Will Speed for Free Food!

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Photo courtesy of the Clearwater (Kansas) Police Department

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If you enjoy speeding and disregarding signs, let alone give the police and the Kraftfahrtbundesamt (Driver’s Office) in Flensburg (Germany) a headache, then this article is for you. Regardless of whether you are in Germany or the US, people love to speed and will stop at nothing to ensure that they are at least 20 km/h over the limit. In Germany, we have the blitzer machines, where drivers and their car license plates are photographed, and after a brief process of determining how many Flensburg Points  one receives and how much money one has to pay, the driver gets the check in the mail. Many people have found creative ways of manipulating these blitzer machines, like this one below:

 

Well, not quite. 🙂 But people destesting these machines have done a fabulous job manipulating them, which includes putting recycling cans over them:

 

In the US, we do not have such devices- although having them would solve all our infrastructural woes and fix our deficit in an instant- but we do have radar devices, which tracks the speed of drivers especially when going through communities, and this story shows that even some drivers love to pull a good joke. In Clearwater, Kansas, located 10 miles southwest of Wichita, police officials, in particular Chief Garcia, received a laugh of the century, as one of the drivers placed a makeshift sign next to the radar device, challenging the drivers to speed as fast as possible in order to win a prize, as shown in the picture at the beginning! 🙂 The police is looking for someone who gave the chief the biggest laugh in his career so that the driver can be “rewarded” with a free meal.

Can you imagine someone seeing this in Germany? Or Europe?

It is known that Germans have a dry sense of humor with most of them taking this as way too seriously- pending on which part of Germany you’re living in. However, aside the humor behind this picture that even some of the people at the Flensburg office would take when seeing this, the true purpose behind this radar device is the same as the German blitzer: to save lives and keep the roads safe for others to use.  Therefore, even though some of us may take this as a dose of laughter to start off the day on the road, even in Germany, the word to the wise is “Don’t, unless you want to set a new record for the highest number of Flensburg points you receive when getting caught!”

In other words, enjoy the laugh but drive carefully. 😉

For those wanting to know about Germany’s Flensburg Point system, the author wrote about this theme a few years ago as it was undergoing some reforms. More on that here.

 

Here’s a question for those who love driving:

What were some other acts drivers have done in order to get away with breaking the rules of the road, regardless of whether it was in the US, Germany or Europe? We love to hear them. Put your stories here in the comment section, or in the Flensburg Files’ facebook page, which you can access here

 

Special thanks to the Clearwater Police Department of Clearwater, Kansas for allowing use of this photo. It did provide a good laugh over here and when others read this, they will have a great start while on the road travelling to work. 😉

Flensburg Point System Reform: A necessity for travel in Germany?


The Flensburg Point system in Germany is one of the most well-structured and categorized systems used to track and crack down on reckless drivers on the roads as well as determine the severity of the traffic offenses committed, whether it is speeding, driving while texting, or causing an accident. In its 63rd  year, it has reduced the annual number of accidents by at least 50% and has taken tens of thousands of drivers unfit for driving off the roads.
Yet, despite the successes, the point system is in the process of being reformed, sparking criticism from all sides of the spectrum who believe that the reform is the least of the problems of the German.  In a nutshell, the value of the points given to the driver per offense has been halved. Meaning for example, instead of two points for speeding, the driver would receive one point. For serious offenses which warranted seven points combined with heavy fines and revocation of the driver’s license, they would be reduced to two points. However, it does not mean that the people can commit more traffic offenses and get away with not paying a fine or being forced to retake driver’s training in order to get their licenses back. The maximum number of points needed before losing the driver’s license would also be reduced from 18 to eight, and the points collected in the old system would be calculated into the new system accordingly. Even the amount of time to work off the points in the Flensburg file (Verjährungsfrist) will be extended. Up until now it took a year to work off a point. According to the new rules, it takes two, while two points can be worked off in three years. The main intention, according to the Minister of Transportation, Peter Ramsauer, is to have more transparency with regards to the regulations and how the point system should be used per offense.
Yet opposition from the automobile clubs, the German police and even members of the oppositional party disagree with these new guidelines. Apart from the fact that the changes in the point system were unnecessary, many believe that the reforms that took place served as a distraction to the major problems facing travelers in Germany, which have become sophisticated and difficult to handle. This includes the problems with driving under the influence of alcohol, driving while on the cell phone and a new phenomenon that originated from the US but has made its way to European soil, texting while driving, which is considered an offense both in the US as well as in Germany. By laxing the Flensburg Point system, critics claim that it will give (potential) offenders an incentive to break the laws on the road, in particular with regards to speeding, which is common on German highways, especially the Autobahnen (German Motorways).
Despite being dependent on public transportation and bike (as I live in a city with 120,000 inhabitants), there are some times where travelling by car is necessary, and judging by the observations, reforming the system can only be necessary if and only if certain traffic offenses that were not very common 20-30 years ago are becoming a major problem today.  If there was a ranking of the most common traffic offenses common to German standards today, it would be ranked as the following:

