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Austria files lawsuit against Germany over autobahn ‘foreigner tolls’

The government in Vienna is now taking legal action before the European Court of Justice against a car toll in Germany planned for 2019.

Austria files lawsuit against Germany over autobahn ‘foreigner tolls’
A sign that says "Toll" on the autobahn in Rostock. Photo: DPA.

The planned introduction of the toll would be discriminatory, Austrian Transport Minister Jörg Leichtfried said in Vienna on Thursday.

“Germans won't pay because they are German. Austrians will pay because they are Austrian. We're not going to stand for that,” Leichtfried said in a statement.

There is a good chance of success in court, according to legal officials commissioned by the Austrian government.

When Germany’s upper house of parliament (Bundesrat) in March approved a controversial law imposing tolls on the country’s famous autobahns (motorways), Austria immediately objected, saying it discriminates against foreign drivers and announcing it would file a legal challenge.

Austria – a country where it is estimated that 1.8 million commuters would be affected by Germany's autobahn tolls – is now taking legal action against its larger neighbour.

Whereas residents in Germany will have to pay a yearly toll through their bank accounts, unlike foreign drivers German-registered drivers will essentially be refunded thanks to a matching reduction on their motor vehicle tax bill. Those with particularly eco-friendly vehicles will get the biggest discount, that would essentially make up for the amount they pay for the toll.

The price for an annual autobahn pass will be capped at 130 euros for German and foreign cars. Those coming from outside Germany also have two other short-term options: a ten-day toll of between €2.50 and €25, depending on the size and eco-friendliness of the car, or a two-month toll of between €7 and €50, also measured with the same criteria.

Though Austria is one of the toughest critics of the proposed toll, neighbouring countries such as Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands have objected as well, previously stating that they, too, would consider taking Germany to the European Court of Justice.

Leichtfried had repeatedly emphasized that in the end, only foreigners would have to pay these tolls and that this was not compatible with the basic values of the EU.

In March Green party politician Winfried Kretschmann told the German Bundesrat that the toll was “not a good sign for Europe”, calling it a “foreigner toll” that would inflict “great political damage.”

The Bundestag (German parliament) had already passed a law in 2015 to establish the toll. But Germany was unable to implement it because the European Commission fought back, saying it violated EU policies by discriminating against non-German drivers from other member states.

Then after negotiations in November last year, Berlin was given the green light and the Bundestag was able to pass certain changes to the measure for the toll to go into effect in 2019. The laws have not yet been implemented and could still be delayed by the Bundesrat.

Germany is one of the only EU countries that has thus far not been charging for the use of its motorway system.

Anyone driving on Austrian motorways, including Austrians, has to buy a vignette toll sticker valid for a certain time period.

READ ALSO: What the new 'foreigner toll' on the Autobahn will mean for you

For members

DRIVING

COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?

Certain countries around Europe have stricter policies than others regarding drinking and driving and harsher punishments for those caught exceeding legal limits. Here's what you need to know.

COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?

European countries set their own driving laws and speed limits and it’s no different when it comes to legal drink-drive limits.

While the safest thing to do of course, is to drink no alcohol at all before driving it is useful to know what the limit is in the country you are driving in whether as a tourist or as someone who frequently crosses European borders by car for work.

While some countries, such as the Czech Republic, have zero tolerance for drinking and driving, in others people are allowed to have a certain amount of alcohol in their blood while driving.

However, not only can the rules be different between countries, they are usually stricter for commercial (or bus) drivers and novice drivers as well. Besides that, the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is extremely difficult to estimate, so the old “one beer is ok” standards no longer safely apply.

In the end, the only way to be safe is to avoid consuming alcohol before driving. Any amount will slow reflexes while giving you dangerous higher confidence. According to the UK’s National Health Service, there is no ‘safe’ drinking level.

How is blood alcohol level measured?

European countries mostly measure blood alcohol concentration (BAC), which is the amount, in grams, of alcohol in one litre of blood.

After alcohol is consumed, it will be absorbed fast from the stomach and intestine to the bloodstream. There, it is broken down by a liver-produced enzyme.

Each person will absorb alcohol at their own speed, and the enzyme will also work differently in each one.

The BAC will depend on these metabolic particularities as well as body weight, gender, how fast and how much the person drank, their age and whether or not (and how much) they have eaten, and even stress levels at the time.

In other words there are many things that may influence the alcohol concentration.

The only way to effectively measure BAC is by taking a blood test – even a breathalyser test could show different results. Still, this is the measuring unit used by many EU countries when deciding on drinking limits and penalties for drivers.

Here are the latest rules and limits.

Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Greece, Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, and Croatia

In most EU countries, the limit is just under 0.5g/l for standard drivers (stricter rules could be in place for novice or professional drivers).

This could be exceeded by a man with average weight who consumed one pint of beer (containing 4.2% alcohol) and two glasses of red wine (13% alcohol) while having dinner.

If a person is caught driving with more than 0.8g/l of blood alcohol content in Austria, they can pay fines of up to € 5,900 and to have their license taken for one year in some cases.

In France, if BAC exceeds 0.8g/l, they could end up with a 2-year jail sentence and a € 4,500 fine. In Germany, penalties start at a € 500 fine and a one-month license suspension. In Greece, drunk drivers could face up to years of imprisonment.

In Denmark, first time offenders are likely to have their licences suspended and could be required to go on self-paid alcohol and traffic courses if BAC levels are low. Italy has penalties that vary depending on whether or not the driver has caused an accident and could lead to car apprehension, fines and prison sentences.

In Spain, going over a 1.2g/l limit is a criminal offence that could lead to imprisonment sentences and hefty fines. 

Norway, Sweden, and Poland

In Norway, Sweden, and Poland, the limit for standard drivers is 0.2g/l. It could take a woman with average weight one standard drink, or one can of beer, to reach that level.

Penalties in Norway can start at a one month salary fine and a criminal record. In Poland, fines are expected if you surpass the limit, and you could also have your license revoked and receive a prison sentence.

Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia

The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia have one of the strictest rules in the European Union. There is no allowed limit of alcohol in the blood for drivers.

In the Czech Republic, fines start at € 100 to € 800, and a driving ban of up to one year can be instituted for those driving with a 0.3 BAC level. However, the harshest penalties come if the BAC level surpasses 1 g/l, fines can be up to € 2,000, and drivers could be banned from driving for 10 years and imprisoned for up to three years.

This is intended to be a general guide and reference. Check the current and specific rules in the country you plan to travel to. The easiest and best way to be safe and protect yourself and others is to refrain from drinking alcohol and driving.

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