Galavanting about Europe in my early twenties, I spent a spring holiday in Italy. The journey began in Germany, meandering from Frankfurt down through the Black Forest, into Switzerland and through the Gotthard Tunnel (17 km!) to get to the Italian border. The entire landscape was breathtaking and awe-inducing, and the drive through Switzerland is still one of my favorite stretches of road anywhere. After a lovely week full of Italian food and culture, we headed back toward Germany to return our rental car. Just one little side note: it was my first time actually driving in Germany, and the trip to return the rental car was an hour and a half of Autobahn driving.
The Autobahn is famous worldwide for its seemingly un-German personality: carefree, unlimited, full-force driving. The experience of the Autobahn as a complete novice is something more like white-knuckles, sweaty-palms, full-force nerves. I spent my entire first trip as a solo driver on the Autobahn in a state of complete terror, gripping the steering wheel, following my leading driver, listening to static on the radio the entire trip because I was too afraid to look away from the road to find a new station on an unfamiliar car stereo. In fact, I think my muscles were sore the next day from all the tension.
I think we drove around 120 kph that day (75 mph), nothing I would consider remotely fast anymore.
Since then, I have logged countless hours driving on the Autobahn (and countless more in Staus (traffic jams) on the Autobahn). For while the speed-limit-free stretches of the Autobahn are legendary, so are the traffic jams, particularly at the start and end of school holidays. Here are a few things to which I have adapted as a driver in Germany.
1) Follow the rules. The high speeds and high density work well on the Autobahn because everyone follows some basic rules. We have them listed in the German Way site. (One that is not included: drivers on the Autobahn have the right of way, and do not have to yield to traffic merging from an entrance ramp. This is the opposite to the US rule and can get you in trouble – drivers on the Autobahn won’t slow down to let you in!)
2) Know your destination. Now that the GPS tells you where to turn, this is less of an issue. However, road signs in Germany don’t tell you that you are on the A8 headed East. They inform you that you are on the A8 headed toward Munich. It is your job to know that Munich is east of Stuttgart, and therefore in the direction you wish to travel (or not, as the case may be). This difference in navigation is more troublesome than you might think, especially for North Americans who are used to navigating with compass directions on major roadways.
3) Drive a German car. Something that amazed me about the Germans when I moved there was that the majority seem to drive German cars. I found this touchingly patriotic at first. Then I drove a French car for a while, with regular 4-hour journeys on the Autobahn. And I discovered that all cars are not created equal. A German car will hug the freeway as your speed increases, and is built solidly – you have the feeling that you would have a fighting chance in a pile-up. The French car I drove did the opposite: at high speeds, it began to float on the freeway, as if the rear end were swaying as I drove down the road. I found I couldn’t drive much more than 160 kph (100mph) in that car. In a German car, whether VW or BMW, you don’t have that problem. If you are driving the Autobahn as a tourist, make sure you rent a German make of car for your trip – you will enjoy it much more!
After just a few months in the country, I was pretty comfortable driving on the Autobahn. It took plenty of practice, often at non-peak hours, learning my routes and internalizing the rules of the road. At about that time I also achieved fluency in the language and was able to follow the traffic reports on the radio, helping me to avoid a few Staus. Now that I am in North America where the roads are filled with lazy drivers who don’t pay attention to the road (texting! so much texting while driving!) or the rules of driving, I miss the Autobahn, with its clear precision of driving rules and drivers maneuvering to outpace each other. For while driving on the Autobahn is demanding, it is also predictable – perhaps its personality is very German after all.