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)

Gutenberg 10 years later

26 April 2002- the day that will be remembered as the day that Germany stood still and watched in shock as a 19-year old stormed a high school Gutenberg Gymnasium in Erfurt, the capital of Thuringia, and gunned down 12 students, three teachers and a police officer before taking his own life a short time later. For many people, as peaceful a country as Germany was, one would not expect a massacre similar to the one at Columbine High School in Colorado three years earlier. But the incident has changed the way people think about Germany, its education system and its strict gun regulations. Ten years later, the massacre is still in our memory and despite attempts to try and stem the violence and reinforce the gun regulations, Germany has become another America but on a smaller scale. We have issues involving xenophobia and right-wing extremism, despite attempts to integrate new people into the German culture while at the same time encourage tolerance of other cultures.  People put at a disadvantage socially are taking their vengeance out on others, as was the case in Winnenden (Baden-Wurttemberg) and Ansbach (Bavaria) in 1999.  Despite attempts to crack down on violent video games and pornography, the loopholes are still open.  And despite the preaching of civil courage- people stepping in to stop the crimes- many still stay behind the curtains and ignore the help of others, being insensitive.

So what is there to do? Absolutely nothing? If that is the case, then we are just as guilty as the perpetrators who committed the crimes and should deserve the same penalties for not helping the victim as the person who attacked him/her in the first place.  Since the incident, we have learned to not walk past the people in need of help but to help them whenever possible, despite their background. We have taken a stand against hatred, xenophobia and anything that is morally wrong. We have found ways to make life favorable to people, no matter where they go (in school, on the streets and at home). We have found ways to avert potential crimes. But we have also found ways to cope with loss and learn from it, as this is the case on this day.  We have become more interconnected with each other than ever before, while at the same time look for answers- Why did this happen? What have we done to deserve this? What can we do to help make sure that such a crime never happens again, neither here in Germany nor the US, nor elsewhere?

Up until now, these questions have yet to be answered and they cannot be answered alone.

The Flensburg Files would like to dedicate this column in memory of the people, whose lives were lost in the Guttenberg incident 10 years ago, with the hope that we can look at what is wrong with society and ask ourselves why is this wrong and what we can do to make society better for everyone and ensure that an incident like this (and other similar acts) do not happen ever again.

Link to the anniversary of the massacre (in German): http://www.mdr.de/mdr-info/amoklauf-erfurt114_zc-885afaa7_zs-5d851339.html

Joachim Gauck is President of Germany. Who is Mr. Gauck?

Discussions about Gauck at supper time.

 

We all have our political discussions at the dinner table this evening. In the US, many families are talking about the elections of 2012 and the direction the country is going regardless of the outcome. In the Middle East, many families are talking about creating a new government after overthrowing the dictators in the Jasmine-Spring of last year. Here in Germany, our latest discussion is about Joachim Gauck. Apart from the fact that he was officially elected as the 11th President of Germany (Bundespräsident) thanks to the majority vote of 991 to 237 at the Federal Convention on 18 March, and that he originated from Rostock in Mecklenburg-Pommerania, there is very little information that we know about him right now. Even when I sent a questionnaire around on facebook a couple days ago, the response was blank, assuming that no one knows much about the man at all.

Therefore, I decided to do some research about Mr. Gauck and set my own predictions about how he will run the country and support Chancellor Angela Merkel. The results were amazing. Here are some fast facts that one needs to know about Joachim Gauck:

 

Flensburg Files Fact File- Joachim Gauck:

 

1. He was born on 24 January, 1940 in Rostock. His family consisted of sailors, one of whom was his father, who was a distinguished naval officer and ship’s captain. However, his father was taken away to Siberia by the Soviet troops when he was 11 and was never seen again afterwards.

2. While he grew up behind the Iron Curtain, he opposed the East German government and the ideas of socialism to a point where he refused to join the Free German Youth (FDJ) and joined groups that opposed anti-communism. Even the state security police (Stasi) considered him a natural-born opponent and had mentioned his actions in their reports. A good part of that had to do with what had happened to his father.

3. Because he was considered by the Stasi an “incorrigible anti-communist,” Gauck was denied entrance to his studies in German and Journalism and instead studied theology at the University of Rostock and became a pastor at a church in Mecklenburg-Pommerania. At that time, the East German government looked down upon Christianity and had the Stasi spy and harass the church. Gauck was no exception to the rule.

