Driving in a foreign country is always a little intimidating. I’ve been to Japan where they drive on the left, in Mexico where they somehow turn two small lanes into three, and in Tenerife in the Canary Islands where the roundabouts alone are enough to make your head spin in confusion! But nothing is quite like the German Autobahn! With the varying speeds allowed for different types of vehicles, speed limits for when the road is wet, nighttime speed limits, and road signs that I’m convinced were designed to be confusing, driving here can sometimes be a bit of a nightmare!
First, let’s clear up what the Autobahn actually is. “Autobahn” literally translates to “highway.” I think many Americans believe the Autobahn is one big road that runs through Germany, but it is actually a collection of highways which are numbered like in the U.S. And while it is said that 60% of all Autobahns do not have a posted speed limit – meaning an actual sign stuck in the ground – they ALL (as far as I know) have large electronic signs so a speed limit can be posted and changed based on the current traffic. The electronic signs will also warn you of an upcoming traffic jam so you know that the speed limit of 80 is for a good reason and you should actually slow down!
In the States, it’s easy to know the speed. The signs are quite large – especially in comparison to the small, round, European signs. Where I’m from, for example, there will be one large sign that actually says “Speed Limit 75”, and another sign directly below it that says “Minimum Speed 55.” But in Germany, all the speed limit signs are fairly small and can be spaced far apart. You might see one that says “80” and below it, there’s an even smaller rectangular sign that says “bei nässe” (when wet). Then a few kilometers later, you’ll see a sign that says “100” and beneath it “von 22:00 bis 6:00” (from 10 pm – 6 am). And a few kilometers later, you’ll see a sign that says “120” with nothing else below it. That is the actual speed limit (unless it’s after 10 pm, of course). Then even later, you might see a white sign with light gray markings. It’ll have “120” written inside with a slash through it. Now you’re in an area with no posted speed limit and can go as fast as you want. Confused, yet? 🙂
We Americans like things to be clear. When a sign literally says “Bus Lane. No Parking” we know not to park there. End of discussion. But in Germany, the bus signs look like this:
No confusion there, right? Sure! Everyone knows what “H” stands for!
And how about this sign?… Any guesses?
If it has one slash through it, it means “no parking,” but two slashes like the one above means “don’t even stop here for the briefest of moments.” It just wouldn’t be right to make a sign that says “Kein Park Platz” or “Halte Verbot.” I mean, come on… even people who know NOTHING about the German language would likely be able to interpret what that means! But the blue and red is just so pretty, don’t ya think?
I genuinely can’t understand why they don’t just write things down and put all the speed limit signs together. For example, if the speed limit signs always had the posted speed on top, the nighttime speed directly below it, and the “when wet” speed below that, it would be far simpler. But in Germany, there’s actually a law that you can’t have 3 signs within a certain distance of one another. Otherwise, it’s too confusing for the drivers. I argue, however, that if they consistently grouped the signs together, people would always know exactly how fast to drive under certain conditions or during certain times of the day. Driving at night? Simply look at the 2nd sign and be done with it. Easy peasy.
When I first started driving in Germany, I avoided the autobahns like the plague until I got my job. I work 55km/30m from home and taking the congested city roads meant it took me about 90 minutes to get to work. And since public transportation would require a long walk, two trains, another walk, a bus ride, and another walk, driving on the Autobahn was my only option.
The signs are confusing enough, but consider this: Semis are legally only allowed to drive 80kph/50mph and should stay in the right lane except to pass. And you’d think that since they can all only go 80kph, there wouldn’t be a lot of passing, but you’d be VERY wrong. My husband calls these elephant races and they happen all the time. One day, I was zipping along in the middle lane at about 130kph/80mph when a truck decided to cut me off in order to pass another truck. I slammed on my brakes so hard I activated my automatic hazard lights! Then you have the far left lane where the trucks are not allowed. This lane should be approached cautiously. Check oncoming cars at least twice before venturing into the left lane. It’s not uncommon to see a car far behind you in the left lane only for you to get over and have them slamming on their brakes because they’re suddenly right at your bumper. (This only happened to me once. I learned my lesson really quickly.) These cars are often soaring at around 250kph/155mph, and getting in front of them could cause a dangerous accident.
It all sounds incredibly terrifying, right? Well, it was at first, but now I appreciate the order of things. In the States, when I pass a semi, I can’t always be certain that he won’t try to come into my lane, but in Germany, while driving in the left lane, I know that semi won’t ever venture into my lane! It is also illegal to pass people on the right so if you’re in the middle lane, you can trust that the only cars blowing past you will be on your left. Germans love rules, and I’ve only seen someone breaking the rules (such as passing on the right) a small handful of times. You DO have to be on high alert at all times because of the varying speeds and sudden traffic jams you’ll encounter on the Autobahn, but in my opinion, it is far less chaotic than driving in the States where anything goes such as a super-fast truck blowing past you on the right!
Now that I understand the rules of the Autobahn and am more familiar with German drivers, I honestly feel safer driving here than in the States. However, if you’re just coming for a vacation and you’ve never driven in Germany before, I suggest traveling by train or staying off the Autobahn. But if you must drive on the Autobahn and you’re nervous about it, just hang out in the right lane behind all the trucks. It’ll take you a little longer to get where you’re going, but the drive will be ultimately stress-free.