Driving on Autobahns in Germany (Director's Cut)

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Autobahns are equivalent to freeways or motorways elsewhere on this planet. They feature at least two lanes per 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 is imposed on you by the car up front.

Brief Description

Names and Colours

Autobahns have names that consist of an 'A' followed by up to three digits. As a rule of thumb, even numbers connect east and west (eg, the A42 runs between Moers and Castrop-Rauxel in the Ruhr area), whereas odd numbers indicate mainly 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, ie, pre-defined deviations, which guide you around known traffic jam hot-spots via 'B'-class roads.

Tourist information is shown in white letters on brown background. All information necessary for navigating on Autobahns is being signalled by signs with white letters on blue. Black printing on yellow background is used for 'B'-class roads. Small green labels are used for 'E'-connections, but there are no road signs with green background in Germany. If driving from Belgium via Germany and Switzerland to France, be prepared for a good load of confusion.

Driving Rules

Cars enter and leave at an Ausfahrt sign, which is not a city name, doesn't have anything to do with gases but means exit. Upon entering, you are supposed to accelerate, while still on the sidestrip, for all that your engine is worth. But do not expect to see this being done by others. Cars already on the Autobahn do have the right-of-way over the ones on the sidestrip. However, people on the right hand lane will move to the left and get in the way of some Audi or Mercedes, rather than having you in their way.

Accordingly, upon leaving you are supposed to decelerate only after switching to the sidestrip. Again, this behaviour is quite rarely to be seen in reality.

The rules say that all vehicles shall keep to the right lane and switch over only for overtaking others. Practice is different from that. It has become a habit to stick to the left lane on two-laned Autobahns, and use the middle one on three-laned ones.

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 over, and since the right-hand lane is almost, but not entirely, always unoccupied, be prepared for everything. If you use this tactic, have enough money ready to pay an on-the-spot fine.

People don't give signals when switching lanes. They argue that the gap they intend to use in the other lane will otherways instantly be closed by the car in behind. For the same reason, the formerly existing 'safety distance' has shrunk to less than an average vehicle's length.

Rearview Mirrors are commonly being treated with disregard. People argue that responsibility for a crash rests with the driver coming from behind, and that Porsches, BMWs and the like have lots of ways to make others aware of their presence. Even if you keep an eye on the mirrors, there is a good chance of some car being in the dead arc that they leave uncovered.

Silly Games

Germans like to play silly games with each other on an Autobahn. The games are silly because you won't get the idea without switching part of your brain into idle mode. The most prominent of these games are:


German drivers (and drive-women, or driveresses, or drive-persons; but this entry will further on use only the male form) like the company of each other. Somehow, possibly via telepathic tricks, they manage to be on the road right at times when all the others are there as well. For the very same reason, you won't ever encounter just a single car on an Autobahn. If the British are known for their habit of cueing up at any type of counter, so are the germans for driving in convoys.

Creating Huge Traffic Jams

In german parlance and further on in this entry, this is a Stau, to be pronounced like 'shtau'. Staus can be really big. German Autobahns can be the worlds longest parking lots. Mostly, but not only, they occur on friday afternoons, when holidays start or end, in the morning and evening rush-hours, at roadwork sites (the famous and world-renowned Baustellen), at locations of accidents, before and after major sports events (ie: soccer matches), on sunday evenings, behind military convoys and oversized road transports, at intersections, around Michael Jackson open air concerts, at the country's borders, at times of heavy sunspot activity, or for no apparent reason at all.

Elephant Racing

Mostly performed on Autobahns with only two lanes per direction, and by trucks (or lorries, depending on your preferences). They overtake each other with just a few kph's of speed difference, so that truck A needs some 5km uphill to overtake some other truck B. Once on top of the hill they change places, and truck B needs some 5km downhill to overtake truck A. The net effect is to block the left lane and give car drivers yet another chance to form a convoy.

