Fact and Fiction on the Autobahn

In Germany, the idea of a national speed limit is as controversial as gun control in the U.S.

By / March 2017

I was driving home from a meeting one day in Moers–cruising on the autobahn, mouth opened wide and singing–when suddenly a light flashed in my eyes and startled me. Busted, I looked down at the speedometer. I slowed down, but it was too late. A few weeks later, an envelope arrived by mail. Inside was an embarrassing picture of me, mouth agape and everything, along with a 15 Euro ticket. When I first moved to Germany, driving super fast on the German autobahn was near the top of my bucket list. But the reality of that experience has been very different than what I had imagined. In fact, there are quite a few myths related to driving in Germany:

Myth #1: On the autobahn you can drive as fast as you want.
It’s true that along some stretches of the 8, 000 miles of smooth, well-constructed highway, bravery is the only restraint on speed. In those zones, the recommended speed limit is 81 mph, but 100 mph is common, even in the slow lane. Audis and BMW’s fly past you. In many places, however, speed limits are posted and traffic cameras enforce those limits. Because there are more than 62 million registered cars in Germany, the autobahn tends to get congested. Germans calls traffic jams “stau.” Riding the brakes on the autobahn is not on anyone’s bucket-list but it’s a far more common experience than speeding.

Myth #2: Driving in Germany is easy and orderly.
It is, usually. But, with so many cars in Germany, parking is a problem. The smaller streets that drivers take to avoid the autobahn often resemble parking lots. Parking is highly regulated and usually only allowed on one side of the road, but when people get desperate, they chuck the rules, leaving a space that most drivers can only just barely squeeze through. Even when people follow the rules, drivers have to drive in the oncoming lane to get around the parked cars. You just hope that a car driving your direction will let you go first. Furthermore, on smaller, non-priority roads you always have to be aware of traffic entering your lane from a side road to your right. The priority is right-before-left, a rule I have forgotten more than once.

Myth #3: Speed is Germany’s number one value.
In a country that is famous for fast cars, the idea of a national speed limit is as controversial as gun control in the U.S. But for many Germans, peace and quiet trumps speed. In many places on the autobahn, speed is limited not for reasons related to passenger safety but in order to reduce noise. There are also no-fly zones that restrict the passage of air traffic for the same reason. Germans put a high premium on environmental protection. So, aren’t unlimited speed zones bad for the environment? Not according to German Environmental Minister Peter Altmaiar. “Speeding,” he says, “is not morally reprehensible as long as you stick to the rules.”

Myth #4: Driving in Germany is unsafe.
Driving in Germany is a privilege not available to everyone. I was able to trade my Louisiana license for a German license by taking an eye test and paying a small fee. For most people from other countries, however, both written and driving tests are required. Germans must attend expensive driving schools, first aid courses, and classes on driving theory. Because of this, Germany’s drivers, 18 years old at the youngest, are some of the best-trained in the world, a fact that makes the idea of driving at such high-speeds easier to accept. Also, Germans cars such as Mercedes, Volkswagen, BMW and Audi are ranked among the safest on the road.

Germany truly is a beautiful country to see by car. From the Romantic Rhine and the Black Forest to the Fairy Tale Trail, the scenery is breath-taking and driving on the autobahn can be, too. Just stay alert, cede right-of-way to the sports cars, and avoid non-priority roads. And if you’re going to speed, keep in mind that you’ll be caught on camera, so try, unlike me, to look the part.

 

Tara Thomas lives and writes in Germany.

 

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