Speeding and reckless driving
Driving while under the influence of alcohol
Distracted driving (not concentrating because of loud music or lack of sleep)
Driving while talking on the cell phone
Driving while texting.

In US standards today, driving while texting is the number one offense followed by driving while talking on the cell phone, and law enforcement officials have increased in numbers on many major highways in the last three years and have not hesitated in ticketing and jailing someone for speeding and driving under the influence of alcohol. This has resulted in a dramatic drop in the number of these incidences over time and drivers really watching it while driving- being overly careful to ensure that the money earned through their jobs do go for paying the fine or even worse, paying for court costs. In Germany, it is totally different.
We are faced with a double-edged sword on German roads today as we are seeing two sets of trends that could negatively impact the way we drive. The first one is that we are seeing more people going mobile- meaning that more people are commuting away from their homes in order to get better pay elsewhere. This includes many people living in the northern and eastern parts of the country but working in the southern half of the country, in places like Bavaria, Baden-Wurttemberg, Hesse, Rheinland-Palatinate, and Saarland, just to name a few. While train service has become more and more difficult to come by, the only way to work for many is by car and therefore, there is the trip home late Friday night and back to work on Monday morning, the times where most of the accidents take place. This also applies to people travelling by car on business trips and having to arrive at their destinations punctually to avoid being looked down upon. As many of us know, Germany prides itself on being the most punctual, so being there 15 minutes before an appointment is more preferred than being there only a minute before.

In addition to that trend we are also seeing another trend where distracted driving is causing some massive problems on the roads. This includes driving while texting, driving while on the cell phone (a very common offense for the last 6-7 years) and unchecked aggression towards other drivers and even cyclists. While the first and third portions of the offense have been included in the Flensburg point system, the second offense will have to require some investigating for although it is not common to do this on the roads, the trend is definitely rising.  Given the difference in dimensions of the roads between the USA and Germany despite some highways and Autobahnen being widened for safety purposes, one cannot afford to  commit these offenses unless they risk an accident and the consequences that follow (loss of driver’s license in accordance to the Flensburg point system, legal action and possible legal sanctions).
With the simplicity of the point system, as Ramsauer is planning, it will be more difficult to determine the degree of the traffic offense, let alone the consequences of the traffic offense. Instead the German government should look at other incentives to discourage traffic offenses and encourage safe driving habits. Reforming the Flensburg point system is definitely not a way to improve transparence, but increasing the point value for traffic offenses that have become more sophisticated (while at the same time, increase penalties for each offense and offer compulsory courses to encourage better driving habits) will definitely force drivers to think about their actions on the road and change their habits accordingly. After all, safe driving can also save lives, as there are more than 35,000 traffic fatalities in the European Union, a number that can be reduced even further.

While Ramsauer plan to open an online three-week forum about the changes in the Flensburg Point system beginning in May, he should not be surprised if he receives any criticism towards the reforms being carried out; especially from other countries that do not have such point systems, like the US but could use a similar system to crack down on traffic offenses, including distracted driving and aggression towards other drivers. Perhaps a pair of Flensburg points given to a driver for giving another driver the bird and three for texting while driving will give American drivers an incentive to think before taking action on the road. But before President Obama can think about introducing such a system, he must first watch the developments over in Germany before deciding whether it would make sense on America’s roads or not. With reforms becoming more confusing than simple, Ramsauer will have a rather difficult time to sell his reform plan to those, who like me believe that there are no problems with the Flensburg Point System and that it should be left as is.

