Photo source: German National Tourist Office
One minute I’m looking in the rearview mirror, and the left lane is clear. Within seconds, a car flies by me, and I’m left stupefied, staring at my speed gauge, which says that yes, I am going 90 mph (145 km), and yet I feel like I’m in that dream where you’re running as fast as you can, but you aren’t moving forward at all.
It’s not strange to feel like that as an American driving the autobahn, even if, like me, you have been called a lead foot at times. What passes for speed on our national highways is laughable in places along Germany’s 8,046-mile long autobahn highway network. In fact, almost every time I was scheduled to meet German hosts along a road trip last year that took me from Marburg to Sababurg, to Heidelberg, Stuttgart, Baden-Baden and the Black Forest, they remarked about how Americans were always late. Turns out, the schedules that they provided were based on how long it took a German to drive the same route—a time frame that I never quite mastered.
A Racetrack of Roads
The autobahn, which is officially known in Germany as Bundesautobahn, is the first limited-access, high-speed road network in the world. I originally thought that it was just one major roadway, but in fact, it is made up of main roads (marked with an ‘A’ and a single digit number), and smaller roads that connect major cities or regions in the country (marked with an ‘A’ and a double number). In many places, there is a speed limit—especially in urban areas, in construction zones, and in high-accident areas. In other places, though, it’s practically a free-for-all, which is what makes the drive such a challenge—and so much fun.
The "advisory speed limit" is 81 mph (130 km), though you’ll pretty much feel like you’re using a walker if you try to hold to it. Even driving faster, it’s not surprising to get passed by other vehicles, especially when a lot of the drivers are behind the wheels of some pretty primo cars—Germany is home to both Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, cars that can reach speeds of up to 190 mph (305 km) or more…and they do. And no, that isn’t a typo. The cars that were whipping by me were gorgeous, expensive, top-of-the-line performance models, leaving the Škoda that I was driving in the dust. Personally, I wouldn’t drive anything that cost a year’s salary at those speeds. But who am I kidding? I wouldn’t drive anything at that speed.
Rules of the Road
The good news is that while aggressive, drivers in Germany are well-trained before they get behind the wheel. Unlike in the U.S., where you study a small manual and take a pretty simple road test, drivers in Germany have to attend driving school, and pass a two-stage test that includes theory and a road test. They also have to take an eye exam, and complete a roughly eight-hour first-aid course.
And this isn’t some high school Drivers’ Ed blow-off course, either. The cost to get a license is, on average, $1,800—and in 2011, the failure rate was 28 percent. The test itself is taught on public roads, and includes a minimum number of lessons on the autobahn. Talk about trial by fire!
If you’re traveling in Germany, you don’t need to get a German license, unless you’re planning to stay six months or more. But you do need to know the rules of the road, which include:
- No passing on the right! In Germany, it is illegal, and extremely dangerous to do.
- If you’re passing, as soon as there is space, move right. You do not want to be lollygagging in that left lane when someone going 100 mph wants to get by.
From my personal experience, I’d add:
- Learn the German road signs before you go. I thought that road signs would be fairly universal no matter where you traveled. I thought wrong.
- Always use your side mirrors and your turn signals. You’d think this would be obvious, but there’s no room for error at high speeds.
- Take a break. It is seriously intense to drive at high speeds for long distances, so take an exit, check out the beautiful German countryside, and get out and stretch your legs and rest your eyes for a few minutes. I didn’t realize how tense my neck muscles were until I got out of the car and tried to turn my head.
- Be well-rested. You don’t want to make split-second decisions while tired.
- If you’re not comfortable, stay in the slower right lane. The autobahn isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t drive it. Just stay in the right lane where the speeds are a little more familiar.
Once you get used to it, the autobahn is a blast to drive. But just remember that you have to be extremely careful—and leave early to make it to your destination if you don’t have nerves of steel.
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