Who Decides What Speeding Is?
Car Magazine, July 2003, Michael Stahl

Somebody on a whole other continent asked me recently about the speed limit on motorways in Europe. Given that I travel around a bit, and like to think I know approximately everything about everything, I was happy to give him a concise and immediate answer.

"The autoroute limit in France is 80mph, but everybody does 105mph. Whereas, in Italy, the limit is also 80mph, which they're about to raise to 95, but only in some places, although it doesn't really matter where, because everyone does 125. And in Germany, on a lot of autobahns you can go absolutely flat as a maggot, fast as you want. Most people go about 105."

Shackled, like Britons, to an eagerly policed speed limit on his country's motorways, my friend couldn't believe his ears. And the hardest for him to hear was the bit about Germany. He'd been so comprehensively browbeaten by his government's anti-speed message, he was convinced that taking away the speed limit could only result in every vehicle rasping on its rev-limiter in top (cue sfx: Stuka dive-bomber) until it either ran out of fuel, disintegrated, or until everyone inside just sort-of spontaneously, umm, died for no evident reason.

"Well, uhh, no," I said. "People just seem to drive at whatever speed they feel safe, comfortable and in control."

It was spooky to realize that his government's 'road safety' electrode/testicle-interfacing had even managed to overwrite humanity's strongest instinct: survival. He seemed to be convinced that, although he is a father of two, he could no longer be trusted as an arbiter of his own, or anyone else's safety. "Phew, thanks for pulling me over, officer. I hadn't realized that I was currently in the grip of blood-curdling terror."

I was thinking about this earlier this year, when... You know what? I wasn't thinking about this at all earlier this year, when I raised my personal top-speed record to 190mph. My previous best had been 177-mph in a Porsche 928 GTS automatic, recorded during a motoring magazine's fast-fest almost 11 years earlier. I know that my 928 record would have been accurate enough to stand up in court because it was verified by radar - for once, actually being used in an educational capacity.

Can't say the same for my new record of 190mph, which was set in a Ferrari 575M Maranello. I hadn't set out to break any records, nor - need I convince you? - to try and kill my recently married, adequately paid and spiritually whole self, or anyone else. It was just a matter of everything coming into alignment for a few minutes, y'know? No big deal to anyone except myself.

As I said, I wasn't thinking too much about arbitrary numbers on signposts or what some chauffeur-driven, shiny-bum transport minister might have decreed in the sole interest of getting his melon on the telly. I wasn't debating the difference between 8omph and 95mph while I was doing 190mph.

I wasn't thinking about that, because I was thinking about driving the car. About the cool, lightly overcast skies above, the dry, wide and relatively smooth surface beneath me, the long and uninterrupted straight ahead, the wealth of information coming to me through sound and sensation, the lightness and delicacy of my inputs as kinetic energy and aerodynamics operated in another realm...

Basically, I was more focused than would be my friend, who must spend all his traveling time studying the speedometer and worrying about speed signs, fixed cameras, mobile cameras, marked patrol cars, unmarked patrol cars and whatever other intelligence-insulting terror tactics are being employed in his country.

So I've now got my personal, top-speed telltale set at 190mph, and I'm not going to say in which country I did it. And that's the whole point I'm making. If I told you that this straight, dry, near-deserted stretch of road were a motorway in Britain, chances are that you'd be appalled and outraged. If these very same conditions were repeated on an Italian autostrada, you'd think me a bit irresponsible, but probably not exactly the spawn of Satan. And if it were on a German autobahn, you'd just go, "Yeah, so why didn't you get the 200, nancy boy?"

Years ago I saw one of those piss-poor television programs, The World's Worst Drivers, or some such. It was about half-an-hour of car chases, people driving the wrong way around roundabouts. Jack Russell terriers tied to the rear bumper doing 70, that sort of thing. Either way, it looked like a value-added proposition for the traffic police, who chased after the motorists, fined them and then sold the footage to a TV production company.

Anyway, on this show they had footage of some guy going for V-max in a Corvette somewhere in the United States. He was going so fast, and was so far out in the desert, that they were having to film him from a helicopter. The narrator said something like, This driver, surely one of the world's worst, was chased by our chopper at 160mph!' Just as he was saying that, I was thinking that to drive a piece of crap like a Corvette at 160mph, he must be pretty good.

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