusters of wheel warping craters, just doesn’t seem all that that safe to me.

So I’m guessing it’s the half-assed attempt at road building in this state, which why we are so often presented with lavish 8-lane roads, which are sign posted with a maximum speed of just 70km/h. That just wouldn’t work in Germany.

And what about the ever growing numbers of drivers who continue to join the high and mighty “60km/h in right hand lane club”, many of whom appear to be life members with absolute immunity from the rathe of the Highway Patrol. What happened to the “keep left unless overtaking” rule in the learner driver’s handbook?

But heaven help you, should you fail to take your eyes off the road and check the speedometer for the 99


time in a single hour, and you’re caught doing 8km/h over the RTA’s maximum speed limit.

The result is, you could lose your licence, your job, and a truckload of money, which certainly won’t go to the ‘better roads” budget, at least not in this cash haemorrhaging state of ours.

It’s a vastly different story in that Mecca of speed Germany, where fast is safe, and 110km/h in the slow lane will get you high beam flashes and some very angry stares from Ma and Pa Kettle, who are just as likely to be of your grandparents age.

I know this for a fact, as on our way to drive the world’s fastest car (Bugatti Veyron) in 2008, our Ford Mondeo had a puncture and the space saver tyre was only rated to 80km/h, which we tried to adhere to until the level of angst by other drivers became almost dangerous.

But drivers in Germany live under an entirely different set of rules that we Australia do, where “Speed alone is not the problem. It’s the wrong speed in a special situation”, says Ulrich Mellinghoff, Vice President of safety development for Mercedes-Benz.

He goes on to say, “With speed limits you will not stop those situations. If you have fog and drive at 100km/h, which is allowed, you are really high in danger of having an accident. On the other hand, if you drive at 250km/h on the German autobahn in clear weather conditions with no traffic, its not really a risk and no accidents happen those situations” he says.

He’s right, with over 4000 kilometres logged over the last two years, at speeds well over 250km/h on the German autobahn road system, we have never witnessed a single accident.

For a start, the left lane is the fast lane in Europe, which means, that if you have a clear stretch ahead of you and you happen to be behind the wheel of an Audi R8 tuned by ABT, you can quite safely wind it up to 321km/h or cruise at 270km/h without giving it a second thought.

You may even pass a slower moving car of the AutobahnPolizei, who won’t blink an eye as you blast on by them.

But should you pass another driver on the right hand lane at high speed, then look out, as you might end up behind bars. Overtaking on the right (that would be the opposite ‘left side’ in Australia) is treated as a criminal offence in Germany, given the potential catastrpohe it could cause on the autobahn.

It’s just not something that German drivers do (or drivers in Italy, France and Spain for that matter). In fact, nine times out of ten, you won't need to flash your lights at the car in front of you, as they will instinctively move to the right without any hesitation whatsoever.

Like I said, it’s a vastly different driving culture from what has been allowed to develop in Australia, where more often than not, anything over 80km/h is considered unsafe on multilane roads.

Mr Mellinghoff makes an important point, which is not being heard by Australian authorities, when he says, “motorists often fall into the trap of thinking they are driving safely because they are driving under the speed limit”

He says, “The German road toll has reduced significantly in the past 20 years, despite much higher road speeds” and the 20 million drivers on their roads.

He also stresses the importance of accident avoidance systems like Electronic Stability programs and ABS in reducing the number fatalities. Like he says, “It makes more sense to avoid an accident than reducing the severity of it”. But that's common sense isn't it?

But the real problem in Australia is that our cars are too old. The average Aussie car is no less than 10 years old, which is alarming when you consider that many of our youngest and most inexperienced drivers have no ABS or Electronic Stability fitted to their cars.

While I fully support traffic enforcement, can I suggest that the RTA’s singular obsession with speed needs to be tempered with significantly better road funding.

In addition, and perhaps even more important, is the requirement for the RTA to work with the NSW State Government on incentives to get our kids into newer (and preferably 5-star) cars as a matter of extreme urgency.

We have some fine roads in NSW, namely the freeway from Sydney to Newcastle and the M5 towards Bowral and beyond to Tumut. These roadways are examples of quality road building and are capable of accepting much higher speeds than the maximum speed limit of 110km/h.

I can only hope that RTA focus more on what the experts from Germany are saying, and less on revenue collecting. Only then might driving become as enjoyable as it is in many parts of Europe, where the responsibility for driving at the right speed, is put squarely on the shoulders of the driver.

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald