The Autobahn…

25 Aug

…and Driving in Germany!  As you know, last weekend was our furthest trek far…which meant lots of time on the Autobahn- 450km to be exact!  What we realized along the way was that we had alot of questions- what various signs meant, what were the ‘rules’ about this, was that allowed…So last night, we decided to do our homework- a crash course on the differences between driving here and in the States.  Yes, we’re quite the nerds- spending our evenings cuddled on the couch with the pups and driving sites on the laptop!  Don’t judge! 🙂

Our ride :). John had requested a station wagon for our first few days here so that we would have plenty of space for luggage. Then we just liked it...and decided to keep it!

*Just a little note- I was having some technical difficulties with my blog settings this morning, so you’ll see a couple spots where the font gets a little wonky- just ignore it.  Sorry about that!


The basic premise of German traffic law is the “doctrine of confidence”, which basically says that motorists must be alert, obey the law, and drive defensively at all times so that all motorists and other road users- including the TONS of pedestrians-can have confidence in each other.  You must be especially alert for and anticipate the actions of elderly or disabled pedestrians or children, all exempt from the doctrine.  Yep, the old folks here are actually ALLOWED to be pain-in-the-necks for the rest of us!

The minimum age to drive in Germany is 18-years-old.  Seat belts are required and children under 12-years-old aren’t allowed in the front seat.You must leave your doors unlocked while driving to facilitate rescue in an accident.  Motorcyclists must ride with helmets and headlights on at all times.  Talking on a cell phone while driving is against the law, as is revving your engine, repeatedly slamming your car door and ‘cruising’ a town (joyriding).  Hmmm…


The police are allowed to collect fines on the spot.  If you don’t have enough cash to cover it, you can pay with a credit card as they usually carry the slide machine with them.  Or, if you are unable or unwilling to pay, your vehicle may be impounded or you may be issued a citation to appear in court later.  The catch? If you refuse to pay the spot fine, you will likely be given a higher fine when you go to court.  Oh, and get this!  Most fines are based on your income!!  On the flip side, thankfully, German police are known as being very professional and corruption is very rare.

Some traffic violations are considered to be felonies: driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, leaving the scene of an accident, illegal passing, U-turns and wrong-way driving or backing-up on the Autobahn, failure to yield the right-of-way, and reckless driving including excessive speeding.  As for drinking and driving, the penalties here are much harsher than in the States.  The legal blood alcohol limit is .03 (it’s .08 in the States) and even first time offenders have their licenses suspended. In other words, with the high alcohol content of German social beverages, it doesn’t take long to hit the limit. So…The best advice is this: if you drink AT ALL, don’t drive!

Most moving-violation enforcement here is handled via enforcement cameras-  permanent and temporary cameras, automated and manually-operated– are used to catch speeders, red-light violators, and tailgaters.  Sometimes there’s a tiny sign hidden in the bush warning you about a camera ahead (I’m not sure I believe this!), but it’s usually too late by the time you see it (that’s more like it!).  If the camera catches you doing something, a bright light flashes, letting you know to expect a ticket (John’s been flashed twice now.  In his defense, the flashes were before we knew what was going on!)  Citations are then mailed to the vehicle owner within a few weeks.  What about rental cars, you ask?  The ticket will go to the rental agency, who will then forward it along to you.  Best part?  The police generally drop cases against non-EU (European Union) residents as it’s too much of a hassle since the odds of collecting are pretty slim.  🙂

And for you old-schoolers, some enforcement is still done the old-fashioned way.  If you get busted, you’ll likely be signaled to pull over by a “flashing lollypop” traffic paddle being held out of the window, then the cop will pull in front of you with a sign saying ‘Polizei, Bitte Folgen’ (Police, Please Follow) to take you to the side of the road.


There are a TON of signs here, and while some are just like the ones we have in the States, there are plenty of ones that we’ve never seen before!  Germany uses a system of “priority roads-” traffic on a priority road has the right-of-way (priority) over other traffic at all intersections along the way- intersecting streets will yield or stop.  These roads are marked with a Priority road sign, so it’s up to you to be on the lookout for them at all times!   These roads are cancelled by the End of priority road sign.  (As you’ll see, everything has a ‘cancellation sign’!)