The website with the forum on the Flensburg Point System Reform can be found here: www.punktereform.de.  (Available from 1 May on)

More Personell for the Customers, Please!

 

Typical at a station like the one in Flensburg: Empty ticket counter not in use (left) and ticket machines with a 50% functionality rate (right) Photo taken in May 2010

It is a nightmare of every passenger travelling by train; especially those who commute between towns on a daily basis: A person rushes to the train to catch it, for he has an important meeting with clients at his company- catching it in the last second before the doors close- and not having the time to pick up a ticket at the train station. It is a regio-train and the German railways (a.k.a. Die Bahn or DB) had just installed ticket machines to ensure that everyone is obliged to buy a ticket- only to find that the ticket machine does not work. He panics as he sees the ticket controller come by to check and stamp tickets. As a general rule, ticket controllers also have the right to sell tickets to passengers unable to buy tickets at the station or in the ticket machines, right?

Not this one! The person asks for a ticket only to be asked: “Personal ID, right now!” Why? “You travelled without a ticket and that means 40 Euros for being a stowaway!” You react objectively by saying “Wait a minute! The ticket machine is kaput! How the h*** am I supposed to buy a ticket on this train if the machine does not work?” Then the responses that followed justified that 40 Euros was a necessity to “teach everyone a lesson”- to buy a ticket before boarding the train; whether it is “You ran past me and said ‘s***!’ in the process,” or “You should have bought a ticket at another station,” or my favorite excuse “You should have smelled that you were going to be late and waited for another train, so that you can buy a ticket!” (This is a very raw translation of “Sie hätten es riechen sollen, Ihren Zug zu verpassen und auf den nächsten zu warten!”) Now how is someone supposed to assume that he/she is going to be late and plan ahead of time, let alone explain to the boss why the person is late because of the trains?

One will think that these excuses are made up, but sadly, these are real-life scenarios that I and other passengers have been dealing with ever since the German Railways introduced the concept of having ticket machines do the work for the passengers instead of the personnel themselves in 2008.  7 in 10 passengers have complained about the ticket machines not working and the ticket personnel being snarky at those unfortunate not to buy a ticket before or wanting to buy one shortly after boarding the regio-trains. Before I elaborate further, the regio-trains refer to not only the RB trains which stops at every single train station and stop, even in Timbuktu, whereas the RE (Regio-Express) stops at cities with 10,000 or more inhabitants, whose stations are the main points to get on. Even worse is the fact that one arbitrarily finds a ticket machine on the train. It is not customary to have a ticket machine in a Regio-Express train for it provides cramped space and some areas where they should be installed are reserved for bicycles and baby carriages only. And even then, these spaces are limited. While ticket machines can be found in one out of three Regio-trains (99% in diesel trains), there is only one per train and the functions are questionable. That means, the process of obtaining a ticket is too bureaucratic and the machines are choosy at accepting certain forms of payment. 3 in 4 reject debit cards, leaving many passengers scrambling to muster up the remaining lunch money they have to buy a ticket for their destination.

One would think that if these problems persist and there are more people travelling by train than by car that the DB would think about dollars and sense and hire more personnel to improve its quality of service. After all, the customer is king and their wishes should be respected. But unfortunately, the DB, like many companies, is trying to work for profit and efficiency and not for the benefit of the customer. This includes shortening the time needed to travel from one point to another- including the time needed for passengers to get on and off the trains, focusing on the profitable lines and abandoning the others that might get passengers to their destinations more quickly, having porters and ticket agents on the train to assist in luggage and selling tickets, providing more space for bikes, baby carriages and EVEN ticket machines, and lastly not having enough people with computer knowledge to maintain these machines. While the information age is making service faster and more efficient, there seems to be a loss of attention to the customers and their needs. While the Occupy Wall Street protests have spread to many financial institutions and the governments because of their corruptive ways of doing business with clients and the public, it would not be surprising if many disgruntled passengers decide to take their frustration out on DB and occupy their headquarters in Berlin and other important offices in Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg, just to name a few. It is just a question of one incident that will cause passengers to snap and the German networks of ARD and ZDF will be broadcasting the protests as early as January of next year.

