Car-aoke | #6

“I can’t drive 55” by Sammy Hagar.

Few other everyday objects have shaped modern music as much as the car. In this column, our editors regularly write about songs that tell a car-related story. Some of them have even gone down in music history. But by no means all of them ...

3 min reading time

by Christian Scholz, Editor
published on February 04, 2020

Germany is a peaceful country. Here, everything more or less runs along in an in a regulated manner . There’s only one area in which people’s emotions regularly boil over: discussions about a general speed limit on the nation’s highways (“Autobahn”). Germans are more divided on this question than on many others. That’s because in this country of high-powered cars from Sindelfingen, Zuffenhausen, and Ingolstadt many people consider “freie Fahrt für freie Bürger” (free movement for free citizens — a demand the Conservative Party once put on its posters) as sacrosanct. After all, this country of poets, thinkers, and drivers is almost the only one in the world where you can drive at unlimited speeds whenever the traffic permits: German traffic law does not come with an actionable speed limit for the Autobahn, but only with the recommendation not to exceed 130 km/h. By contrast, the hard and fast limit on almost all European highways is 120 or 130 km/h, and in the Netherlands the daytime speed limit has just been reduced to 100 km/h. In Germany, nothing has changed: Last October the Bundestag voted down a draft law presented by the Greens that would have limited highway speeds to 130 km/h.

And what’s the situation like in the country that calls itself “the land of unlimited opportunities” — the United States with its endless highways? Depending on what state you’re in, the speed limit is somewhere between 70 and 75 mph — in other words, between 112 and 120 km/h. Germans who laugh at this and think it means driving at a snail’s pace on highways such as Interstate 80 between New York and San Francisco should listen to the best-known solo song of Sammy Hagar, who went on to sing with the Van Halen band: “I can’t drive 55” on his 1984 album “VOA.” 55 miles per hour is the equivalent of 88.5 kilometers per hour. This was the national speed limit ordered by the Nixon administration in 1974 because of the oil crisis of the early 1970s. In 1973 the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) declared an embargo against the United States. As a result, the price of a barrel of oil rose from three to more than five dollars. Surprisingly, about three fourths of Americans initially approved of this speed limit. However, during the following years resistance to it grew. The strict new speed limit was still in force in 1984, but fewer and fewer drivers adhered to it, expressing their protest by stepping on the gas.

Sammy Hagar provided this protest movement with the appropriate soundtrack, singing, “When I drive that slow, you know it's hard to steer. And I can't get my car out of second gear. What used to take two hours now takes all day. Huh — It took me 16 hours to get to L.A.!” And that fits right in with the lifestyle of the 1980s in the United States: faster, higher, farther! The economy was booming, the country’s status as the cultural, political, and military world power Number One was firmly established, and the American Way of Life was spreading out across the whole world — even in the crumbling communist countries of the Eastern bloc. Everything is possible if you want it — that was the credo. Who would dare to put a brake on a country like that? “Take my license, all that jive, I can't drive 55!

Did this song ultimately play a role in the fact that the speed limit was raised shortly after the album came out? That’s still a matter of speculation. The Reagan administration abolished the 55 mph rule in 1987, and in the mid-1990s the responsibility for setting speed limits was finally entrusted to the individual states. According to German standards, it’s still not possible to drive really fast on US highways. However, this has not affected either the myth of unlimited freedom or the sales of high-powered fast cars in the United States — including cars from good old Germany.

Christian Scholz

drives a Mercedes-Benz C 220d (combined fuel consumption: 5.0 l/100 km; combined CO₂ emissions: 133 g/km*). It’s quite fuel-efficient and he drives at moderate speeds most of the time. However, Christian personally doesn’t think a national speed limit is necessary. That’s partly because he too sometimes enjoys driving a bit faster if the traffic situation permits.

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