When driving on the German Autobahn, one realizes that auto racing is not confined to famous race tracks like the Nürburgring. Germans, and the Austrians and Swiss, like to drive fast, and they have been in love with their cars ever since Carl Benz (1844-1927) invented the first practical motor car in 1885. The company formed by the 1926 merger of the two firms that Benz and fellow automobile inventor Gottlieb Daimler (1834-1900) had created would become the industrial giant Daimler-Benz AG.
Up until 2006, Germany was the third largest producer of automobiles in the world (exceeded only by Japan and the United States).* Germany is a country that takes its driving very seriously. This is understandable when you realize that a German driver’s license costs over $2000, after a minimum of 25-45 hours of professional instruction plus 12 hours of theory, and such a license used to be good for life. Beginning in 2013, the German license had to conform to the EU term of 10 or 15 years. German licenses issued before 2013 will become invalid by 2033 and must be replaced by the new European (EU) driver’s license.
Cars marked “Fahrschule” (driving school) mean a student driver may be at the wheel. However, you don’t have too much to worry about; in typical thorough German fashion, Fahrschule cars are equipped with dual controls so that the instructor can take over any time the student gets into serious trouble. The practical, on-the-road training time has to include night driving, autobahn experience, in-town driving, and a multitude of other driving situations. The test for a German driver’s license includes questions about the mechanical aspects of an automobile, in addition to the usual examination on the rules of the road.
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The Autobahn | Autobahn Tolls | Renting a Car in Europe |
Getting a German Driver’s License
German and European traffic law has a few variations that North American drivers may not always be aware of. For instance, it is illegal to pass on the right on the Autobahn. Slow moving vehicles must always move to the right, and faster vehicles may pass on the left only. The only exception is when both lanes are moving slowly (under 60 km per hour, 35 mph), as in the frequent traffic jams (Verkehrsstaus). In such cases drivers are allowed to pass on the right, but at a speed no higher than 20 km per hour faster than the traffic in the left lane. (For more on traffic laws in A, CH, and D see Driving – Part 2.)
You will see speed limit signs (round) posted much less often in Germany than in the U.S. But German drivers are expected to know the law. In cities and towns, the speed limit (Tempolimit) is 50 km/h (31 mph) unless otherwise posted. In the last decade or so, the “30-Zone” has gained great popularity. These are residential areas with a posted 30 km/h (18 mph) speed limit to protect children and pedestrians who live in the neighborhood. On normal two-lane highways the limit is 100 km/h (62 mph). Cars towing trailers must stay under 80 km/h (50 mph). The autobahn has a “suggested” speed limit of 130 km/h (80 mph), a suggestion widely ignored by many Mercedes and Porsche drivers. They may suddenly appear out of nowhere, close behind, blinking their brights to move you out of their way. Not even $8.00-per-gallon gasoline (in 2013) can make most German drivers slow down.
In Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, children under the age of 13 are not allowed to sit in the front seat of any vehicle that has a back seat. Seat belts are mandatory for the driver and all passengers in the car, front and back.
Most of Europe, including Germany, has a .05 (0.5 pro mille) blood alcohol limit for drunk driving. In former East Germany the legal limit for driving under the influence was zero until 1992. German law deals harshly with driving under the influence. Violators may lose their license on the first offense and must pay high fines.
It is rare to see a dented, smoking junk car in Germany. This is not just due to typical German neatness or pride of ownership. It also has to do with a German institution that is as feared and respected as is perhaps the Internal Revenue Service in the US. The Technische Überwachungsverein or TÜV is an agency that must approve the roadworthiness of German cars and trucks. Without a TÜV (pronounced TOOF) sticker, a vehicle can’t be licensed or driven. Cars have been known to fail TÜV inspection for having a single rust spot or dent in a critical location. A broken light or a malfunctioning exhaust system would be obvious reasons for rejection. A popular bumper sticker seen on older German vehicles likely to run afoul of TÜV reads, “Bis dass der TÜV uns scheidet.” (“Till TÜV us do part.”)…
Continued… (Part 2: Tips for driving in Germany/Europe)
*As of 2010 the ranking for the world’s top automobile-producing nations changed dramatically. Up until 2009 Japan held the top position, but by late 2009 or early 2010 China overtook Japan for the number one spot. With China’s climb, Japan is now second, while Germany drops to fourth place after the third-ranked USA. South Korea is currently in fifth place for world car production. (Sources: edn.com, iSuppli, OICA)
Note: This article is based on a chapter in the book The German Way by Hyde Flippo.
Next | Driving in Germany – Part 2