Oh, yeah! The Autobahn! The fastest public road on planet Earth. Time to let loose and put the pedal to the metal, right? Not so fast, Tex. You may think that the Autobahn is just a free fire zone for speed, but there is plenty to know before you go tearing through the Germanic countryside. Failing to know the basics can be the difference between a memorable experience and hefty fine, or worse.
A long stretch of beautiful German countryside on the Autobahn — Photo courtesy of Charles Roberts
Believe it or not, the man we have to thank for the Autobahn as we know it today is none other than Adolf Hitler. Although the Autobahn was initially commissioned by the post World War I Weimar Republic, when Hitler came to power he scaled up construction on the project, making it available for use during World War II. He believed the system of highways was necessary to move troops and equipment quickly from one end of the country to the other efficiently. In fact, that’s the same reason why the US Interstate system was developed.
Despite its questionable origins, the Autobahn has come to be the German equivalent of the US Interstate. The simple name “the Autobahn” may lead one to think it is just one road. Actually, the “bahn” is an 8,000-mile network of highways that crisscrosses the country and goes to just about every major city in Germany, from Berlin to Frankfurt and beyond. Another shocker about the Autobahn is that parts of it actually do have speed limits, and even the parts without speed limits have an advisory speed of 130 kph or 81 mph. Speed limits tend to be imposed when the highway enters a metropolitan area where traffic can be congested at times, but for the most part, the Autobahn is limitless.
Before you venture onto the Autobahn, you’re going to want to do two things. The first is learn to read a little bit of German that pertains to traffic language. The Autobahn has electronic signs that tell travelers what’s going on up ahead, where to turn off, etc.
Even if you don’t bother to learn basic traffic language, for the love of all that is holy, at least learn the word “stau.” Google the phrase “Autobahn stau” and you’ll see why this is so important. “Stau” is essentially a warning for dense traffic up ahead, but as one person on an Autobahn message board put it, “stau is basically German for ‘massive traffic jam ahead; slow down immediately.’” A “stau” is effectively a completely gridlocked road, so when you see those four letters flash on a sign, make sure to act accordingly.
In a particularly bad "stau," drivers may even get out of their vehicles and mill around until traffic picks up again — Photo courtesy of Dmitry Klimenko
The second thing you'll want to do is find a suitable automobile for the Autobahn. If you’re on vacation in Germany and you rent a car, you may be tempted to go for one of the many economy cars available, but for the Autobahn you’re going to want something with enough kick to get up to speed quickly. It’s not uncommon to be passed by drivers doing as much as 160mph, so you'll want something that accelerates quickly and can duck out of the way if necessary. Do some homework beforehand and you’ll be just fine. It’s worth mentioning that German-made sports cars do receive preferential treatment on the Autobahn, too. A Porsche, BMW, or Audi will serve you well if you plan on going as fast as you want on the Autobahn.
Rules of the Road
As previously mentioned, there are some speed limits on the Autobahn. The speed limits are easily visible as they are round signs with a red border and a number in kilometers per hour. The sign for no speed limit is a circular sign with a black border with five thin black lines going from the upper right, down to the bottom left of the circle. When you see that sign it’s all wide open.
Another rule you will want to follow is the left lane rule. Like in America, Germans travel in the right lane. The rule of thumb in America is that the leftmost lane is for passing while the right lanes are for simply cruising. In Germany however, this matter of etiquette is a matter of law. The left lane is for passing only, and if you’re cruising in the left lane while traffic doesn’t demand it, you will be caught and fined by one of the many marked and unmarked police cars patrolling the Autobahn. Traffic laws are strictly enforced on the Autobahn, which is part of what makes it one of the safest highway systems in the world, despite having no general speed limit.
The Autobahn during the winter months — Photo courtesy of Eelke Dekker
In the past couple of years, rumors have been circulating about an American Autobahn. Texas now has a highway with a max speed limit of 85mph, and for a while Nevada was in talks with California in legislating a system that would allow drivers to take I-15 from LA to Las Vegas without speed limit restrictions for a small fee. Until the US figures out a way to properly emulate the Autobahn, make sure to make a trip to Germany to experience the real thing. After all, nothing can beat the original.