More personell for the station and the trains, please! Stations like the one in Flensburg could use it, as with the trains. Photo taken in April 2011

It is time that the DB starts rethinking the way they do business with the customers. The easiest and most viable solution is to have more personnel in the trains, not just to check on the tickets, but also to sell them to those who could not buy them at the station because the ticket machines do not work or are full of passengers wanting to reach their destinations. The fine system should remain in place for those who refuse to buy a ticket and board the train as a stowaway, but should be more objective- not subjective and for the purpose of milking more away from those who can barely afford to buy a ticket. If the board of directors of DB insist that the ticket machines are the most effective way of providing passengers with tickets, then there should be more people with IT experience to ensure that the problems are fixed and the machines are back in service as quickly as possible. We are seeing more and more people studying IT at various universities and technical colleges who are looking for a job after graduation and therefore, that source should be tapped so that they have some experience with computers. Yet having train station personnel at the functioning train stations working in shifts can also improve service and make travelling by train less complicated, even for the commuter dependent on daily train travel.

But until reforms to improve customer service do take place, we will still see passengers disgruntled because of malfunctioning ticket machines and ticket personnel treating them as criminals when in all reality, it is not their fault. Even more alarming is the fact that passengers who use the bike to travel to work from the station may be forced to pay daily fees to have their bikes transported by Regio. The argument is one that I’ll remember a ticket personnel at Flensburg Station saying when I bought a ticket (and was forced to by one for the bike as well) for a day trip to Kiel this past April: “We don’t like bikes on trains! They’re unprofitable!” The Bavarians already introduced that two years ago; it is becoming a norm in the southern part of the country. It could be a reality in a couple years in all of Germany and will force people, like me to reconsider other forms of transportation; especially if the work place is far away.

As for travelling without a ticket, it would not be surprising if the DB, which is partially owned by the German government, will introduce the Flensburg Point System, to use against stowaways, regardless if it was their fault or not. After all, when caught, it is obligatory to show the personnel your driver’s license and ID to report the incident. Why not penalize them with 1-2 Flensburg Points? But before that happens, unless they recently took bribes by the DB and other lobbyists, the judges at the German Supreme Court in Karlsruhe will most likely shoot that proposal down as unconstitutional. If that happens, then perhaps they should remind the DB to respect the people’s rights to be treated fairly, as stated in the Basic Laws of the Federal Republic of Germany. It would be one step in the right direction of improving service, at least….

Mural and clock at Flensburg Station. Photo taken in May 2010

The Flensburg Point System: 60 years of Ensuring Safety in Germany

A surprise awaits you around the corner. Photo taken in February 2011

A situation where no one should be in but it is unavoidable: a driver travels on the Autobahn 10 encircling the capital of Germany, Berlin, going 20 kilometers per hour over the speed limit (the maximum allowed is 120 kmph) and talking to a business partner on his cell phone. Suddenly right before turning off to head north on 115 in the direction of Charlottenburg, one of the city’s suburbs, he is blinded by a flash and almost puts his car into the ditch. However, he only fishtailed before straightening the car out on the entrance ramp and continuing onto his destination at a company located on Kufurstendamm near the center of the city, Mitte.  A week later at his home in Wolfsburg in Lower Saxony, home of Audi and Volkswagon, he receives a letter from the Berlin police department with his picture on there, looking very concentrated on his conversation with his business partner- a tall bleach blond female, with whom he had lunch, followed by completing that business proposal that no one really knows about- with his cell phone in his hand. According to the report, he went 150 kmph and was talking on his cell phone while driving- as proven in the photo. End result: 70 Euro fine, plus a point in the Flensburg system. Plus because of his record of wreckless driving and several violations in the past 2 years, he had accumulated 18 Flensburg points resulting in him relinquishing his driver’s license until he takes a course in disciplinary driving. “This is impossible!” he said and he vowed to contest that to the police and if needed, to the Department of Motor Vehicles (Das Kraftfahrzeugamt)  in Flensburg.

