The speed limit on motorways is THE sacred cow of the Germans. Or rather its absence. In principle, you can drive as fast as you like, which is particularly appealing to foreign visitors. At this point, we want to look at the facts and take a look back: what was it actually like with speed limits in the past?

No speed limit on all German motorways?

With around 13,000 kilometres (8,000 miles), Germany now has the fourth-longest motorway network in the world. The front runner is China. A speed limit of 130 km/h (80 mph) applies on just over half of Germany's motorways.

A permanent speed limit applies on around 30 percent of the motorway network, while the remaining 20 percent are equipped with gantries on which a speed limit can be displayed depending on the traffic or weather situation.

Is 130 km/h on the motorway more accident-prone? Yes. Only around ten percent of traffic fatalities in a year occur on motorways, but most of them are on stretches without a speed limit.

Ferrari Enzo Autobahn Crash

Ferrari Enzo Autobahn Crash

History of the speed limit in Germany

At the beginning of the automobile's proliferation, the pace on German roads was still leisurely. In 1910, the speed limit in urban areas was 15 km/h (9 mph) for cars and 12 km/h (7 mph) for lorries, and from 1927 it was 30 km/h (20 mph) for cars and lorries. The road traffic regulations were initially a matter for the federal states.

The National Socialists then transferred legislative powers completely to the Reich. The first "Reich Road Traffic Regulations" repealed all regulations on speed limits on 8 May 1934. In addition to the abolition of motor vehicle tax, the aim was to boost sales of motor vehicles.

However, it was soon recognised where unchecked speeding was leading. In May 1939, speed limits were reintroduced due to the number of accidents: cars 60 km/h (37 mph) in urban areas, 100 km/h (62 mph) outside urban areas, lorries 40 and 70 km/h (25 and 43 mph). After the start of the war, the speed limits were reduced in October 1939 to 40 km/h (25 mph) in urban areas, 80 km/h (50 mph) outside urban areas for cars and 60 km/h (37 mph) for lorries. The 80 km/h limit also applied to the new Reich motorways.

BMW M4 near crash on the Autobahn

BMW M4 near crash on the Autobahn

Speeding without limits everywhere for five years

Things quietened down on West German roads in the mid-1950s. In 1953, all speed limits were abolished in the Federal Republic of Germany, even within built-up areas, where they were reintroduced on 1 September 1957. These 50 km/h (31 mph) limits still apply today.

Until the early 1970s, however, drivers were allowed to drive as fast as they liked outside built-up areas. However, due to the constantly rising number of road deaths up to 1970 (maximum number in 1970: almost 20,000), the so-called "safety speed limit" of 100 km/h (62 mph) was introduced on all rural roads (except motorways) with effect from 1 October 1972 as a large-scale trial until 31 December 1975. This speed limit, which is still in force today, was introduced outside built-up areas in 1976.

Autobahns, speed limits on German motorways?

Autobahns, speed limits on German motorways?

100 km/h on the motorway during the oil crisis

A speed limit on motorways was first widely discussed in the 1970s: During the first oil crisis, a general speed limit of 100 km/h (62 mph) also applied on motorways in the Federal Republic of Germany between November 1973 and March 1974 in order to save fuel. This led to popular debate and motoring magazines called for the measure to be withdrawn.

While the federal government at the time wanted to extend the speed limit, the Bundesrat opposed the plan. It was finally repealed and a speed limit of 130 km/h (80 mph) was introduced on motorways instead in 1974.

Incidentally, in the GDR there was always a general speed limit of 100 km/h (62 mph) on motorways, 80 km/h (50 mph) outside built-up areas and 50 km/h (31 mph) in built-up areas. However, the mostly dilapidated motorways in the GDR hardly allowed higher speeds. In addition, the number of vehicles per inhabitant was significantly lower than in West Germany.

Night traffic on German Autobahn

Night traffic on German Autobahn

Discussions about the 130 km/h speed limit

The issue of speed limits has been a hot topic in Germany for decades and the subject of lively debate. In recent years, climate protection in particular has been cited as a central argument. 

The coalition agreement concluded in 2021 by the current federal government consisting of the SPD, Greens and FDP explicitly rules out a speed limit. Federal Transport Minister Volker Wissing (FDP) also insists on this. In October 2023, he told "auto, motor und sport": 

"I can't understand why people keep discussing topics that have a small effect but maximum divisive effect in society. I think that at a time when there is a lot of uncertainty, we should concentrate on the things that will take us big steps forward and where we can take people with us. We also ruled it out in the coalition agreement, and that remains the case."

In June 2022, Wissing explained on Deutschlandfunk radio: "During the coalition negotiations, we dealt extensively with questions about what we are doing to achieve the CO2 targets in the transport sector, and the speed limit was not so important to any of the coalition partners that it would have found its way into the coalition agreement."

The Federal Environment Agency (UBA), on the other hand, is in favour of a speed limit on motorways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from traffic. According to the UBA, the introduction of a speed limit of 120 km/h (75 mph) on federal motorways would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from road traffic by 2.9 percent (minus 4.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents in 2018) by reducing the average speed.

Multilane Autobahn near Frankfurt Airport

Multilane Autobahn near Frankfurt Airport

More and more Germans in favour of a speed limit

For years, the majority of Germans rejected a general speed limit on motorways, but the number of those in favour of a speed limit has recently increased. In a survey conducted by the Automobile Club in 2023, 41 per cent voted against a speed limit and 54 per cent in favour. Other surveys show a similar mood.

At the beginning of the 1990s, there was already a temporary majority in favour of introducing a speed limit. The mood then changed again. It remains to be seen whether the issue will become a topic in the next federal election campaign in 2025.

Speaking of elections, the next one is coming up in Europe. The EU has no plans to standardise speed limits. To reduce accidents, the EU is relying on a technical solution in the form of Intelligent Speed Adaption (ISA). These are systems that often emit a distinctive beep as soon as the applicable speed limit is exceeded. The vehicles use traffic sign recognition with sat nav and/or camera for this purpose. From 7 July 2024, all new registrations in the EU must have this system on board.