The high price of auto congestion

ADAC vice president Erhard Oehm talks about the enormous costs of traffic jams and his aversion to car tolls

Frankfurt. Erhard Oehm, vice president for transport at ADAC, Germany's largest automotive club, laments the failure of Germany's transport management and says it costs the economy millions of euros a year.

Oehm, 68, has been chairman of the ADAC Hessen-Thueringen since 1989 and ADAC vice president for transport since 1995. Oehm has a doctorate in agriculture and has been a rally driver for many years. He spoke with Automobilwoche reporter Harald Hamprecht about German road traffic policies, modern telematics and Toll Collect.

What are the prospects for telematics systems in cars?

We are positive that telematics systems in the future will increasingly become part of the standard equipment. The biggest obstacle for further market penetration is cost. Motorists don't want to pay for road-traffic information. Most business models that are based on making drivers pay for their services have failed miserably. Carmakers have to make a few concessions and need to put together more attractive offers.

What are some of the success stories for telematics?

Traffic guidance systems that are being installed on motorways within urban areas reduce the number of accidents and enable more free-flowing traffic.

Is there a nationwide center coordinating all telematics projects?

No, unfortunately not.

How is the ADAC involved?

We are the cooperation partner for the "traffic-jam-free Hessen" campaign which was started by the regional state's government. We are also working on Car-2-Car communication. And ADAC has introduced a nationwide parking guidance system that was developed by Mercedes-Benz and BMW. We have 200,000 parking spaces in 37 cities. That way we can minimize the traffic caused by people searching for parking spaces in major cities. Not only do we operate induction loop detectors nationwide, but we also have about 100,000 traffic reporters. These are vehicles that collect traffic information and forward it to a traffic control center. This information is updated through free hotlines at radio stations. That way we generate by far the most reliable traffic reports in Germany.

Is this enough to make Germany traffic jam free?

Not by a long shot. We believe that the traffic volume forecast in the Federal Transport Infrastructure Plan has been undervalued. Specifically, East-West traffic will continue to increase due to the growing importance of eastern Europe's low-wage countries. Even with the most modern telematics systems, the volume of traffic jams can only be reduced by between 10 and 15 percent at the most. Therefore the huge gaps in the German motorway network have to be filled and existing arterial roads have to be extended to six lanes.

What effect do you hope the toll for heavy trucks will have?

There should be a final, responsible assessment after a year. The result will show if it is true that 3 billion euros in revenue were realized.

That would be good news for financing road construction.

I am afraid not. Only a small share of the revenue is going into road construction. The consortium of operators will keep 20 percent. Other toll operators, such as in Austria and Switzerland, will get between 7 and 8 percent. The finance minister will receive 800 million euros, as compensation for the heavy trucks vignette. A further 800 million will be shared by the water transportation and rail traffic authorities. Which means there will be 800 million euros left at most for road traffic. And that money doesn't come in addition to the oil tax but instead of it. In total, there will be less money available in 2005 than before.

Which investments would be necessary?

We would need 5 billion euros from the oil tax and 2.5 billion euros from the truck toll for maintenance, minor improvement of road quality and the expansion of the road network. There is an enormous gap here because our road network is outdated. At the same time, 5 billion euros are spent on prestigious projects such as wind power for ideological reasons. This is an economic worst-case scenario.

What do you mean?

Calculations undertaken by BMW and others show that, due to the mismanagement of transport policy, the German economy is faced with costs of more than 100 billion euros a year. These costs are made up of working hours wasted as a result of traffic jams, additional fuel consumption and the unnecessary extra burden on the environment. In Germany alone, 33 million liters of fuel a day are wasted due to everyday traffic jams. And late road repairs are much more expensive than timely ones.

Will we need a car toll in addition to the heavy trucks toll?

Definitely not. You would need to check 45 million cars. Just imagine what kind of investment would be required to collect the toll. Besides, German drivers are already paying for using the roads. Approximately 51 billion euros a year in oil and motor vehicle taxes. That is more than in any other European country. A car toll could only be made legitimate if the strain on car drivers was reduced. However, the state would still not be taking any more money to better finance road construction. Plus, there is still a danger of a two-tier society developing. And traffic would increasingly move to country and major roads with an increased number of road accidents and deaths. Therefore we are clearly against the car toll, and so, by the way, are the German Chancellor and the transport minister.

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