4. At the time of the revolution in 1989, Gauck joined the New Forum, which was a democratic opposition party to the socialist party. He was very active in the organisation, later becoming spokesperson and in March 1990, being elected to the People’s Chamber. It merged with two other democratic parties to form the Alliance 90 party,  and upon his departure from the party in 1990, he was elected Special Representative of the Stasi Archives. Since 1990, he has had no affiliations with any of the political parties in Germany.  The Alliance 90 party eventually folded into the Green Party in 1993.

5.  Gauck worked as Federal Commissioner of the Stasi Archives from 1990 (as Special Representative) to 2000. During his time at the archives, he uncovered thousands of people, mostly in the eastern part of the country, who had worked for the Stasi and exposed the activities of the opposition. Many of the people who had worked for the Stasi lost their jobs in the public sector as a result. In addition, he advocated for human rights and stressed the importance of ensuring that the history of communism in central and Eastern Europe is not overshadowed by the era of the Third Reich and remembering that both National Socialism and Communism were equally bad and thus the history of the two should not be forgotten. He has written about communism which included a chapter in The Black Book of Communism (published in 1998) and was one of the signatory fathers of two key declarations: of both the Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism (2008) and the Declaration on Crimes of Communism (2010). On his 70th birthday, Chancellor Angela Merkel commended him for his tireless work of advocating the education about and elimination of communism and other forms of totalitarianism.

6. Gauck was narrowly defeated by Christian Wulff in the Presidential elections to replace Horst Köhler in 2010. Yet Wulff’s scandals resulted in his falling out of favor with the government and the people and subsequentially had to step down from his post. However, many people believe that because of his honesty and tolerance to and acceptance of other people regardless of background, he was touted by many as the “better president.”

 

Keeping these facts in mind, the next question will be what impact will he have for Germany and the rest of the world? For Germany alone, he will bring the country into calmer waters and provide a fresh start for a government marred by a series of scandals that has resulted in the loss of credibility from the public over the last two years. One of his goals will be to win the hearts and souls of the public and ensure them that Germany is a country that prides itself on high quality, honesty, and transparency. This is something that is rarely seen these days as many countries are paralysed by politicians who are hypocritical and defer responsibility onto others instead of taking them. While Gauck may not be Harry Truman and his policy of “The Buck Stops Here”- where he bore the responsibility of the policies that were burdened by Congress during his administration (1945-53), given his religious background, combined with his past during the communist times, Gauck will ensure that the best way for the country is to be honest, help others in need and have tolerance.

Gauck will definitely provide the government with some much-needed weight with regards to cracking down on right-wing extremism, which includes eliminating the NPD by declaring the party unconstitutional. However, despite years of attempts to make the party unlawful according to German law, Gauck may want to consider rewriting a section of constitution which calls for eliminating any political parties that focuses on any sort of national socialism, socialism/communism, and xenophobia, while at the same time, try to reach out to the youth who are exposed to the right-wing influence, by discouraging that type of behavior.

His last goal will be to improve on international relations with other countries including the US, something that was almost non-existent during Wulff’s short term. He will have the advantage of being an independent and thus having strong relations with the other political parties supporting him, including Merkel’s CDU and the opposing Social Democrats, and even having an influence on their work as he will not have to worry about being influenced by one party or another (like it would have been the case had he been a member). A president who influences the government instead of the government (and in particular, the political parties) influencing the president is something that I hope we see in the US once the elections are completed in November of this year and perhaps if Gauck does a grand of a job in his first six months in office, the presidential candidates and the incumbent, President Obama, should look to him for reference and see what a person can do if he is independent of all the external influences, like it is the case in Washington.

While Gauck may be considered a grandpa by many, after looking at his past through research, I do believe that he is the right man for the job. If he can remain independent and work together on achieving the three primary goals mentioned here, he may end up becoming one of the best presidents in modern German history. But success can only be dependent on two important variables, the ability to take action independently and the ability to lead rationally and responsibly. We have seen the likes of Wulff ignoring the two and paying the price for that, but perhaps Gauck can change that and set an example for other politicians to follow, both in Germany and beyond.

 

Deutsche Welle also has an analysis on what Gauck will do for Germany and the rest of the world and you can see the report by clicking here.

