On the Road Again: Renewing my Acquaintance with the German Autobahn

Today I drove from Frankfurt am Main to Berlin, a distance of about 550 km (342 mi). Most of that drive is on the iconic German Autobahn, and the trip reminded me that German drivers can be just as bad as American drivers, only at much higher speeds.

Autobahn A5

On the A5 autobahn headed for Berlin from Frankfurt am Main – with about 500 km left to go. PHOTO: Cheryl Flippo

It wasn’t the first time I’ve zoomed along the autobahn behind the wheel of a rental car. Over the years I’ve logged many kilometers on autobahns in Austria, France, Germany, and Switzerland. But the German autobahn is unique in two ways: (1) There are sections with no speed limit, and (2) you don’t need to pay an autobahn toll, as is the case in Austria, France, Switzerland, and many other countries.

There were stretches where I could really find out what my Peugeot 3008 diesel can really do. My cruising speed in those wonderful sections of the autobahn with no speed limit, and three lanes without a bunch of trucks was about 160 km/h (close to 100 mph). The car felt comfortable at 170 km/h (105 mph), and there were a few times I noticed I was hitting 170 or a little more. But even at 105 mph, some cars were passing me! Normally my standard speed on the autobahn is about 130 km/h (81 mph), but today I was tempted by some wide open spans of concrete and a desire to get to Berlin before dark.

One thing you learn quickly on the German autobahn is to carefully check your sideview mirror before making any move. You may see a set of headlights (during the day) far in the distance behind you suddenly turn into a car now passing you at 190 km/h (118 mph).

130 is actually the “recommended” top autobahn speed in Germany, but a lot of drivers I saw on today’s trip seemed to think that recommendation was too low. (130 km/h is the legal limit on the Austrian and Swiss autobahns.) The German saying is “Freie Fahrt für freie Bürger” (“free [unrestricted] driving for free citizens”). The subject of speed limits in Germany is a lot like the topic of gun rights in America. “Don’t you dare impose limits on my right to speed!”

But the German autobahn of legend is not the German autobahn I was driving on today. The real-world autobahn has speed limits, radar speed traps (that take your picture), construction zones, traffic jams (der Stau, pl. Staus) and drivers who should never get near an autobahn. The autobahn also has a few oddities – at least a few things that seem odd to an American. Here are three autobahn oddities that bug me (all having to do with speed):

  1. Reduced speed limits with no warning. You know those “reduced speed ahead” signs you see on US highways and Interstate freeways? The ones that warn you that need to ease up on the accelerator in a few hundred yards. The Germans don’t do that. You’re zipping along at 130 km/h when suddenly you see a round 100 sign, meaning you should now be at a speed of 62 mph instead of 81 mph. You usually find this out just as you happen to be passing a line of cars. No warning.
  2. Insane speed-zone changes for short distances. I saw this more than once today. Without any warning, of course, a reduced speed limit sign appears, say from 120 to 80 (50 mph). After less than a kilometer, suddenly you’re back to 120, and you scratch your head trying to figure out the reason for the brief 80 or 60 limit, not in a construction zone. And in construction zones, you’ll see speed limit signs going from 100 down to 60, all in a very short distance.
  3. Special speed limit signs that look like a normal speed limit – until you notice the small sign below the round speed limit saying “bei Nässe” – sometimes with a symbolic “wet pavement” graphic. They can fool you into thinking you need to reduce your speed on a normal dry day. Only after taking a closer look, difficult when you’re doing 80 mph, do you realize that the limit only applies if the pavement is wet. Europeans are used to this, I guess, but why not make make it look different than a normal speed limit sign?

One thing I do like: long autobahn sections where trucks are not allowed to pass other trucks. Yes, a similar ban may be seen once in a while on an Interstate in the US, usually on an incline, but in Germany it’s much more common in urban areas, and much more necessary. There were so many trucks today! I was wishing it were Sunday, when trucks aren’t allowed to be on any highway in Germany from midnight until 10:00 p.m. There are some exceptions for perishable foods cargo, but in general large trucks are banned on Sundays and holidays in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and a few other European countries. The German Wochenendfahrverbot law has been in effect since 1956, but it will never happen in the United States.


Also see: Seven Rules for Driving on the Autobahn.

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