The Flensburg Point System is one of the most complex systems ever developed in the modern world. Introduced as a concept in 1957, it was designed to promote safety on Germany’s highways, as the country has always been known for fast cars, like BMW, Audi, and Volkswagon, a complex Autobahn network designed to get drivers to their destinations as quickly as possible, and fast drivers who want to show off their muscle with their car in front of the women. However, with the expansion of the Autobahn network combined with new innovation of cars to make them run faster, there are also drivers who use and abuse their cars and the roads, sometimes even shamelessly. The Flensburg Point System is designed to keep the drivers in line and have them obey the laws that are in effect; furthermore it stresses the importance of safety to the public as a whole.

How the system works is complex but can be explained in simpler languages. The point system is based on a  catalogue developed by the Department of Motor Vehicles where each offense committed by the driver is categorized based on severity. The more severe the crime, the higher the fine a person has to pay, and the more likely a person will receive a point in his personal file, which is stored at the office in Flensburg.  Some examples of such traffic offenses that occur in Germany include the following:

  • Going 25 kmph over the speed limit of 50 inside a town like Itzehoe: One must pay 80 Euros and will receive a point in the file.  If it was over 70 kph, then it is 480 Euros in fines, 4 Flensburg points and the driving license is revoked for three months.
  • Using the shoulder as a passing lane on an Autobahn in the direction of Würzburg: 75 Euros and 2 Flensburg points.
  • Driving down the wrong way on a divided highway (or dual carriageway) in Jena: 75 Euro fine and 4 Flensburg points
  • And for those who love to talk on their cell phones while driving: If caught, you are obliged to pay 40 Euros and you earn a Flensburg point in the process. Even if you are a cyclist and you get caught, you still have to pay 25 Euros but you do not receive any Flensburg points.

The point system is also used for reckless driving and driving under the influence of alcohol, where a person could earn as much as 7 Flensburg points, together with fines of up to 2000 Euros, loss of one’s driving license for up to five years, and even spend some time in prison.  So for example, we go back to the first example with the gentleman who was photographed for speeding while using the cell phone in the direction of Berlin’s suburb of Charlottenburg and we imagine he did have some wild concoctions with the bleach blond lady while talking business, like the B-52, Bloody Mary, Black Triangle, and/or the Flensburger Aquavit, and decides to drive back to his home in Wolfsburg. He starts weaving uncontrolably along the Autobahn 2 in the direction of Magdeburg when he is caught by the police near the town of Burg. After taking a breathilizer test, it was revealed that his blood alcohol level was 1.2, which is 10 times the legal limit. The end result (apart from being taken into custody): 7 Flensburg points, loss of his driving privileges, a massive fine, and 5 years probation. The loss of his driving license could span from the minimum of 6 months to five years, but it could also be permanent, should he have a horrible driving record. Had he been in an automobile wreck with that high alcohol content, he could face prison time plus civil action from those affected by his buzz driving.  In simpler languages, consumption of alcohol will cost you 7 points no matter the amount, plus more money out of your pocket- a “good” weight loss incentive for those wanting to dare this tact, which I personally would not do.

This leads to the question of how much is enough in terms of racking up the Flensburg points. As mentioned at the beginning, the man who raced to his meeting with the bleach blonde partner but was caught on camera for speeding and phoning had 18 points and therefore had his driving privileges revoked because he reached his maximum point value. How the point system is tallied is based on a category created by the Department of Motor Vehicles which is listed below:

1-3 Flensburg Points-  No sanctions

4-8 Flensburg Points- Voluntary driver’s training

8-13 Flensburg Points- Warning and recommendation to participate in the Voluntary driver’s training

14-17 Flensburg Points- Compulsory driver’s training

18 or more Flensburg Points- Loss of Driving License

One can actually reduce the number of Flensburg Points by taking part in the driver’s training seminar in order to improve the driving skills, or taking part in other forms of programs provided by the law enforcement agencies. The reduction of points depends on the number of points the driver accumulated. For example, if one has 7 Flensburg points, he can take part in the driver’s training and have 4 points taken off his record (which means he has 3 points in the end). If he has 12 Flensburg points, he can only deduct 2 if he participates in the program. This can only be done once every five years, but the points stay in the records for two years if and only if no other traffic offenses occur during that time.

