Life - and death - in the fast lane

17th February 2004, Comments 0 comments

It can be terrifying on Germany's Autobahns where there are essentially no speed limits and where some drivers try to push slower vehicles out of their way. But, as Douglas Sutton reports, this practice has been at the centre of a trial following a horrific accident.

The Autobahn: some see it as a battleground between the strong and the weak

His nickname is "Turbo Rolf", but the 34-year-old man who was this week sentenced to 18 months jail without parole represents a breed of drivers out on Germany's no-speed-limit superhighways who make life hazardous - and at times deadly - for other motorists.

But the court hearings in the manslaughter charges against Rolf Fischer once again pointed to the high-speed stakes out on Germany's famous Autobahn, or superhighway.

Early on the morning of 14 July 2003 a man was driving a dark, high-powered Mercedes Coupe sports car at a speed estimated at 220 to 250 kilometres per hour on the A5 Autobahn near Karlsruhe.

At that speed, it easily overtook other cars on the road, and then it quickly closed in on and tailgated a tiny Kia car going much slower in the left lane.

That car's driver - a 21-year-old woman with her two-year-old daughter in the back seat - was so frightened by the apparition of the coupe surging up from behind her that she jerked her steering wheel hard to the right, losing control of the car.

Picking through the wreckage after A5 accident

The car swerved off the highway, rolled over and then hit several trees, killing the young mother and her daughter instantly. According to witnesses, the dark Mercedes sped on, never slowing down.

The case has stirred the passions of motorists around Germany, again raising a hue and cry by many for Germany to finally impose speed limits on its superhighways.

Others, however, have come to the accused driver's defence - putting at least some of the blame on the victim. This group are part of the "left-lane faction" - those who, with their high-powered cars, think the left lane is meant for games of survival of the fastest.

Details of the July 2003 road crash again point up to the speeds which German motorists routinely travel at on their highways.

While Fischer - a driver for DaimlerChrysler - was tearing along in a company test car with almost 500 horsepower under the hood, his victim also was not exactly crawling along.

Experts estimated she was driving at 150 kilometres per hour - a speed well in excess of the limits on all of Europe's other highways.

As to the question of how prosecutors estimated that Fischer was driving 220 to 250 kilometres per hour, this is based on the testimony of two witnesses: One said he was driving at 200 kilometres per hour, the other at 220. Both said the dark Mercedes coupe easily passed them up moments beforehand.

One witness said that he watched how the Mercedes almost appeared to be nudging the tiny Kia car just before it swerved off the road and crashed.

*quote1*In the uproar over the incident last summer, some people writing in letters to local newspapers were from the "left-lane faction", arguing that the young woman also bore some blame - because 150 kilometres per hour is too slow for that lane.

After the accident, police authorities searched for several hundred Mercedes cars meeting the general description, including an unconventional exhaust pipe and with a "BB" on the license plates - the initials standing for the town of Boeblingen, just south of Stuttgart, where DaimlerChrysler is based.

Several weeks later, "Turbo Rolf" - the nickname given to him by his test-driver colleagues for his driving style - was arrested. His car was the only one which fitted the eyewitnesses description, and the defendant also had attracted suspicion towards himself by having made several inquiries about the fatal crash.

The court was also told that Fischer had changed his story in some key details about when he was driving on the A5 Autobahn and learned that on the day of the fatal crash, work colleagues reported that he looked pale and that he had got in touch with his lawyers.

In court, he admitted being on the highway on the morning of the fatal crash, but claimed he had passed the scene only after the accident had happened. He said he saw there was already a "blue light" - meaning a police car - at the crash site.

The Mercedes test driver said it was a "mystery" to him why other court witnesses said he was an aggressive driver. The "Turbo Rolf" nickname, he said, was because he was used to driving high-powered cars.

"I drive quick - but safe, always in keeping with the traffic situation," Fischer told the court, which also ordered his license to be suspended for a year after he was released from prison.

Regardless of the verdict, the debate will go on about the rough play out on Germany's superhighways - especially the left lane.

February 2004

Subject: German news, autobahns 

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