Generating Longitudinal Waves

If seen from above or the side, the column of cars will appear to be moving much the same way as a worm does, by alternating between contracting part of its body and expanding others. This game is most impressive at nighttime, and best seen from a position in the rightmost lane, when flashing rear braking lights indicate the movement of the wave's maxima.

Research has found a theory for this game:

  • An average driver may be likened to a delay line, ie: a second order element in terms of electrodynamics. Hence, he can be characterized by some constant of proportionality plus some delay time. It has already been stated that there is not too much brainpower involved.

  • Car drivers are coupled to each other in a daisy chain by virtue of their eyesight. In darkness, german drivers like to enhance this coupling by keeping their rear fog lamps on. Only sometimes this coupling is applied in both directions (see rearview mirrors, disregard in this entry).

  • Thus, the whole column makes up a transmission line. Any disturbance entered at the beginning will be propagated as a wave through its whole length.

  • Depending on the value of the proportionality constant, this oscillation may be damped or amplified along its way. Drivers tend to over-react, hence amplification occurs.

  • Therefore, the amplitude of oscillation will increase over time and propagation distance. The lenght of rubber tracks left on the street is an accurate measure of the wave's amplitude. Amplification goes on until some nonlinear boundary takes effect. This nonlinear behaviour is to be found in the limited elasticity of... car bodies.

  • And, oooops, a new Stau is born.

Creating Mass Collisions Within Fog Banks

The desire for company and the reliance on eyesight coupling demand that the average car separation be reduced within foggy areas. We already know that fog lamps serve for other purposes, but not to keep enough distance. As we further know, individual delay time is a constant, but available reaction time is not. So if anything happens to the first car in the convoy, the consequences are obvious. A survey over news magazines over several years, especially the november issues, would give a good impression of german achievements in the fields of particle deceleration and metal compression.

Copying Staus Across Direction Lanes

Once a driver spots a Stau on the other side, curiosity takes over control and he will reduce speed in order to have a closer look at the circumstances. So does the guy in behind, so do all the others. Keep in mind that coupling of the elements within the chain is based on eyesight. Turning one's head aside means de-coupling of the chain. It is left over to some mathematical analysis to precisely figure out the odds for the separation between any two cars to go below zero. Long standing experience says the probability is 100 to zero, and rising. So there. We now have a collision on this side of the Autobahn, with a copy of the Stau from the other side as a consequence.

Useful Hints and Suggestions

  • Tune in your radio to some local station featuring regularly updated traffic messages. However, the term regular update is only theory: some Staus keep beeing reported the whole day long, just for the heck of it. These stations broadcast traffic reports every half an hour, with the reports lasting between a few seconds ('nothing to report, have a nice journey' on tuesday nights) and some eight to ten minutes (at other times). Some stations will only tell you the amount of kilometres you are bound to merely crawl, others will also tell you for how many hours this is going to keep you busy.

    For the rest of the time these stations will broadcast news, ads, and fairly good music, and will draw your kind attention to either

    - some guy who chose to drive on the Autobahn in the wrong direction (they call him a ghost driver, or Geisterfahrer, say: 'gaistafaara'); or

    - the precise location of some horses or other large pets which abandoned their regular whereabouts and now came to rest on the Autobahn; or

    - places where freighters have lost wheels or part of their cargo.

  • In the Stau season (ie, any time apart from tuesday night), have enough warm towels soaked with nutritious beverages ready for your survival.

  • If a radio report applies to your place, but to the opposite direction, do not take it for serious. See Silly Games, Copying Staus in this entry for reference.

  • Never stop for taking up hitchhikers outside regular stopping places, no matter how many towels they use to flag you down.

  • If given the choice between two ways of reaching your target, prefer the one going over flat terrain over all those going over hill. Refer to Silly Games, Elephant Racing in this entry.