March Madness regarding Moving

Back in the late 1970s when basketball was predominantly a men’s sport, sports columnist Brent Musberger coined the terminology March Madness,  which pertained to the NCAA college basketball tournament that took place every year in March. 64 teams took part in the no-holds barred basketball tournament where the men were separated from the boys, where most college basketball coaches compete to see who can grow grays in their hair the most and the quickest and who can see who can retain their voices before winning the basketball title. Over time, the women joined the fray with their own tournaments and the result is as many as 200 million viewers in the USA and abroad watching at least one basketball tournament in its entirety and betting for their own team to win it all, in both the men’s bracket as well as the women’s.
We do have another form of March Madness in Germany, but not in the form of basketball or any sports for that matter. It is with the moving.  Normally in Germany, the majority of the population is not inclined to move much. If one is born in a region, it is expected that the person stays in that region for life because of friends, family and permanent employment (which is hard to find nowadays). While that trend is leaning towards the American attitude of moving, which is “Mobility and Flexibility is Everything,” that is mostly for people in their early 20s and 30s, who are single or have a partner and have nothing that could anchor them in one particular location. This is because when one gets older, one settles down and takes whatever is offered to them and is thankful for the job.  But when the move takes place, it is more hassle than it is worth in the short term. In the long term however, it was worth every cent if one stays in one spot for a long time.
If there is one month where most of the moving takes place in my experiences as an expatriate living in Germany, it is in March. Why?  It is during the time where the need for greener pastures, more space and a new beginning in one’s life converge into one. It may be because of new job opportunities or the need of a new place in general. It may be because the summer time is solely kept free for vacationing in various places in Europe or North America (for example). For students, it is because the winter semester is much shorter than the summer semester. There is an average of 1-2 months free during the winter break and 3-4 during the summer break. While there is no spring break at German Universities, where students go to exotic places for booze and babes, like many American students often do, many German students take advantage of the free time in March to move to a new location.
Even now as I write this, many streets in the cities are partially corralled off to make way for the movers to arrive with ladders to bring down and load the furniture and other belongings from the top floor of a five-story apartment into the vans to be relocated to another destination. Much of the furniture has to be disassembled before loading and reassembled in the new apartment. One has clutter to sort through and throw out, as well as books to pack in boxes seven layers high- high enough to reach the ceiling. When there is a child in the midst, one has to try and keep him/her occupied and out of trouble.  And often if there is no help, then you are on your own and it becomes even more difficult to get things done especially because of a tight work schedule you have to deal with , resulting in packing until the wee hours of the morning every day.  And at last when all of the belongings are in the new apartment , one has to please the tenants of the old apartment by tearing down the wall paper, re-wallpapering the rooms and making it spic and span. Many people mop the floors before the movers arrive, which does not make any sense because they would be trampled on anyway and is therefore considered a waste of time.
But when all this is done, during the madness of March, it is no wonder why many people just simply stay put and take whatever job may be available to them but does not fit to their own career portfolio. It is a big difference whether a person travels light with as little as possible just to chase after their careers in places like Buxtehude, Stuttgart, Passau, Rostock, Weimar, Dresden,….. or if a person decides to ditch his career and does something different in order to create a permanent home- a nest where the children can grow up and graduate from school in one city and where one can do his/her time at a company or agency for 35 years until retiring with a nice juicy pension to live from.   The move may be a lot of hassle, but we have our purposes for a bigger and nicer home, which in the end, after spending tens of thousands of dollars and Euros in expenditures for renovation, new furniture and moving, it will definitely pay off and we can live happily ever after.

Wulff steps down. Is the End of the Dream Coalition near?

 

