The autobahn in Germany, Austria and Switzerland can be a fun, fast way to reach your destination – or a frustrating traffic jam (Stau) experience. This guide is designed to help you make your autobahn experience as positive as possible. Below we present our “German Way Autobahn Rules” – the most important rules of the road for driving on the autobahn and other European limited-access highways.
The Rules of
If you are used to driving on interstate highways and freeways in the US, you need to know about the differences between US traffic laws and those in Germany and Europe. Also, when driving in Germany, you need to drive like a German – at least like the good German drivers. That means not only knowing the rules (official and unofficial), but adapting to a different style of driving. Europeans, Germans in particular, have a more aggressive approach to driving. If you remain a typical, more laid-back American driver, you may have problems. You also need to be alert and pay even more attention to the road than required in the US.
NOTE: For more information on general driving rules in the German-speaking countries, see Driving in Germany.
- GW Rule 1: No passing on the right!
The first thing any driver needs to know about the rules of the autobahn is that passing on the right is verboten! It is illegal to pass a vehicle on the right. You must move into a left lane in order to pass. (The only exception is when traffic is moving at a very slow rate of speed, such as during a traffic jam.) The pass-on-the-left-only rule is one of the things that make the autobahn work.
- GW Rule 2: Double check your side-view mirror before moving into the left lane!
Always check your left side-view mirror! Especially on sections of the autobahn with no speed limit, this is critical. Speeding cars can sudddenly appear out of nowhere and zoom past you at speeds exceeding 100 mph. You may be doing the “recommended” speed of 130 km/h (80 mph) and see German drivers passing you as if you were standing still.
- GW Rule 3: Slower traffic stays to the right!
As in the US, whenever possible, move into the right lane. Most German drivers are good about this, but some non-German drivers are not. If you are passing several vehicles in a row (usually trucks), you can stay left or in the middle lane, but as soon as there is space, move right. If you see a vehicle coming up from behind you at a higher rate of speed, signal and move over. Don't be surprised if they flash their high beams. It's common and only considered mildly rude. Just move over.
- GW Rule 4: Always use your blinkers!
German drivers use their signal lights to indicate a lane change, and so should you. German-made cars have blinker controls that make the turn signal blink three times and then shut off automatically. A slight nudge on the control lever activates that feature. A stronger push activates the normal turn signals that you have to turn off, or that turn off after a right or left turn.
- GW Rule 5: Obey the speed limit!
Contrary to popular myth, there are speed limits on the autobahn. While there are still a few stretches of autobahn where it is legal to put the pedal to the metal and drive at top speed, those sections are limited, and growing more limited by the year.* While it may be legal, it may not be wise. You will also see square blue signs with white numbers reading "130" in Germany. That means 130 km/h (80 mph), the recommended top speed on the German autobahn (and the legal maximum speed on motorways in most European countries). The legal speed limit is a black number on a round white sign outlined in red (see sign images below). Sometimes there are also overhead electronic signs indicating the speed limit and warnings. Many autobahn sections have limits of 120 km/h (75 mph), 110 km/h (68 mph) or lower, especially in urban areas. Germany uses unmarked police cars and automated roadside radar/photo devices that take pictures of violators. Yes, you will see scofflaws who blatantly exceed the posted limit, but it can be expensive if you join them and get caught. - See more about speed limits below.
- GW Rule 6: Take a break every two hours!
Driving on the autobahn can be draining. After two hours or so, it's wise to take a break. The autobahn has rest stops (Raststätten) with gas stations, restaurants, shops, picnic tables and toilets (with an entrance fee of 70 euro cents!). There are also more modest stops along the way with just picnic tables and parking. Take advantage of these for occasional breaks from driving.
- GW Rule 7: Go with the flow!
German drivers can be aggressive on the autobahn. When they pass you and suddenly cut in front of you, with a much smaller comfort zone than is normal in North America, don’t take it personally. It is just the way they drive. You’d think that for all the money it can cost to get a German driver's license (up to $3,000!), they would be better drivers. Well, for Germany, they are, and you can’t change that. Just learn to go with the flow and realize that you are not in North America. - Also see: How to Get a German Driver’s License.
*Advocating autobahn speed limits in Germany is like advocating tougher gun-control laws in the US – and just about as likely.
| GERMAN AUTOBAHN SIGNS
End of speed limit
Advised speed limit
No speed limit
End of no passing
Sign images from Wikimedia Commons
Unfortunately, construction delays and traffic jams are also part of driving on the autobahn. If you understand German, most German radio stations announce the location and length of traffic jams (Staus, pron. SHTOWS, rhymes with "cows"). It is not uncommon for such congestion to stretch out for many kilometers.
Some GPS units, called a Navi in German (pron. NAH-vee), can also identify traffic problems and route you around them. Bring your own GPS or rent one with your rental car. If you bring your own, make sure it has updated maps for Europe. See our GPS Navigation page for more.
Speed Limit Signs in Germany
In Europe, including Germany, you will rarely see warnings like “reduced speed ahead.” One minute you may be doing 130 km/h, and suddenly you see a 110 limit sign. You are expected to pay attention to the posted limits. Approaching a construction zone (or on exits in France), you will see a series of speed limit signs, usually starting with 100, (62 mph) then another sign with 80 (50 mph), then another with 60 (35 mph). You can’t resume speed until you see an end-of-speed-limit sign or a new posted speed. See the sign examples above.
Paying for Gasoline (Benzin)
At autobahn and other gas stations, you pump gas (or diesel) and then go inside to pay the cashier. (Lock your car and leave it at the pump, since no one can pump gas there until you've paid.) The cashier will ask for your pump number (You do know your German numbers up to 10, right?), so note that before you go inside. You can pay cash or use a credit card. Some stations require pre-payment during late hours, but usually you pay after you pump. Non-autobahn stations in Germany may or may not accept card payment. Look for the usual credit card logos at the door or by the register. (The EC card is not a credit card; it is a bank debit card for European residents only.)
Credit card readers at the pump (pay-at-the-pump) seem to be a thing of the past in Germany. I never found one on my last trip. I always had to go inside and pay the cashier, whether cash or credit.
MORE > The Autobahn - Legend and reality
MORE > Driving in Germany
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- Driving in Germany - Our main driving page
- Driving - Part 2 - Driving tips for Germany
- Driving: Environmental Zones - Many cities in Germany have "green zones" that require a special sticker for entry.
- Autobahn Tolls - You'll need to buy an autobahn sticker in Austria and Switzerland.
- The Autobahn - Legend and reality
- Cultural Differences - USA-Germany - Comparison charts for various customs and daily life in the two countries!
- Hotels in Germany - Lodging in Germany and Europe
- How to Get a German Driver’s License
- Police (with links to German and Austrian police Web sites!)
- The Autobahnpolizei, the German highway patrol
- GPS Navigation in Germany and Europe - rent or buy
- Travel Page - Travel-related links of all kinds for German Europe
ON THE WEB
- Eight Rules for Driving on the German Autobahn - from Car and Driver magazine, in English
- The Autobahn - Brian Purcell's very informative "Guide to Driving in Europe" has more details about the autobahn.
- Traffic Signs - Images of German traffic signs from Wikipedia
MORE > Driving in Germany