Speed Limits

In Germany, there are “default” speed limits- you’re required to know them and obey when there aren’t posted signs (how conveeeeeeenient, right?!)  Within city limits (including the tiniest of rural towns!), the default speed is 50km/h.  Outside city limits (and between cities), it’s 100km/h.  On major highways, it’s 130km/h.  Note to self: commit this info to memory.  Check.

Signs like this: Entering urban area , mark the entrance to an urban area.  When you pass one, you’re supposed to know the following things apply until you pass the cancellation sign:

  • Speed limit is 50 km/h
  • You’re not allowed to honk your horn
  • Parking is prohibited within 5m of a railroad crossing

The Leaving urban area sign doubles as a cancellation and information sign- that you’re leaving one area (and its default traffic regulations) and the following things apply:

  • Speed limit is 100 km/h
  • Parking is prohibited on priority roads
  • Parking is prohibited within 50m of a railroad crossing
  • Disabled vehicles must be marked with a warning triangle (all cars come with one that must be put out if you stop on the side of the road for any reason)

“Traffic calming zones” are things you’d think we’d understand at face value, but really…not so much.  I find them totally odd.  The start of a zone is marked by the Traffic calming zone sign (it will continue until you pass the cancellation sign) and the following rules apply:

  • Speed limit is 7 km/h
  • Pedestrians may use the entire street; children are permitted to play in the street!  (Yep, think soccer games going on in the middle of the freakin’ street!)
  • Motorists may not hinder pedestrians- when necessary, motorists must wait. (Seriously?)
  • (Thankfully) Pedestrians may not unnecessarily hinder traffic.  (Is it ever ‘necessary’ to hinder traffic?)
  • Parking is not permitted outside of marked spaces (In regular zones, you can park along the street or on the sidewalk).

The Autobahn

What ‘German Rules of the Road Guide’ would be complete without the Autobahn (duh duh duhhhh 🙂 ), the pinnacle of the German driving experience, perhaps the ultimate in driving altogether?!  Virtually everyone and their brother has heard of it and longed to conquer it.  Well…I think some would be disappointed the first time they drive on the Autobahn.  If you’re like me, you’d come with visions of a twenty-lane superhighway where cars are barely a blur as they whiz by.  In reality, it looks like a typical freeway and no, not everyone is hurtling along at the speed of sound.  The stories of speed anarchy are only half true– many sections of Autobahn do, in fact, have speed limits. 😦

Still, the Autobahn offers the transcendent driving experience.  The roads are superbly designed, built and maintained, even now in the East where the German government had to undo 40 years of Communist “maintenance”.  Amenities are numerous, and drivers are well-trained and cooperative.  It’s literally life in the fast lane on the Autobahn.  (Like you didn’t see that one coming! 🙂 )

The Autobahn

So…The general rule for design is to provide for unimpeded, high-speed traffic flow. Most Autobahns (yes, the term is used for all highways in the country, as opposed to just one glorious road!) feature the following design elements:

  • Two, three, or occasionally four lanes per direction, each lane being 3.5m wide.
  • A landscaped “green” median, also 3.5m wide, with a double-sided guardrail running down the middle.  Blinders are often used on curves to prevent distractions.
  • Extra-long acceleration and deceleration lanes.
  • Interchanges (usually full clover-leaf) are generally well-spaced, at least 30 km between.
  • Grades of 4% or less with climbing lanes provided on most steep grades.
  • Gentle and well-banked curves to eliminate the need to slow down often.
  • Freeze-resistant concrete
  • Reflector guide posts every 50 meters

In addition, Autobahns also feature ALOT of amenities:

  • Frequent parking areas, often equipped with bathrooms. (One of my favorite parts of traveling here- you can literally stop whenever you want to!)
  • Extensive and ample service areas featuring filling stations, restaurants, and hotels.  (Think supersized rest areas…You just pull off the road and this is what you find.)

