The scary part about speed – about travelling at a steady 230 km/h on the speed-limitless section of the German autobahn – is that you don't understand how fast you're going until you need to slow down.
At 230 km/h you're covering the length of an NHL hockey rink in less than one second. Your brain quickly recalibrates to the new velocity and it becomes serene.
How is it that Germans get to experience the freedom of speed daily, and here in Canada we are restricted to a snail-like 120 km/h? Even then we're technically breaking the law.
On the autobahn, road signs come into focus for a heartbeat, and then disappear. Vision narrows as you look only at what's directly ahead, watching all the moving pieces. What's far is already close.
Large airplanes can lift off the ground at speeds around 250-300 km/h.
A white speck on the horizon pulls into your lane. It's difficult to tell how fast it's going, but the speck is getting bigger. In the time it takes to move your foot from the accelerator to the brake pedal, your car has covered another hockey rink. The speck is a speeding SUV, at least by Canadian standards. If it's going roughly 150 km/h, it's like you're driving towards a brick wall at 80.
It's at this moment you realize how fast 230 km/h is, when you feel four little disk brakes try to slow down a couple tonnes of metal.
"Mass times velocity," you remember you physics teacher explaining, is momentum and now there's a whole lot of it. Slowing down takes much longer than you imagine, and it's not at all a serene experience.
Driving on the German autobahn is a badge of honour, a bucket list experience for many. Among drivers who've done it, the first question is always, "What's your record?" Which means, how fast have you gone (270 indicated in a 997.2 Porsche 911)?
The autobahn however, is not exactly the paradise we imagine. For one thing, only about half is unrestricted, according to a 2008 study by the European Transport Safety Council. As for the rest, 33 per cent has a permanent limit and the rest has temporary ones.
Just because a stretch of autobahn is unrestricted, doesn't mean you can go as fast as you like either. Traffic has been the main limiting factor in my experience. The sheer volume of cars on the road dictates your speed.
We could de-restrict the 401 through Toronto and Mississauga tomorrow but it wouldn't make a lick of difference most of the time.
German drivers are impeccably disciplined when it comes to staying over to the right. They move left only to pass. The left lane hog hardly exists in Germany, or, if she or he does, likely they're tourists.
Getting a driver's license in Germany is expensive and time consuming. But Germany is part of the EU and its borders are open to drivers with licenses granted by less scrupulous bureaucracies – such as Canadians.
A truck driver on a long haul from Spain might move over into the passing lane in front of a speeding wagon, having missed the "Now entering Germany" placard and the little round sign with a slash through it indicating, "Here be speed demons" on the unrestricted autobahn.
In most of the world, including Canada, the debate around speed limits centres on lowering, not raising them. In its 2015 global road safety report, the World Health Organization recommended, "When motorized traffic mixes with pedestrians and cyclists, the speed limit should be under 30 km/h."
There is pressure from within Germany to rein in speedsters too. In 2013, a politician from the Social Democratic party laid out a proposal to implement a blanket 120 km/h limit. It "revived a decades-old discussion in Germany," according to a story in The Guardian.
And last but not least is the elephant in the room: Unrestricted speed flies in the face of efforts to reduce fuel consumption and curb global warming. On a recent trip to Germany, a Nissan GT-R burned through a quarter tank of fuel in little more than 100 kilometres during a high-speed run. Turns out it takes a lot of energy to move a car the length of a hockey rink every second.
Yet, Canada has six road traffic deaths per 100,000 population, while Germany only has 4.3, according to a 2013 study by the WHO. In Canada, our laws focus on speed. Under Ontario's stunt-driving law, police can suspend a license for a week, impound a car and hand offenders a fine for up to $10,000 for going 50 km/h over the limit. Yet perhaps police should be focused instead on bad driving.
The elite autobahn polizei strictly enforce the rules of the road. Where there's no speed limit, enforcement is all about dangerous lane changes, passing on the right, distracted driving, weaving and other unsafe behaviour. It's illegal to run out of fuel on the autobahn, and if you do your license may be suspended for up to six months, according to the CAA. Tailgating is also strictly forbidden; drivers are expected to maintain a distance in metres of roughly half the speed they're travelling – 100 km/h/50 metres – and courts enforce the standard with stiff penalties.
I learned the reason why the hard way. You need to keep a lot of space to the car in front when you're travelling at more than 200 km/h. It's a lesson I'll never forget. It's not the unrestricted speed of the autobahn that matters, but the responsibility such freedom forces upon drivers. We could all learn a thing or two from a few hours on the autobahn, even if speed limits on Canadian highways are here to stay.
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