If compared to the system in the USA, the Flensburg system is valid for all of Germany and as there are almost 50 million drivers in the country, their records are kept centrally in Flensburg and all traffic offenses are reported and sent there by the local authorities and the state department of traffic safety. This is impossible to do in the US given the size and population and therefore, the responsibility of regaulating the traffic laws and keeping track of the person’s records lies directly with the state governments, except when a person moves out of state, in which case, the records are transferred from the previous state of residence to the one where a person lives in. It is also obligatory for Americans to change their driving licenses when moving as unlike the German driving license (where there is just the biographical information and the place of origin on there), the American equivalent has the residing address of the license holder. In fact the only form of identification that is universal in the US is one’s passport, which can be used for showing ID when entering and exiting other countries. The problem with that is the fact that only half the US population holds a US passport, like yours truly. In Germany, the driving license serves as an ID card as well, except for the passport, which is required of all Germans (and Europeans in that matter since the country is part of the European Union), and can be used as ID both in and out of Germany.

And while Germans still indulge in alcohol, and in particular their beloved beer, the driving under the influence law is also universal, for the intention is to promote responsibility to those who enjoy a good wine but also have to drive. It is not like in many “dry states” where it is a sin to drink and drive. In many states like Iowa, Utah, and places in the Bible Belt (states located in the Central Plains, like Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and the like), one can pay tens of thousands of dollars in fines just for having a drop of alcohol in one’s blood, while driving. For many it is considered paranoid and invades one’s own personal rights. But yet to many, alcohol consumption is considered a sin, even if a person is allowed to start drinking legally at the age of 21, which is five years older than those who drink alcohol in Germany. But the alcohol issue is another topic to be discussed at another time.

In celebration of 60 years of the Department of Motor Vehicles in Flensburg and to tout the success of the Flensburg Point System, an attempt to fool the public took place on April Fools Day, where there was a claim that there would be a giveaway in the point deductions to all drivers- 60,000 to be exact. This was retracted as a joke, but to many people, this attempt to fool the public into believing that the point system was providing indulgences to those who committed the gravest offenses was considered not appropriate. To the Evangelical Church, it was part of the religion. To many, having something like this would be a slap in the face of German culture, as the Flensburg Point System is part of the German culture and such indulgences would allow drivers to get away with “murder.”  In the end, the joke was on those who took part: the radio stations, the ministers of transportation, and even the Department of Motor Vehicles, which initiated the joke. However, it makes the author wonder how one could make the April’s Fool Joke more appropriate and not lead to discussions like it was presented on many forums. Sometimes jokes like this are best left alone and not carried out.

In the almost 12 years that the author has been residing in Germany, there was only one time that he was caught, which was for biking on the streetcar tracks going along the shared space corridore between the railway station and Domplatz cathedral in Erfurt, Thuringia’s capital, five years ago. While I was fined, I received no Flensburg point. However, had I listened to music while biking, I can guarantee you a point would be given, as some of my students have already received. While the violation is questionable as many cyclists have done this, the Flensburg Point System shows how effective traffic laws and safety are in Germany. And while some issues have arisen and become a major concern, like texting while driving, biking while listening to music, driving while phoning with your cell phone and “buzz driving”, the Flensburg Point System has adapted to these changing trends with the slogan: never mess with laws. Obey them for your sake and for others as well.  And while the police can apprehend many who are caught violating the traffic laws, for those who have gotten away with traffic violations so far, others have shown and should show others who wish to be reckless that whatever manoever is attempted is one that is illegal. Obey the laws and avoid the Flensburg points. And yes, point giveaways are fattening. They can be deducted by earning them through education, period!

Useful links:

https://www.kfz.net/autorecht/punkte-flensburg/

http://www.bild.de/politik/inland/bussgeldkatalog/so-funktioniert-das-neue-punktesystem-35765670.bild.html

 

Note: Black Triangle is a mixture of Coca-Cola or Vita Cola, a Czech or Eastern European beer and Vodka. It is named after a region in Eastern Germany where Saxony, Poland and the Czech Republic meet (nearest towns are Usti Na Ladem and Zittau), where it was infamous for its air pollution during the Cold War, thanks to its extensive use of nuclear power and fossil fuels.

Author’s Note: Since the publication of the Flensburg Point System in 2011, the reform has taken place, with the new point system being in place since May 1, 2014.  More information can be found here.