Autobahns are known as freeways or motorways elsewhere on the planet. They feature at least two lanes in each direction, sometimes three, and very rarely four. They are restricted to vehicles which, by virtue of their construction, can go faster than 60kph.
This not to say that there is a lower speed limit for traffic. There is no general upper speed limit either, apart from the one that's imposed on you by the car in front.
Names and Colours
Autobahns have names that consist of an 'A' followed by up to three digits. As a rule of thumb, even-numbered roads connect east to west destinations (eg the A42 runs between Moers and Castrop-Rauxel in the Ruhr area), whereas odd numbers indicate mainly a north to south direction.
'B' designators refer to Bundesstrassen, the road category below autobahns, and follow the same numbering rule. Names starting with an 'E' are just synonyms for 'A' and indicate major inter-European autobahn connections. 'U' codes refer to Umleitung, or pre-defined deviations, which guide you around known traffic jam hot-spots via 'B' class roads.
Tourist information is shown in white letters against a brown background. All information necessary for navigating on autobahns is available on signs with white letters on blue backgrounds. Black printing on a yellow background is used for navigation on 'B' class roads. Small green labels are used for 'E' connections, but there are no road signs with green backgrounds in Germany. If driving from Belgium via Germany and Switzerland to France, be prepared for a great deal of confusion.
Cars enter and leave at an ausfahrt sign, which is not a city name, but which means 'exit'. Upon entering an autobahn, you are supposed to accelerate as hard as you can, while still on the sidestrip. But don't expect to see others doing this. Cars already on the autobahn have right of way over the ones on the sidestrip. People on the right-hand lane will move to the left and get in the way of cars in the middle lane, rather than crashing into cars entering onto the autobahn from the sidestrip.
Accordingly, upon leaving an autobahn, you are supposed to decelerate only after switching to the sidestrip. Again, this correct behaviour is rarely seen.
The rules dictate that all vehicles shall keep to the right lane and switch over only for the purpose of overtaking others. In practice, it's a very different story. It has become a habit to stick to the left lane on two-laned autobahns, and to use the middle one on those with three lanes.
Overtaking is only allowed by using a lane to the left of the other car. Since most of the time there is no such lane left to use, and since the right lane is almost, but not entirely, unoccupied, be prepared for cars coming from the right. If you're thinking of doing this yourself, have enough money ready to pay the fine, as overtaking on the inside is an offence.
In German parlance and throughout this entry, a traffic jam is referred to as a stau1. Staus can be really big and German autobahns can soon become the world's longest car parks. Mostly, these phenomena occur:
- On Friday afternoons
- When holidays start or finish
- In the morning and evening rush-hours
- At roadwork sites
- At locations of accidents
- Before and after major sports events
- On Sunday evenings
- Behind military convoys and oversized road transports
- At intersections
- In the areas around Michael Jackson open air concerts
- At the country's borders
- At times of heavy sunspot activity
- For no apparent reason at all
Once a driver spots a stau on the other side of the autobahn, curiosity takes control and he or she will reduce speed in order to have a closer look. And so does the guy behind. And so does everybody else. With all eyes off the cars in front, the chance of having a car crash increases. Thus, yet another stau is created.
Useful Hints and Suggestions
Tune in your radio to some local station featuring regularly updated traffic reports. These stations broadcast traffic reports every half hour, lasting from between a few seconds ('nothing to report, have a nice journey') up to ten minutes at the busiest times. Some stations will only tell you the amount of kilometres you are likely to crawl; others will also tell you for how long this is likely to take.
For the rest of the time these stations will broadcast news, ads, and fairly good music, and will attempt to draw your kind attention to a number of interesting driving stories, such as:
A driver who chose to drive on the autobahn in the wrong direction. These people are known in Germany as Geisterfahrers2.
The precise location of some horses or other large animals which have broken through a fence and have come to rest on the autobahn.
Places where freighters have lost wheels or part of their cargo.
Never stop for hitchhikers outside regular stopping places, no matter what.
If given the choice between two routes, take the one going over flat terrain, rather than the hilly one.
Never use insulting words or gestures against other drivers, even if their behaviour merits it. Instead, give them a really friendly smile, an air kiss or have your companions clap their hands in applause. The bad driver will understand, but will have no reason to take you to court.
Frequently Asked Questions
My car broke down. How do I get help?
There are white poles every 50m along the sidestrip. Each one carries a small black triangle which points stranded drivers in the direction of the next emergency phone. The phones are painted orange and won't be any further than a kilometre away. Lift the cover and wait for the operator to talk to you. If you are an AA member, call for help from its German affiliate, the ADAC3.
I am stuck in a stau. What should I do?
Move your car to one side of the lane in order to give firefighters, police and wrecking services a chance to reach the starting point of the stau from behind. Use your rearview mirror before opening any doors, unless you want to loose the door, or a major limb, to a motorcycle or ambulance as it speeds past between the lanes.
In summer, staus are an excellent opportunity to top up a sun tan. On rainy days, it is a good idea to have a deck of cards at hand to while away the time.
Help, I don't know where I am...
If you cannot tell east from west by correlating the time of day with the Sun's position, look out for Dutch or Danish number plates. These cars are either northbound or southbound, depending on whether the drivers inside are at the beginning of their holidays, or at the end. If you cannot spot any of them, you are obviously on an even-numbered autobahn, stretching from east to west. As a back-up means, look out for one of the traffic counting devices which are suspended from the middle support of almost every bridge. They are equipped with solar panels, and, since Germany is located in the northern hemisphere, solar panels point to the south.
Oops, I missed the ausfahrt. What shall I do now?
Do not stop and under no circumstances should you reverse along the autobahn or turn around. Otherwise you will meet some extremely unfriendly people, or worse, some German undertakers. Drive on to the next exit or to an autobahn intersection of the 'clover leaf' type; whichever comes first. On the latter one, take the second choice on offer, then the first choice. This rule takes you through two pieces of the clover leaf and gets you into the opposite direction.
OK, but how do I know there is a clover leaf ahead, rather than a 'triangle' intersection?
Good question. Do not rely on intersection names written on signs. You might read AnyName-Kreuz (with Kreuz meaning 'cross' and Dreieck meaning 'triangle'), but find a triangle thereafter. This is because the sign has been put up according to some plans for the future, and not according to actual fact. Instead, count the number of choices you get. Having three choices means that there is a clover leaf ahead.