miércoles, 12 de septiembre de 2012

Autobahnen: the myth of velocity

The German motorways have an acknowledged fame worldwide for different reasons. The BAB (Bundesautobahn) is the greatest and most advanced network of motorways of the European continent – where cars still don’t pay a toll. 50 % of this network has conditional or local speed limits, the rest (aprox. 6.000 km) still don’t have any speed limits although the German government recommends circulation at a maximum of 130 h/km.

In fact, Germany is the only country in the world, where there are still motorway sections without any speed limits. And this is why the myth was born, which has extended itself among many drivers, some of which make pilgrimages to the Teutonic countries only to enjoy driving a high top class car without speed limits. This kind of tourism is quite significant among North Americans and Asiatics. We cannot ignore that for some persons, the emotion to go on full throttle is seductive, they feel a certain liberation and satisfaction when they reach speed limits that provoke high adrenaline levels; and this necessity is what has created the myth.

In this post I will try to de-mystify an idea which is quite common in many persons who either haven’t circulated in Germany or who haven’t informed themselves sufficiently about the characteristics the German traffic has on its Autobahnen.

The history of the Autobahnen goes back to the beginning of the last century – during the decade of the 20s the Germans were considering a change in their existing mobility model for the inter-urban traffic flows, when they passed a great part of the traffic from the railways to the roads. Highway engineers like Robert Otzen or Piero Puricelli have established the first designs and concepts on which the future Autobahnen would be based. The first motorways to connect the country were the A5, the A7 and the A9 from North to South. A curiosity of the German methodology is the sense of the numeration, as the motorways with odd numbers have the direction North-South whereas the motorways with an even number have the direction East to West. The association which headed the development of these infrastructures was called “Autobahnprojekt Hamburg-Frankfurt-Basel” (motorway project Hamburg-Frankfort- Basel) which in 1933 had been dissolved into the “Gesellschaft zur Vorbereitung des Reichsautobahnbaus” (association for the preparation of the motorway construction of the Reich) with the objective to adapt itself to the model of motorway construction proposed by the national socialism: the “Reichsautobahnen” which was headed by the German engineer and military professional Fritz Toth. After World War II, the reconstruction works were initiated and the most modern and reliable motorway network of Europe was created.

Why can we circulate so fast on the German motorways?

The answer can be found mainly in three aspects: in their design, their execution and their maintenance. The pavement of the German motorways is of high quality. Here its thickness has to be distinguished, which can ranch between 50 and 85 cm and which has a special pavement to support the heavy traffic, for which reason it is of a considerable stability and durability. The asphalt is also of a high quality with characteristics that bestow it with a longer durability compared to those used in other countries. The asphalt in these platforms have an excellent drainage especially designed against the erosion caused by rain and ice, which are very common in these latitudes. The pavements use to have an inclination of 2,5 % to one of their exterior sides and so canalize the water to a water basin where it is stored for a better environmental control. The average profile of these motorways has a very flat levelling which generally does not exceed 4 % and its curves have wide angles suitable for high speed.

The German motorways dispose of excellent traffic control systems: television cameras, pillars with electronic displays, radars, motion sensors, meteorologic sensors, intelligent transport systems which can modify the speed at the access roads to the big cities or because of an accident on the road or simply to inform the drivers about the incidents that produce themselves in the network.

Major thermal contrasts and the hard climatology oblige not only to an excellent execution of the construction works using good materials but also to an impeccable maintenance which guarantees the maximum security in extremely adversary conditions of snow, ice and rain. The maintenance of a motorway network with such a density of traffic is very complex and obliges to carry out constant repairs, the trimming of the vegetal elements and the prevention of the consequences of a complicated meteorology with for example such measures as a speedy distribution of salt on the driving surfaces. In Germany more money is invested per km of motorway than in the United States of America.

However, let us demystify…

Whoever goes to Germany thinking that once he has passed the frontier he can accelerate at a maximum will experience a great disappointment, because the German motorways also have speed limits on approximately half of its motorway network. For one or the other absent-minded driver it can be a problem to adapt to the sections of limited speed after driving over the sections without speed limit (which are indicated with a grey disk on white background notifying the end of the speed limit of 130 km/h). The speed limits ranch between 60 km/h and 130 km/h, although they can be lower on the sections of construction works or alternative routing. In Germany the traffic signs are respected (many foreigners are surprised by this behaviour, and to be honest, the Spanish are the first to do so…). Road safety is taught a lot in the schools and the result makes itself shown.

Let’s go on with the demystification; also the radars abound on the sections with speed limitations and make high quality photos of the driver and the number plate of the car, independently of the actual speed at which they go. The police cars usually are upper class vehicles (Mercedes, BMW, AUDI…) with engines that might be without the usually applied speed limitations and thus can exploit the complete engine power to pursuit the pilots of the amateur races.

The enthusiasts of high speed – as well as the rest – find themselves more frequently than they would desire within the annoying phenomenon what they denominate among themselves as “Stau”, congestions or traffic jams at the entryways to the big German metropolitan areas, although those also appear when there are construction works, or accidents or when one has the bad luck to coincide with a mass locomotion in the holiday period (luck that the holiday periods are different in the different German states). When we are in the middle of a “Stau” (a frequent situation on far journeys), the high velocities can achieve a magnificent 20-50 km/h if we are not halted completely.

In Germany's motorways are more frequently construction works.
Germany geographically is in the centre of the European Union and its motorways endure the greatest density of heavy road traffic on the continent. Those who have circulated on them know the “elephant races”, large queues of trucks overtaking one another which interrupt the traffic flow in the lane if there are few lanes. We also know those who request to pass on the left hand lane signalling with the light of their headlights (something completely forbidden), and something that goes together with the phenomenon of the rear-view mirror, where you see a motorist at some kilometres distance and after looking the other way for a few seconds, you are startled to find him at only a few centimetres of your wheels requesting to pass. The danger of high velocities is evident, it requires a high degree of concentration and produces a higher level of physical and mental fatigue. At such velocities braking is a lot more dangerous, the total braking time is much longer and increments itself nearly exponentially and deviations from the track are more common. The kinetic energy which accumulates itself at such velocities is catastrophical in the case of an accident even if one drives a high class car. In smaller cars at least from 160 km/h onwards the vibrations and the bad engine insulation cause the driver to lift his foot from the gas for fear that the car will fall apart.

Finally I would like to put to mind that when we floor the accelerator in a frontal crash at 200 km/h neither the airbag nor the seat belt are of any use whatsoever and the disaster is guaranteed. Driving at high speed normally is stressing, dangerous and also expensive, but… how can one convince a sentiment?

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