Commentary: Germany can teach Maine a thing or two about road safety

We have the ability now to reduce the number of car, bike and pedestrian accidents, but we have chosen not to do it. If we look around at how others do it, however, examples abound.

I lived in Germany between 1982 and 1984, and when I landed, I was immediately told to wear my seat belt – not just because otherwise they’d fine me, but also because if I got in an accident someone else caused, I’d be legally liable for your own injuries. “They pay to fix your car; you pay to fix your face.” Click.

In Germany, pedestrians wait for walk signals. They don’t look up and down the street to see if they can skip across against the signal. That would be illegal, and dangerous to them, and they’d have to pay to fix the dent in the car that hit them. Don’t jaywalk in Germany (or New York). Any questions?

In Portland, people jaywalk all the time. We saw a guy get hit one night. He ran between parked cars across the street, dented the hood and cracked the windshield of a white Mercedes, and lay in the road. We helped him until the ambulance came. He said, “I was in the crosswalk.” In unison, we said, “No, you weren’t.”

In Portland, cars cross the stop-line and sometimes block the crosswalk, waiting for the light. If we got a bill in the mail for that violation, we’d be furious. I was driving in Germany and came up to a stoplight in Frankfurt. Being a Mainer, I eased across the stop line, and a camera flashed on my license plate. Two weeks later, I got the photo and a bill in the mail. I haven’t crossed a stop-line since then.

In Germany, you keep cash in your glove box with your registration. If you’re caught speeding, you can pay the fine immediately to the cop who stopped you. If you wanted them to send you a bill instead, it would have been double.

Germans love their cars, and every two years white-gloved technicians inspect your car thoroughly and give you a list of things to fix before you drive it again. They don’t fix the car; they only inspect it, so they don’t need to “find things” to get paid. It’s just their job, they take it seriously, and they do it well so you can drive safely on the Autobahn. My Toyota cruised at 100 mph, but I had to watch the rearview mirror for BMWs and Mercedes coming up behind me at 120-plus mph, flashing their headlights, telling me to get out of the passing lane.

Germans drink more beer than anyone, and they hold beer and wine festivals all year long. The huge beer tents are packed and everyone is drinking, eating, singing and having fun. At each table full of revelers, however, sits a grandma drinking spetzi. (OJ and Coke – delicious!) She’s the designated driver for her group. Everyone there knows that all the roads out of town have sobriety checkpoints and that the police check every car. If Grandma’s driving, you’re fine. If you’re caught driving drunk, you lose your license and your car, and you go to jail.

Germans bicycle a lot. They wear helmets, use hand signals and obey traffic signals and signs, both because the law requires it and because they are legally responsible for themselves and the damages they cause if they don’t obey it. What a concept!

I was stopped at a light in Saco (behind the stop-line), and when the green light flashed, I slowly started forward. A bicyclist flashed right in front of me. He was on the sidewalk, going against traffic, with no helmet. I remember he smiled at me, knowing he had narrowly avoided death. I still have post-traumatic stress disorder from that.

Germans love their motorcycles, and they wear helmets, leather suits and boots, because bikes are inherently dangerous, and they are personally responsible for their injuries if they don’t, even if someone else caused the accident. It’s just the opposite here: no helmets, no leathers, no boots and no responsibility for the person creating those risks.

We have the technology to enforce speed limits and stop cellphone use in moving cars (mine’s on auto-silence, and every phone has that feature). We could enhance and enforce our car, pedestrian and bike safety laws as other cities, states and countries do. We only need the curiosity to look at options elsewhere and the political will to modify and enforce the safety laws that govern our travel behavior.

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