Perhaps the only positive legacy of the Hitler regime — aside from the dysfunctional family of Porsche, Volkswagen, and the state of Lower Saxony — remains the network of masterfully conceived, perfectly engineered, high-speed superhighways we know as the Autobahn. Originally designed to swiftly move Germans from one end of the country to the other, especially those in military uniforms and armored vehicles, the Autobahn’s legendary unlimited speeds have not only shaped the priorities of virtually every German carmaker, they’ve practically made “the ‘Bahn” a national icon. There’s not a car enthusiast alive who hasn’t dreamt of opening up his favorite car on its perfect asphalt and running it out until the wind refuses to allow further velocity. But there’s more to it than simply putting the pedal to the floor and holding on to the wheel.
American tourists are often intimidated by the prospect of driving the Autobahn for the first time, but the truth is that the Germans are some of the most courteous and conscientious drivers in the world. If you follow their rules, (und you vill follow zee rules!) you’ll find it one of the most satisfying driving experiences of your life. In fact, once you’ve driven on the Autobahn, you’ll find driving back home to be extremely frustrating.
Should you ever be lucky enough to take European delivery of a new vehicle in Germany, or for that matter simply rent a car on vacation, you’ll no doubt be tempted to join the locals in search of vMax. To avoid turning a joy ride into certain disaster, we’ve compiled some advice based on numerous trips that have taken us from scared shitless to confident and capable.
Some Parts of the Autobahn Have Speed Limits
The Autobahn is famous for having no speed limit, but that’s not always the case. In fact, there are more miles of restricted-speed Autobahn than unrestricted. Around larger cities, there will always be a limit in place, usually between 100 and 130 km/h. In other areas, speeds may be restricted due to geographical or weather conditions, such as mountain passes or areas that are routinely foggy. There may also be specific speed limits imposed during wet weather or at night.
Speed limits are displayed on circular white signs with simple black digits, indicating the maximum speed in kilometers per hour. Where speed is restricted, the limit is strictly enforced. There are often speed cameras in these zones, and tickets will find their way to you Stateside (ask me how I know). However, German speed limits seem to be generally fair and geared toward safety rather than revenue generation, which means you won’t find German police hiding behind bridge embankments, waiting to leap on the unsuspecting.
Unlimited speed zones, the fantasy of every driving enthusiast, are indicated by a white circular sign with five black lines passing through it diagonally. Feel free to drive as fast as you can, but be aware there will almost always be someone faster than you on the road. Besides, traffic typically dictates a pace of somewhere between 180 and 210 km/h (about 110 to 130 mph).
Germans Take Traffic Etiquette Seriously
Germans take driving, like most things they do, very seriously. The laws are the laws, and respect for other road-users is part of the protocol. On the Autobahn, this spirit manifests itself mostly in lane etiquette. For instance, while Americans may know that the left lane is intended for passing only, the Germans strictly obey this rule, using the left-most lane only for overtaking slower traffic before politely moving back to the right. The overall passing dynamic looks more like a giant game of Leapfrog rather than a weaving project. Even in congested traffic, you never pass on the right.
Another example of fraternal cooperation is the so-called “zipper rule” that applies when lanes merge: Like teeth in a zipper, cars from the two convergent lanes take turns filing neatly into a single stack. This orderly arrangement is vastly different from our more selfish and territorial method of cock-blocking those drivers whose lane is ending to prevent them from coming into “your” space. As you can imagine, there are fewer back-ups as a result.
Merging follows a similar order. When you enter onto the Autobahn, you are expected to assertively make your way into a travel lane and bring yourself up to speed as quickly as possible (that’s not always so easy with some of the rental cars there), and traffic will generally make room for cars merging in.
Look Far Ahead and Check Mirrors Frequently
The high-speed environment of the Autobahn means things change around you quickly, and the simple act of driving these great highways demands far more attention than your typical Interstate jaunt. You’ll need to scan far ahead to be aware of slower moving traffic, merging zones, and lane reductions, because even at a 130 km/h, everything happens much faster than we’re used to.
Perhaps even more important is checking behind you regularly — sorry, constantly. You simply must be aware of what’s coming up behind you before you jump left to pass a slower-moving Fiat or anything with Belgian plates. Failure to discern a much faster-moving car from a distance can lead to aggravation if not outright catastrophe. You need to scan all three rearview mirrors constantly to be aware of what’s coming up and how fast they are closing in. Germans, in typical fashion, have a word for this that translates to “loose neck,” meaning that your head should constantly be checking your mirrors to ensure good situational awareness.
Flash to Pass
What is seen as a rude gesture here is generally considered a matter of polite communication in Germany. When you are traveling in the fast lane to make your way around slower traffic, you are given permission to flash your high-beam headlights to traffic ahead, giving anyone who is also in that lane advanced warning that you are about to fill their rearview mirror. If you are traveling at a significantly higher rate than other traffic, common practice is to keep the high beams on until you’ve passed everyone. The technique is considerably different from the American version, which involves riding the ass of slower traffic and using the high beams to intimidate them into moving the hell out of the way.
Know the Limits of Your Car’s Brakes and Tires
Even where law enforcement sets no restriction on vehicle speed, the car you drive may be its own limiting factor. Many sections of Autobahn pass through mountain ranges and valleys, and it’s not uncommon for weather to change suddenly and frequently in some areas. Because of these conditions, it’s important to know the limits of your vehicle, specifically the brakes and tires. Topping out a rented Golf can be no problem in many areas, but it’s not inconceivable to cook the brakes while scrubbing off the better part of 200 km/h coming downhill before you exit. Depending on the season in which you travel, your car may be fitted with snow tires, which will automatically limit your maximum speed in most performance cars.
Get Familiar with the Signage
The great thing about driving in Europe is that most of the instructional signage is strictly iconographic, with almost no text at all. As a result, most instructions are practically universal. Still, there are some signs specific to the German language, and it pays to know a few of the common driving terms. For instance, bei nÃ¤sse means in wet weather, and will generally indicate a different speed limit. Similarly, nebel will indicate a fog warning.
A great example of this need for familiarity is the oft-told anecdote of two Americans who, upon getting lost, attempted to orient themselves on the map by trying to locate the town of Ausfahrt. They were astonished they couldn’t find the town on the map, since it appeared to be rather large. In fact, every exit they passed for miles seemed to point to the town of Ausfahrt. If only they’d done a little homework they would have known that ausfahrt is the German word for “exit.”