The Autobahn

The German Autobahn has taken on an almost legendary mystique. The reality is a little different than the legend. The myth of no speed limits is countered by the fact that Tempolimits are a fact of life on most of Germany’s highways, and traffic jams are common.

The A5 Autobahn near Frankfurt am Main. Photo: Hyde Flippo

The A5 Autobahn near Frankfurt am Main. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Signs suggesting a recommended speed limit of 130 km/h (80 mph) are posted along most autobahns, while urban sections and a few dangerous stretches sometimes have posted speed limits as “low” as 100 km/h (62 mph). The fact is that Germany’s autobahn system is an extensive network of limited-access freeways that can usually provide a driver with a speedy route from city to city.

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Within six years after the completion of the first Cologne-Bonn autobahn in 1932, Germany added 3,000 kilometers (1,860 miles) of super highway to its road network. Although Hitler has often been given credit for the autobahn, the real precursors were the Avus experimental highway in Berlin (built between 1913 and 1921) and Italy’s 130-kilometer autostrada tollway between Milan and the northern Italian lakes (completed in 1923). Although Germany’s depressed economy and hyperinflation of the late 1920s prevented plans for new autobahns from being carried out at the time, many miles of roadway were built during the time of the Third Reich. Hitler saw the construction of autobahns primarily as a military advantage; its benefit as a job-creation program in the 1930s was an added plus.

Checking your rearview mirror is essential on the Autobahn! Drivers quickly learn the importance of looking in the rearview mirror before passing (on the left only!). At speeds of 130km/h (80 mph) and up, cars can suddenly appear out of nowhere. Photo © Hyde Flippo

Checking your rearview mirror is essential on the autobahn! Drivers quickly learn the importance of looking in the rearview mirror before passing (on the left only!). At speeds of 130km/h (80 mph) and up, cars can suddenly appear out of nowhere. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

Today’s German autobahn system stretches 11,000 km (6,800 miles) across most parts of Germany. Plans to increase the number and length of autobahns and other highways have often met with citizen opposition on ecological grounds. One example, a proposed stretch of autobahn along the Baltic coast in northern Germany, has been surrounded by controversy by those concerned with quality-of-life issues versus those who see economic benefits for the region.

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Austria also has an autobahn network, but unlike Germany, motorists must purchase a special toll sticker and display it on the windshield in order to drive on Austrian autobahns and Schnellstraßen (two-lane limited access highways). Some mountain autobahns and tunnels are toll (Maut) highways run by public companies. They are not covered by the standard Austrian autobahn toll sticker. The speed limit on Austrian autobahns is 130 km/h (80 mph). See more below.

Die Autobahnpickerl (Autobahn toll sticker)
Austria and Switzerland charge drivers a toll for the use of their autobahns. Both countries use a Vignette (autobahn sticker) that must be displayed on a car’s windshield. But the two countries don’t have the same fees or system. More: Autobahn Toll Sticker in Austria and Switzerland.

Adapted from a chapter in THE GERMAN WAY by Hyde Flippo

Next | Autobahn Toll Stickers in Austria and Switzerland