International Comparisons

In my post about laws and traffic laws, Erik of No Pasaran! took me to task in Comments. According to him, I’m an Allyagottado — i.e. a slave to the law. (I should mention that Erik and I go back a long, long way; he’s one of the good guys, a rarity in Eurostan, and I don’t take his criticism of me to heart.) Read his comment first, but let me say at the outset that it’s basically a rant against traffic speed limits, with which I don’t disagree that much. (I should also point out that the entire point of my post was that apart from traffic laws, which to me are a minor irritation, I’m anything but an Allyagottado, but whatever.)

But that’s not what I want to talk about today. One of Erik’s points was that speed limits, or rather the lack thereof on Germany’s autobahns makes for efficient driving and few crashes. That’s by and large true, although when you do see a crash on the autobahn, it’s a doozy: seldom fewer than four or five cars totally wrecked, and multiple cases of serious injury and/or deaths. However, there’s a point that is seldom made by people who love the no-speed limit on Germany’s highways: the Germans know how to drive. And that’s a very salient point, because to get a driver’s license in Germany, you don’t just get handed one after a couple weeks of driver’s ed in high school; you have to enroll in a State-authorized Fahrschule and pass both a theory- and practical examination (here’s a decent overview so I don’t have to go into detail). It is not a cheap process, it is extraordinarily difficult, and unlike here in the United States, the Germans treat driving very much as a State-granted privilege and quite definitely not as an individual’s right. It is quite common for licenses to be suspended, sometimes for life, after multiple traffic infractions, and with no appeal. (In Germany, if you get angry at another driver and just make a rude gesture, there’s a good chance that you’ll be photographed by one of the hundreds of thousands of traffic cameras on the autobahns — oh yes, we Americans would just love that degree of privacy invasion — and you’ll lose your German driver’s license, possibly forever if it’s not your first offense.)

To repeat: driving is treated in Germany far more strictly than it is treated Over Here. And thus a comparison of the two countries in this regard is not only difficult, but incongruent. “Why can’t we have highway speed limits like the Germans?” is answered simply by, “We could, if we wanted to live under a Germanic system of licensing and control.”

To get away from the Germans (something we should do as a matter of course anyway*); I’m always amused by people of the gun control persuasion who never tire of comparing the U.S. gunfire homicide rates with those of Japan (a favorite of theirs, by the way). “Why can’t we be more like the Japanese?” they wail as they wave around Japan’s 0.00000001% statistic. Well, we could, if we Americans were prepared to put up with the stifling social conformity and authority-worship of Japanese society, and the complete lack of a Second Amendment in our Constitution. But we wouldn’t, and shouldn’t.

Which brings us, finally, to the point of this particular post. Many foreign countries do certain things better than we do, or at least have it better than we do in certain respects. But as the above examples have shown, that superiority generally comes at a steep price, and is most often a price paid with a profound loss of personal freedom — or else, a profound loss of standard of living and quality of life — all of which are abhorrent to us.

If we are going to make an honest comparison, therefore, I’m not sure we Americans come off that badly, all things considered.

Oh, and Erik, if you read this: I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find too many instances in my writings where I “reflexively defend the authorities”any authorities. But hey, if it helps you make your argument…

*Of course, I exclude my German Readers from this observation because to a man, they are my kind of people: hard-working, law-abiding, freedom-loving and lovers of firearms, to name but a few common attributes. (And to Reader Sam R. in particular, over in Germanland: Vielen dank  für Ihre Großzügigkeit, if you’ll excuse my schreckliches Deutsch.)


  1. There *are* a lot of things that other countries do better than us. The problem is that they don’t always scale up to our population or land area.

    It’s easy to forget that the US is the worlds third largest country population wise. (We are also third largest in land area depending on whether you consider Tibet to be part of China or not.)

    Take that whole “Why can’t we be more like the Japanese?” thing. We probably could except for, not only the social conformity, but the racial and demographic homogeneity thing as well. We are probably one of the most diverse countries on the planet. I think we do pretty well all things considered.

    However, I must add that I thoroughly enjoy myself every time I visit Germany. Other than on my first trip over there almost getting run over by a bicyclist in Erlangen because *I* was standing in the bike lane, I have not had a negative incident.

    1. Agreed. I went to Taiwan several years back, and was impressed with their mass transit systems (especially the bullet train).

      But you need a certain level of population density for that sort of thing to work.

  2. One point worth making is that the eleventy billion traffic cameras and such are a fairly recent addition to the autobahns, and while I don’t have any hard figures to support it, I’d be willing to bet their primary use is finding idiots incorrectly using lanes, trucks doing the same, and suchlike. Last time I was there, driving was bliss– save for one instance where a commercial truck pulled into the fast lane and blocked me. It was promptly pulled over for doing so.

    However, you could side-step the whole Germans-love-authority concept and use Italy as an example. Speed limits exist. Absolutely no one pays them any mind. The cops don’t care. Licensing requirements are similar to the US (much smarter in some cases– with patentino licenses for tiny bikes and cars as early as age 14). Traffic fatalities are roughly half of what they are in the US (and only slightly higher than Germany). And while the Italian.. ur.. passion causes some pretty notable traffic jams, I had an easier time getting around in Rome than Manhattan.

  3. Here’s another interesting view on licensing which I picked up from an America site:

    A licence is what you get
    when the Government steals
    your rights away from you
    and then sells them back.

