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If you’re a law-abiding citizen living in most countries on Earth, the idea of driving as fast as you want on public roads is little more than a fantasy. And even though some sports cars on the market can exceed 200mph (320km/h), there are only a few places in the world where you can push them to their limits.
Frustration over speed restrictions is currently revving up in Australia’s Northern Territory. With a vast landmass spanning 1.3 million sqkm and a population of just more than 200,000 people, the Northern Territory became one of the latest regions in the world to adopt legal limits regulating driving speed in 2007. But now those limits are coming under review. The new centre-right Country Liberal government has commissioned an impact study examining whether a return to the old, limitless ways might make sense. The two sides of this issue falls along party lines, as it was the former centre-left Labor Territory government that put the policy of open speeds to rest six years ago.
While we’ll have to wait on the prospect of legally racing across Australia’s dusty terrain, let’s take a look at the places where you can accelerate to your fast-beating heart’s desire – without even breaking the law.
The German autobahn
Germany’s highway system is famous for its stretches of unbridled speed. While about half of the nearly 13,000km autobahn is regulated by speed limits, the rest merely has a recommended limit of 130km/h. A minimum speed – of 60km/h – is imposed, though, to ensure that slow vehicles stay off the highway.
The unrestricted sections of the autobahn attract people from all over the world who crave a high-speed adrenaline rush. But speed does not come without risks, and not everybody thinks these roads should remain unregulated. In past years, the European Union has urged Germany to impose speed limits where there are none, arguing that this would improve safety and reduce carbon emissions. The Berlin-based non-profit Verkehrshclub Deutschland (Traffic Club Germany) has also repeatedly called for legal limits, which the organisation says could reduce traffic-related deaths and injuries each year by the hundreds. Those who support the lack of limits, though, compare Germany’s safety record with European countries that do have speed regulations. For instance, according to a 2007 World Health Organization report, Germany’s yearly number of traffic-related fatalities is around 6 deaths per 100,000 people, comparable with that of neighbouring Austria (8.3 deaths per 100,000 people), France (7.5 deaths per 100,000 people) and Switzerland (4.9 deaths per 100,000 people).
Germany does take measures to safeguard its motorways. The autobahn has its own dedicated police force called the Autobahnpolizei. Officers undergo intense training, often using high-speed driving simulators to learn how to navigate the autobahn and chase down law breakers. The Autobahnpolizei drive specially outfitted police cars and motorcycles made by BMW, Mercedes Benz and Audi, some of which are unmarked, allowing them to patrol undercover for reckless drivers.
The autobahn has also been engineered with safety in mind. Its roads were built to be thicker than typical highways – ranging from 55cm to 85cm in thickness, or twice as thick as typical highways elsewhere in the developed world – making them more able to handle large numbers of heavy cars driving at super-fast speeds. They were also built with limited degrees of incline, the flatness making it easier to drive fast.
- The left lane is for passing only; using the right lane to pass is strictly prohibited in Germany.
- The hard shoulder is for emergencies only. Stopping for non-emergencies is illegal.
- Your tyres must be rated for your car’s top speed. If you need to rent a car with snow tyres, ask the rental shop about acquiring a sticker for driving on the autobahn (which denotes your car’s maximum speed).
The Isle of Man
Located in the Irish Sea between England and Ireland, the Isle of Man is home to lush landscapes of green rolling hills, rocky cliffs and secluded beaches. Yet its pastoral countryside is far from sleepy. The island’s lack of a national speed limit means that the rural roads are full of thrills.
As in Germany, there is some debate over the unrestricted roads. But, when the issue was brought to a vote in 2006, there was still strong support among locals for keeping speed limits at bay.
One factor contributing to this British Crown Dependency sticking to its stance on speed may be the island’s long history with motorsports. In 1904, the governor decided to use public roads for car racing on the island, in part due to laws in the UK limiting drivers to 20mph. He saw it as a way to promote the island; and, more than 100 years later, his decision is still drawing tourists today.
The crown jewel of the isle’s flashy side is the Isle of Man TT, an annual motorbike event that’s been called the world’s most dangerous race (taking place 25 May to 7 June in 2013). Standing for Tourist Trophy, the TT attracts tens of thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts each year to watch a race along a 37-mile circuit of public roads – the race has resulted in nearly 150 deaths since its inaugural year in 1907. Speeds can get up to 200mph on the route, called the Mountain Course.
Another major race in the motorcycling world is the Manx Grand Prix, which will celebrate its 90th anniversary on the Isle of Man from 17 to 30 August 2013.
If bikes aren’t your thing, you can rent a sports car and cruise around the island. Just remember, there are speed limits in the more built up and populated areas, so pay attention to road signs. Driving is on the left side of the road, following all the same rules as you’ll find in England (apart from the whole “do not speed” thing). In addition, the island is very strict about mobile phones and driving – talking or texting on your phone while driving is a criminal offense, which can garner a fine of up to £2,500.
Speed within limits
The whole notion of limiting automobile speed by law may have originated in 19th-century Britain. In 1865, a speed limit of 2mph was imposed for horseless carriages in the cities – 4mph in the country. For some places in the world, though, speed limits are a relatively new phenomenon.
In the US, the state of Montana only started enforcing speed limits in 1999 – after the state Supreme Court decided that the previous law counting on citizens to drive at a “reasonable and proper” speed was too vague. Now the maximum limit is 75mph.
In Australia’s Northern Territory, there was no legal speed limit until 2007. Since then, on major routes like the Stuart Highway, the upper limit has been 130km/h. But political leaders are once again pushing for a return to open speed limits, or at least increased limits, an undertaking that has plenty of both opposition and support.
Despite legal restrictions, both Montana and the Australia’s Northern Territory are still considered to have some of the world’s fastest roads due to their sprawling rural landscapes, which could be difficult for authorities to monitor constantly and consistently. The highest legal limits in the world, on the other hand, tend to max out around 140km/h, or about 86mph. These can be found, to name a few: in Poland, where highway speeds get up to 140km/h; in Texas, US, where a 41-mile toll road between the cities of Austin and San Antonio recently became the fastest in the US at 85mph; and in Bulgaria, where a law was passed in 2012 to increase the maximum speed on highways to 140km/h.
Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.