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Green Concerns May Curb Germans' Need to Speed


LACKING any O.J.-like drama to captivate them, Germans are spending the dog days of summer getting revved up over whether to introduce speed limits on the fabled autobahn.

Since founding the federal republic, Germans have taken great pride in making cars built to last and then going out on the road and driving them fast. Just as Americans cherish the right to bear arms, many Germans prize the ability to ``floor it'' with impunity.

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Germany is the only European Union nation without a speed limit, a source of consternation at EU headquarters in Brussels. The EU is exploring ways to reduce auto emissions and union officials say speed limits would help cut unwanted exhaust.

It took this summer's searing heat to create a conundrum for Germany's pedal-to-the-metal crowd. Temperatures here have consistently exceeded 85 degrees F., which may be standard during a Boston or New York summer, but is a natural occurrence rare in northern Europe.

The hot weather has spawned smog that has blanketed much of the baking country. The rising smog levels, in turn, threaten to erode the earth's ozone layer. Down on terra firma, the smog situation is causing two powerful constituencies in Germany to square off: the ``greens'' vs. the ``leadfoots.''

Environmentalists, sensing that opposition to speed limits is weakening, have pressed the issue, arguing that reducing speeds would lower auto emissions and thus ease the ozone erosion.

Auto speed has little to do with increasing or decreasing air pollution, shoot back the no-limit advocates - led by powerful automotive lobbies, such as the ADAC, a German motorists' association.

For many politicians, taking a determined stance in the speed-limit debate would seem hazardous to one's electability. A firm position would risk alienating either side, both of which comprise powerful blocs of voters.

But despite the political risks, several of Germany's states are considering local highway limits. The state of Hesse, which includes the financial hub of Frankfurt, already has asked motorists to voluntarily obey what seems to them a Draconian limit of about 55 m.p.h. on highways during smog-alert days. A majority of motorists have complied with the restriction, according to news media reports.

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And some prominent politicians apparently feel the time may be ripe for a nationwide speed limit. Rudolf Scharping, leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, last week called for a nationwide limit of about 80 m.p.h. on highways and 20 m.p.h. in urban areas. He has since backtracked a little on the issue. But his call nonetheless intensified the debate.

For the uninitiated, the autobahn can be more a frightening - or frustrating - than an exhilarating experience. As a driver, it can seem that no matter how fast you go, there is always someone on the road who can go faster. Being behind the wheel can be nerve-wracking. Drivers have to watch their rearview mirrors for charging cars flashing their lights, impatient to pass.

At the same time, the autobahn is infamous for its traffic jams. Especially on summer weekends, it's not unusual for cars to be backed up for miles, meaning delays that last hours.

While such a situation could prove a recipe for carnage among volatile motorists in the United States, Germans seem to take the jams in stride. It is rare for people here to lean on the horn even a little.

Mr. Scharping's call for a speed limit represents a total reversal of his previous position on the question. Only a couple of months ago, Scharping kept his distance from speed limits, considering it to be a political time bomb that could create a voter backlash and destroy his party's chances in October's federal elections.

Since June, however, the left-of-center Social Democrats have seen a dramatic erosion of popular support. And things are looking bleaker for them all the time. Polls show the popular appetite for a change of government has fallen significantly since the beginning of the year.

A steady economic recovery is only bolstering the reelection chances of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government. Unemployment is dropping slightly and the manufacturing sector is picking up. That's causing some economists to revise economic growth projections for 1994 to 2 percent, up from 1.5 percent.

Almost instantly, the speed-limit question has zoomed near the top of the list of major campaign topics. Scharping may hope to close the gap with his political rivals by staking out a position that is distinctly different from that of Mr. Kohl's coalition government, which favors no restrictions.

German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel, a member of the governing coalition who also heads the Free Democratic Party, has described Scharping's speed-limit call as an overreaction. He also tried to play on widespread popular wariness of the Social Democrats' intentions, saying Scharping's speed-limit flip-flop revealed a desire for ``total regulation on German roads.''

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