Papenburg Teststrecke

An exhausted trainee causes a fatal accident in which an engineer dies and now in court questions are raised about the legal responsibility. Which legal circumstances and conditions applied to car testing in Germany? The answer of this question given by German magazine Der Spiegel revealed a sad lack of responsibility and safety.

The 27-year old engineer Christof Kemmler had a dream job as development engineer at AMG-Mercedes. He was responsible for testing cars from the German manufacturer of supercars. He was busy testing the new SLS AMG Roadster which is powered by a 6.3 liter V8 engine that produces 563bhp together with 650Nm of torque. The engine is connected to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, which enables the car to accelerate from standstill to 100km/h in just 3.7 seconds and hit a limited top speed of 317km/h.

Kemmler, back from a holiday in California, was testing the latest flagship of the AMG stable at the test track in Papenburg. Just before closing time he was together with a colleague measuring the sound level inside of the car. While driving at a speed of 65km/h at the four lane track, the young engineer announced via the radio he would change lane.

Suddenly there was a big impact. A Mercedes SUV (not mentioned the type) weighing over 2,000kg hit the SLS Roadster. The emergency response teams were almost immediately at the scene of the accident, but for Christof Kemmler it was too late, he lost his life in the crash. His passenger was injured, the driver of the SUV was in shock.

Christof Kemmler

The 27-Year old engineer Christof Kemmler

The crash is currently being investigated by the court in Papenburg. This is a standard procedure in Germany, every tragic accident needs to be investigated. But Kemmler did not died at the public roads but at a supervised private test track, owned by Daimler AG, maker of Mercedes-Benz vehicles. The juridical process not only investigates whether or not the driver was negligent, but also under which circumstances and conditions cars being tested in Germany.

According to the prosecutor this accident is the result of criminally negligent manslaughter. It occurs where death results from serious negligence, or, in some jurisdictions, serious recklessness. A high degree of negligence is required to warrant criminal liability. It is most common in the case of professionals who are grossly negligent in the course of their employment. But according to Daimler the accident was the result of a human error and nothing more. The Stuttgart based company refused any further comment.

Papenburg Teststrecke

Investigation has revealed many inconsistencies and a peculiar attitude towards their own safety regulations. All vehicles at the Papenburg test track are equipped with a special tracking system which provides information to controllers. These controllers task is to prevent collisions, to organize and expedite the flow of traffic. This system is similar to the one used by the air traffic control at airports.

The tracking system is mandatory, but there is only one exception – during acoustic research like Kemmler did. In order to not interfere with acoustic measurements, the tracking system is shut off to prevent any noise pollution.

Another device which could have prevented the collision was a warning collision system which is standard on the Mercedes SUV. Also known as forward collision warning systems these system use radar to detect an imminent crash. This safety feature was ironically shut off as Daimler explained to the court.

Mercedes precrash system

A precrash system is an automobile safety system designed to reduce the severity of an accident.

The driver of the SUV was a 25-year old trainee which has arrived in Papenburg just a few days prior to the accident. He was neither experienced nor familiar with the track. But he was chosen to perform high speed tests with the electronic stability program (ESP), in which speeds up to 200km/h are required. It appears that this driver was not prepared well for his task. The briefing of his test was done on the Autobahn while the 630km drive from Stuttgart towards Papenburg was enlisted as a training. The young driver was not even licensed for driving on the test track. Another failure was the absence of a team leader during the tests.

The parents of Christof Kemmler concluded that a young, inexperienced and exhausted driver was used testing without any proper guidance and supervision. According to the parents this accident should not have happened at all. They claim that Daimler neglected its own safety regulations and they believe the Stuttgart based company is guilty on moral grounds.

Elizabeth Kemmler, the mother of the victim said that the car manufacturer failed to handle the whole situation. Initially after the crash the company wanted to know if the parents had spoken with the press. The parent had a hard time struggling to get a small cross made out of wood, a small memorial to their son being placed at the track.

At this moment the parents and the trainee had spoken via the telephone a couple of times as the trainee wanted to apologize for his involvement. He also wants to answer for his actions in front of the court as he said: “Although the regulations were very loose, that does not change the fact I was the one behind the steering wheel at the time of the accident.”

The operator of the Papenburg test track has imposed new safety regulations. Cars on track need be keep a safety margin of at least ten seconds. A new speed profile was installed as well, keeping slow and fast cars separated on different tracks.


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