At the beginning of the year, I submitted a piece on the changes scheduled to take place in 2012, which included the end of many eras, like the Euro and Germany’s Dream Coalition.  This included German President Christian Wulff stepping down because of his usage of the public’s money and private investments on his own indulgences.  On Friday, he did just that.
In a move that was expected by many political analysts and people closest to the German President, Wulff, beleaguered by the pursuit of prosecutors and media alike and fresh from the latest setback he endured in Hannover, submitted his resignation as President effective immediately, resulting in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cancellation of her trip to Italy and early return to Berlin to hand pick the next president. This came as the request to lift his immunity against any forms of litigation was granted, providing prosecutors with a golden opportunity to take him to court and convict him. While the move was swifter than expected, it does raise questions about the future of the Dream Coalition and its ability to govern the country between now and the elections next year.  Given the slew of scandals involving many of Merkel’s cabinet members, the rash decay of the FDP (Free Democrats) after suffering the most number of humiliating defeats in the party’s history last year, and the search for the second president in the chancellor’s career, one might consider the fact that the reign of the Dream Coalition may be over with earlier than expected. Why?
Let’s compare the predicament of the Dream Coalition with that of the Red-Green Coalition (consisting of the Social Democrats and the Greens) under Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder, which ran the country from 1998 to 2005. Both regimes got off on the fast foot and provided some rounds of success through their policies that reformed the job market and reduced the unemployment rate. The Dream Coalition went further by allowing Merkel to take the lead in straightening the European Union out in terms of its fiscal crisis, which is ongoing especially since Greece just recently received another 130bn Euros in relief funds to alleviate its own crisis.  Yet as the years went on, the public started figuring out that some of the policies that were in place was to their disadvantage, and many politicians were removed from office because of dissatisfaction. With the Red Green Coalition, it was because of its inability to reduce the unemployment and its paltry sets of policies, such as the Hartz IV social welfare policy. For the Dream Coalition, it was because of its stance on nuclear power, which up to the Fukushima disaster, they were staunch supporters of that energy. Furthermore, the scandals that affected the politicians- in particular the plagiarism scandals- has eroded the confidence of the public in the government, even though the latest Political Barometer still shows the majority supporting Merkel and her party, the Christian Democrats, despite sustaining losses in key German states last year.  Wulff’s downfall may signal the change that Germany needs to steer itself (and the rest of Europe) in the right direction for three reasons: 1. It would mark the first time in modern German history that a Chancellor has to appoint a President twice during his/her regime. While the President plays a figurative role by showing the outside world that Germany also has a president, one must not forget that he is the number two man should something happen to Merkel.  2. While the economy has been doing well despite sustaining some substantial blows caused by the ongoing financial crisis, people are questioning the way Germany has been handling its domestic policies in comparison to the foreign policies. While the government has been providing support to business and to European countries, as a consequence, austerity packages have been introduced, cutting aid to state-run institutions, such as universities, health care facilities, and other governmental offices, resulting in strikes and protests within the last two years. This has affected many people on multiple fronts and discouraged others from taking state jobs that pay little and provide only limited contracts. Lastly 3., the strive to return to morals and honesty has been picking up steam, despite the pleas from many supporters to have the likes of Karl Theordore zu Guttenberg to return despite his resignation from office because of plagiarism. These two key words (morals and honesty) are very common in American society for many politicians caught for their social ills (like extra marital affairs, homosexuality, etc.) are defamed by the public and forced out of office.  While this type of behavior is almost uncommon over here in Germany, using the public’s money for indulgences and investing in private funds, while at the same time threatening the media with naming and shaming if it exposes the secret, is indeed morally wrong. It is just as wrong as plagiarizing a doctoral thesis or sexually harassing a state employee, the other two offences that are common over here.  One has to ask whether Merkel is covering up the bad deeds, not paying attention to the inner-political strife, or both, but it does show significant weakness in her ability to rule the country.
The loss of Wulff to his successor Joachim Gauck as President combined with the restlessness of the Free Democrats and its question of identity are two key blows that she may not be able to swallow. While it is easy for her and the rest of the party to strongly encourage politicians with their own set of scandals and ills to resign from their post in the interest of the German population, it will not solve the problem of how the Chancellor will lead the country between now and the elections next year. Facing a crisis of her own and the growing uncertainty regarding 2012 as a whole, the easiest and most effective approach is to dissolve the Dream Coalition and have early elections this year. It was done by Gerhard Schroeder in 2005 when his coalition broke apart after a string of defeats and other mishaps. Perhaps Merkel should learn from her SPD opponent and make the right decision. Only then will Germany (and all of Europe) will go into the right direction with a new set of policies and especially a new set of morals for the public to follow.

FLENSBURG FILES FAST FACT: Joachim Gauck is not officially the President of Germany, at least not yet. According to the German Constitution „Grundgesetz“ (EN: Basic Law), a candidate must be decided by the majority of the ruling party and the opposition. Gauck was nominated by the Dream Coalition together with the Social Democrats and the Green Party on the Opposition side. The Left-wing party abstained and is pursuing its own path. On 18 March, a Federal Convention will take place, where 1000 members (from the federal and state governments) will submit their vote for their new president. If there is no absolute majority after the first two votes, then the candidate may be endorsed through the third and fourth voting process, where the plurality of votes are casted. That means if no majority is found for Gauck, another candidate may be endorsed and could possibly win the post. The process is complicated as a lot of politicking is involved.  If the president wins the post, he will hold this office for five years but can be reelected once after the first term. At president, Horst Seehofer is acting head of state until the Convention takes place on the 18th. As a general rule, when a president steps down, the German government has 30 days to elect a new president through this Convention.

Links: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/President_of_Germany
http://www.dw.de/dw/article/0,,15759222,00.html

http://www.dw.de/dw/article/0,,15747820,00.html