  • Automated traffic and weather monitoring and electronic signs providing dynamic speed limits and/or advance warning of congestion, accidents, construction, and fog.
  • Emergency telephones at 2 km intervals.
  • Wildlife protection fencing, crossover tunnels and “green bridges”.

Maintenance seems to be awesome.  Apparently, crews inspect every square meter of the system periodically using vehicles with high-tech road scanning equipment.  When a fissure or other defect is found, the entire road section is replaced.  Signs, barriers, and other features are also well maintained.

To help maintain safe grades, there are lots of tunnels and bridges.  Talbrucke, “valley bridges,” are often over 1600 feet high and sometimes over 1/2 mile long.

Typical Autobahn Bridge

There are more than 65 tunnels on the Autobahn, both through mountains as well as in urban areas.  Because of recent tunnel disasters elsewhere in Europe, all tunnels now have extensive safety systems with 24-hour video monitoring, motorist information radio and signs, frequent refuge rooms with emergency telephones and fire extinguishers, emergency lighting and exits, and smoke ventilation systems.

Typical Autobahn Tunnel

Like you’d expect, there are special laws that apply when driving on the Autobahn:

  • Anything that can’t travel at least 60km/h is prohibited, so no bikes, mopeds or pedestrians.
  • It’s illegal to pass on the righthand side.  It’s the law (gosh, I wish that was the case in the States!) that slower vehicles must move to the right to allow faster traffic to pass, and drivers should stay in the right lane except to pass.  When passing, you should do it as quickly as possible- afterall, it’s in your best interest to do so lest you become a hood ornament on that Porsche that was just a speck in your mirror a second ago and now is close enough for you to see the look of distain on the driver’s face!
  • There’s no stopping, parking, U-turns, or backing-up, including on shoulders and ramps.
  • Traffic entering the Autobahn must yield to traffic already on the Autobahn. (Another one I wish we’d inherit at home!)
  • On Autobahn sections with three (or more) lanes, neither trucks nor any vehicle with a trailer are allowed to use the far left lane.  (AMEN!)
  • Oh, this one is neat!  It’s ILLEGAL to run out of gas on the Autobahn!  Yep, it’s illegal to stop unnecessarily and this law is also applied to people who run out of fuel as such an occurrence is deemed to be preventable. Ha! 🙂
  • And, unlike in Italy where it’s common practice (one of John’s favorite Italian practices, I might add, when he’s working in Rome), flashing your high beams to politely (or not) request that the car in front of you vacate the lane so you can pass is illegal here.  Such actions apparently violate Germany’s Coercion Laws and will get you a ticket!

Despite the widespread belief of complete freedom from speed limits, there are some regulations.  Many sections do indeed have permanent or dynamic speed limits ranging from 80 (trucks and trailers) to 130 km/h (cars), particularly those with dangerous curves, in urban areas, near major interchanges, or with unusually constant heavy traffic.  That said, about two-thirds of the Autobahn network has no permanent speed limit and are posted like the picture below :).

No Speed Limit

Despite the prevailing high speeds, the accident, injury and death rates on the Autobahn are remarkably low.  The Autobahn carries about a third of all Germany’s traffic, but its injury accidents account for only 6% of such accidents nationwide and less than 12% of all traffic fatalities were the result of Autobahn crashes.  In fact, the annual fatality rate (2.7 per billion km in 2009) is consistently lower than that of most other superhighway systems, including the US Interstates (4.5 per billion km in 2009). Interesting, huh?

So, boys and girls, the next time you’re in Germany, you’re now prepared to get off the plane, get the keys to your rental car and GO!  OK, I’d still recommend doing some of your own research just to be safe, but at least you have something to build on!  Happy Driving! 🙂

2 Responses to “The Autobahn…”

  1. Robin August 25, 2010 at 8:20 PM #

    When I get there, someone else will have to drive.

    • Erin T. August 25, 2010 at 8:27 PM #

      Oh, have no fear 🙂 The important part is to just get here! Miss you TONS!

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