    1. In regards to the highways, who built the roads, and who maintains them?
      If I build & maintain my own private racetrack, would it not be reasonable if I require you to prove to me that you can safely operate a vehicle on the track?
      Would it also be reasonable for me to have your car inspected before letting you drive on the track?
      And wouldn’t it be reasonable for me to charge you money for using my track?

      Roads, highways, and bridges are something that the public has to pitch in to build- note that the Constitution actually allows the government to take property away from private citizens for this purpose. “Establishing post roads” is one of the few roles the government has.
      Being publicly owned, that means that the representatives of the public (the government) get to make the rules on who uses it.

  4. German driving laws work because they apply to Germans. Japanese weapon laws work because they apply to the Japanese. Apply both to Iraq, and you will have disaster (or really just general ignoring of their existence.) This is one of my main objections to wholesale immigration rather than controlled rates — American laws work for Americans, but when you import large groups of people who aren’t natural fits for those laws, you are going to have problems.

    As for speed limits, speed doesn’t kill. Differences in speed kill. If we were serious about safety, our interstates would have speed ranges by lane — 45-55 in the right lane, 55-65 in the middle, 65 min in the hammer lane. The only reason I suggest that is because Americans are too damned stupid and self absorbed to manage “slower traffic keep right” and “Left lane for passing only” even when there are signs up in Texas demanding it. I do feel good the few times I’ve seen a state trooper yank an asshole doing 5 under and being passed on the right out of the left lane and give them a ticket, though.

  5. When I lived in German for three years in the late 60’s, in Erlangen, the U.S. Army had me spend a week in driving school, taught by a German. We learned that on a multi-lane road you never, never ever, pass on the right, only on the left so that anyone in the left lane can pull into the right lane to let faster traffic go by without worrying about being hit by a driver in the right lane. Second, if you are passing traffic in the left lane and a faster car comes up behind you blinking headlights you will get a ticket if you don’t pull to the right as soon as possible. Yes, drivers in Germany are serious about driving and in the old days you would see a green police VW by the side of the road watching traffic and drivers and then a kilometer or two down the road a green police Porsche with a helmeted driver ready to chase down those who do not obey. It was fun to drive with traffic where drivers understand the rules.

    The German’s were stringent about the vehicles passing safety inspections including taking the wheels off to inspect brake pads and all work on their cars had to be done by licensed mechanics and when cars no longer passed inspection they were allowed to sell them to U.S. servicemen because that was just the way it was.

    If I had to live anywhere else in the world besides Texas I would chose Bavaria because I was always treated well by those folks when I tried to speak German with my limited ability and the food is good and the beer is great. I think the key to getting along in other cultures is number one, don’t be an asshole American and then learn to appreciate the differences between their culture and ours.

    1. OT,
      I would have absolutely no problem living in Bavaria, either. I loved the place. Ever been to Passau?

  6. Old Texan, Erlangen is one of my very favorite towns. The Army base is now gone. A lot of it has been taken over by Siemens but most of the base housing has been converted into apartments. I never encountered an overtly unfriendly person there and nearly everyone speaks English – some better than mine. (…I am a hillbilly from KY so that’s a pretty low bar.)

    I would modify your last statement to be: The key to getting along *anywhere* is number one, don’t be an asshole. Period.

    Phelps, I was driving through the Tampa Florida area a few years ago and was stuck in one of those rolling roadblocks on I-75. It was four lanes one way and there was some asshole stopping up the left lane causing everyone else to maneuver around him to the right. A Florida state trooper came up from behind with his lights going until he got directly behind the slug. The slug started moving to the right one lane at a time until he and the trooper were both in the far right lane. At that point, the trooper turned off his lights, passed the guy on the left and scooted on down the road. He didn’t give the guy a ticket – I guess the trooper had somewhere else to be – but the rest of us cheered because he broke up the logjam this moron was causing.

  7. re. the Old Texan’s comments on headlights. Here in South Australia ( and probably all of Oz) we now have police who seem ruled by quotas. So, a client was on the Freeway, in the faster of the 3 lanes, and flashed his headlights at the slow car in front. Got issued with a ticket for improper use of high-beam ! So, if we wish to flash the light, technically we should use low-beam.
    And as a chap who does a lot of country-miles, I rather think that the ordinary driver’s licence should not allow the diver to exceed 80 kph (50 mph). Precious few people know that E=mv2, and what that means for braking distances etc.
    What I really want is one of the Aston-Martins with twin forward machine-guns and a rocket launcher. Grrrr

    1. “What I really want is one of the Aston-Martins with twin forward machine-guns and a rocket launcher.”

      Monty, you can stick around. I like the way you think. Although I think a single machine-gun would suffice, and run through yer ammo less quickly.
      Not that I’ve thought much about the topic, of course.

  8. While I don’t advocate anything like the German degree of rigor, I do think that driving tests out to be a little harder. I’m a mediocre driver, yet both times I’ve taken a state driving test (I gave up my license while living in DC, because I was going to get somebody killed, probably me. Traffic in DC is deranged.) I’ve passed THE FIRST TIME.

    And there are people on the road who had to go through multiple times. Considering my automotive ineptitude (I don’t have a lot of accidents, but I drive with my low level of talent firmly in mind) the idea that there are worse people loose on the roads is a tad frightening.

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