Last week felt like being back at school: I prepared for my Sportbootführerschein exams. The word Führerschein means licence – not to be a little Hitler, but to drive, in this case vessels up to 20m length. So for five days, I took a crash course on basically how not to crash a boat into the likes of the Queen Mary 2.
There is no UK equivalent for this compulsory “SBF Binnen und See” licence. At least that’s what our instructor told us, who explained that the Queen (he didn’t specify whether ER I or II) had decided that in a maritime nation like yours there was enough nautic competency to drive small pleasure crafts without an exam.
I see the point. You are an island after all. And I actually wish the German government had equal trust in its citizens’ capabilities.
But coming back to my skipper studies, I felt some relief on hearing that, at least on sea, even Brits drive on the right side. I also learned (probably no news to you nautic naturals) there are two North Poles, a magnetic and a geographic one. And I was once more reminded of German language megalomania: just take out Binnenschifffahrtsstraßen-Ordnung (Code for Inland Waterways).
Luckily, there are ways to take the SBF exams in Mallorca, our unofficial 17th Bundesland. German state-approved examiners fly in and, while in the Mediterranean, ask you to navigate between lighthouses in the German Bight. A truly European business model.
Speaking of Europe… the EU has plans to further harmonise driving licences (for cars, not boats), which is bound to create disharmony in Germany. Because according to the proposed legislation, drivers aged 70+ would have to prove their ability to drive every five years.
There already is a similar rule in the UK (as in Denmark, Spain and Switzerland), whereas in Germany, the government for once trusts its (elderly) citizens. In an ageing society, they happen to be a highly relevant voting group.
So far, German driving licences are granted indefinitely. To introduce a limit would cause big trouble, but currently it looks as if the EU will leave member states a choice of whether to enforce fitness tests for drivers 70+ or to offer voluntary medical exams.
In the EU, 20,600 people died in road accidents in 2022, an average of 44 deaths per million inhabitants. As usual, there are significant national differences. So watch out on holiday in Romania (86 road deaths per million citizens), Bulgaria (78) and Croatia (71), but you can relax a bit in Sweden (21) and Germany (31).
Or the UK (24), which – like most others – has seen a steady decrease in road deaths. But more needs to be done for the EU to halve the number of deaths by 2030, as planned, and then head to “Vision Zero”.
Still, the influential German automobile club ADAC and other opponents of stricter rules for elderly drivers argue that statistically people aged 65+ cause fewer accidents (17.4%) than their share of population (22%) would suggest.
Insurance experts, however, question those stats. Particularly for those aged 75+, whom they place in the same high-risk group as young male drivers.
What adds to the controversy is that the retirement age in Germany will in all likelihood be raised to 70 years at some point (from 67 today). Can you make people work until that age and then take their liberty away? Tricky.
And yet, compulsory tests would relieve many German families of the awkward “Have you ever considered giving up your driver’s licence, dad?” talk. It is so conflict-ridden that many children avoid it and simply pray to St Christopher instead.
Years ago, in a car with my grandfather, I dared to remind him to look over his shoulder when changing lanes, to avoid the blind spot. “Blind spot?”, he said incredulously. “That’s long been abolished, dear, they wouldn’t be able to sell their cars otherwise.”
He didn’t live to see blinking side mirrors that have indeed eliminated the toter Winkel (dead angle).
So yes, to introduce a test regime for older people would of course improve road safety. As does the record number of young Germans, by the way, who didn’t pass their tests last year and were thus kept off the streets: 39% failed the theory, 37% flunked the practical exam, which is 10 percentage points up from 2013.
I still have 25 years to go without renewing my driver’s licence. And, come to think of it: the boat licence is unlimited. So when the time comes, I might just use the Rhine and Spree instead of a motorway. Ahoy!