13 April 2017
Jailed for life – in a Berlin trial concerned with an illegal car race with a fatal outcome, the two accused have been convicted as murderers. But there’s one thing psychologist Christian Müller from TÜV NORD is convinced of: The harsh ruling will deter only a small minority of speeders. On “Carfreitag” (a play on words on the German for Good Friday, Karfreitag), the traditional get-together of the car-racing fraternity, petrol heads will in all likelihood once again be lining up to burn rubber on the roads for the thrill of speed. Why they do that and what will really help them stop is the subject of the following interview with Christian Müller.
#explore: Mr. Müller, in the wake of the new precedent set by the court in Berlin, the subject of speeding is once again a live issue. How would you assess the current situation?
Christian Müller: Sadly, it hasn’t changed. I don’t see an end to speeding any time soon, but nor does it seem to be increasing.
#explore: What makes a speeder tick?
Christian Müller: Particularly susceptible are young people in a certain phase in their life. They channel part of their developmental process through driving – it’s all about self-affirmation and proving themselves. And what young people find so attractive is exactly that: driving fast to compensate for a lack of success in other areas of life.
#explore: Are there other types of people who speed?
Christian Müller: Yes, absolutely. For example, there are those people who need the adrenaline rush. The spectrum here ranges from a quest for kicks that you could to some extent consider normal in developmental terms through to behaviour that is borderline pathological and addictive. For such people, they wouldn’t be able to drive sensibly even if they wanted to. But the proportion of those who don’t have their thrill-seeking behaviour under control is really very small. The scene is dominated by young men between 18 and 25.
„Some people will definitely be deterred by the verdict in the Berlin speeder-court case. But it won't make a big difference.“
#explore: Then, speeding is above all a question of age. Do people grow out of it?
Christian Müller: Yes, they really do. It takes different people different lengths of time of course, but I don’t personally know any 40-year-old speed freaks who take part in illegal road racing.
#explore: How can the speeders be stopped?
Christian Müller: One possible way would be the make the punishments more drastic. The maximum possible penalties allowed by the law must be exploited. The legislature and the judiciary have recognised the problem, and the penalties are beginning to ramp up. That has a certain deterrent effect, but of course it’ll never work for everyone; it’ll only touch those who have the highest level of self-control. This type of driver weighs up the costs and benefits in advance: How big is the risk that I’ll get caught? What’s the worst that can possibly happen?
#explore: Can you give us an example?
Christian Müller: Yes. The thought process might go like this: ‘Even if I don’t kill anyone but get caught speeding, I’ll be five years without my licence and will have to kiss my training goodbye because I won’t be able to get there.’ In this case, a serious penalty will, if anything, stop the individual concerned from screeching away from the traffic lights or arranging illegal road races via the Internet. But this isn’t a panacea for everyone.
#explore: What else can help?
Christian Müller: This type of speeder is very difficult to get through to, because, as long as nothing happens, they don’t feel it affects them. It would help them to be identified in advance as someone at risk – for instance in the context of a screening procedure at the driving school – and to be given individual psychological support: Why does this individual act on impulse? Why has he already experienced moments in the past when he couldn’t be sure of being able to control himself – for instance, in brawls, arguments or the like? But as far as I know, no work is being done anywhere in line with this principle.
#explore: What would you do to specifically address the problem of speeders?
Christian Müller: The first point on my agenda would be a proportionate increase in the density of traffic controls. For instance, anyone who ‘only’ takes part in an illegal road race and is identified and picked up by the police might well turn out to be someone who at some point has one or five human lives fewer on his conscience. Even if this is labour intensive, there’s a lot to be gained: You get the individuals before a worst-case scenario actually happens.
#explore: And point two?
Christian Müller: As I said earlier, higher penalties. When you compare us with other European countries, our penalties are really very mild. Speeding can quickly be downplayed as a trivial offence. But if a normal speeding offence were to cost you half a month’s salary, a trainee with a souped-up car might think twice about speeding. I also think that it would make sense to have an educational training module at driving schools.
#explore: How would you assess the verdict in the Berlin speeders trial?
Christian Müller: Some people will definitely be deterred. But I don’t think it will make a big difference. Maybe a third of all speeders will take notice; certainly no more than half.
#explore: Could a more useful approach be a longer driving ban?
Christian Müller: You hardly ever get bans of longer than two years. I'm all in favour of significantly longer bans than we’ve had in the past; they will hurt even more than a heavy fine - five years for sure, if need be even ten years. But I don’t think that a lifetime ban is a solution. Because, first of all, the prospect will only deter a certain percentage and, secondly, a lifetime ban will not take into account the possibility of a permanent change in behaviour. If a 25-year driver fatally injures someone, there’s no doubt that, at 35, he’ll be in a completely different phase in his life with much better social integration, which will allow him to drive again.
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ABOUT CHRISTIAN MÜLLER
Participants of illegal car races will have to face more severe punishments in the future claims Christian Müller, traffic psychologist of TÜV NORD and head of the medical-psychological institute of Rheinland by TÜV NORD. Harsher penalties will not scare off all speeders but at least they will be removed from traffic.
What is Carfreitag?
Carfreitag (a play on words on Karfreitag, the German for Good Friday) is a season opener and highlight for the highly-tuned car scene – and for the petrol heads. “Carfreitag” has for years now been the day for speeders not only to show off their souped-up cars but also to take part in illegal road races. One of the most famous meeting points is the Nordschleife (northern loop) of the Nürburgring. On Facebook alone, more than 300 proud car owners have already registered to take part.
In 2015, the police in the town of Limburg in the state of Hesse banned Carfreitag after more than 2000 cars had blockaded the town centre and even stopped traffic on the motorways the year before.
In 2005, a 25-year-old spectator was killed at an illegal road race in Bielefeld. During a race, a convertible bumped into a small car, which then went into an uncontrolled skid and ploughed at high speed into the crowd.
facts & figures
Although the final numbers for the accident statistics for 2016 are not yet known, the current projections are for around 3300 deaths and 400,000 injured. According to these statistics, one road user dies about every 2.5 hours on German roads. Alongside old-age pensioners, young adults are considered to be particularly at risk. According to the Federal Statistical Office, every seventh fatality in 2015 was a young person aged between 18 and 24. The most frequent cause was excessive speed. Every third death on the road – more than 1000 victims – is the result of excessively fast driving.