  • Never use insulting words or gestures against other drivers, no matter what they did to you. Luckily, firearms are not common on german Autobahns, but insulting can become very expensive, and for both sides if done mutually. Instead, give them a really friendly smile, an airkiss or have your companions clap their hands in applause. The bad guys will understand, but have no means to take you before court.

  • A few words on car types:

    • Any car with a dutch (yellow) number plate: either has a caravan trailer attached to it, or uses the middle lane constantly.

    • Fiat Ducato (large italian van, often white and with full address of the owner's plumbing or all weather parcel hauling service printed on all surfaces), has lots of horsepowers and is very unlikely to ever leave the fast lane. If you happen to ever have encountered an angry siberian tiger: dogfighting with Fiat Ducatos is worse.

    • Large BMW, Mercedes, Porsche: if you see one with full headlights, blinking like hell, almost occupying your backseat, hooting, swerving in your rearview mirror with the white in the driver's eyes clearly visible, then there are two options:

      a) in the process of overtaking another car by yourself, take your time and take a photo of him, for he is a member of an endangered species; or

      b) give way to him, for you did not stick to the right, and disregarded the rearview mirror, and he only wants to let you know.

    • Cars with US number plates, french or japanese cars: mostly harmless.

    • Small dark BMW or VW Rabbit (called Golf here): if you made him engage his brakes for whatever reason, he will make you do the same out of revenge.

    For further information, refer to the entry on cars and what they tell about their owner elsewhere in the Guide.

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

Q. First of all, how do I get the experience of driving at the speed of sound?

A. Choose some tuesday night. An alternative is the Autobahn A7 between the city of Ulm and the Biebelried intersection, waiting for your kind of people all times of the year apart from the skiing season. Or connect yourself to the shadow of some Ferrari or Porsche on any Autobahn of your choice.

But beware: If involved in a crash whilst driving faster than 160kph, local residents will be charged at least 20% of any cost of an accident, by their insurance company, without regard to any details. Go check the smallprint in your insurance or car rental contract for clarification.

Q. My car broke down. How do I get help?

A. See those white poles every 50m along the sidestrip? Everyone carries a small black triangle which points you to the next emergency phone, painted in orange and no further away than 1km. Lift the cover and wait for the operator to talk to you. If you are an AAA member, call for help from its german affiliate, the ADAC ('aah dee aah tsee') in explicit words.

Q. Okay, I am stuck in a Stau. How do I proceed?

A. First of all, of course, don't panic. 'Proceeding' is precisely what you won't do in the next future. Move your car to one side of the lane, in order to give firefighters, police, wrecking service, and Opel Calibras a chance to reach the starting point of the Stau from behind. Use those rearview mirror thingies before opening any doors, unless you want to loose the door, or some major limb, to a motorcycle or ambulance speeding past you between the lanes.

At the rear end of a Stau, make sure that at least one big truck has come to full stop behind you, for there have been many reports of tired truckers who crashed into Stau endings.

In summer, Staus are a good chance to suntan your body. In winter, you might get rid of some weight by exercising in the open. For rainy days, it is a good idea to have a deck of cards on board.

Q. I am caught in that hideous longitudinal wave game. What next?

A. Switch over to the lane at your right hand side. It is that simple. That lane is free. Watch and enjoy!

If you want to generate a wave by yourself, do the following (if there were a formatting style for irony, it would go in here): Use the rightmost lane, get real close to the truck in front of you and make sure to be no faster than it. Then wait for a column of cars approaching from behind on the left lane, and start overtaking the truck whenever you want. Take good care to first switch over to the other lane and then start accelerating. (irony ends here).

Once you have gained enough experience in this game, you might want to consider applying the idea of surfing to this type of wave.

Q. Help, I totally lost orientation!

A. Again, don't panic. 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 their holidays begin or end. If you cannot spot any of them, you are obviously on an even numbered Autobahn, stretching from east to west. As a backup 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.

Q1. Oooops, I missed the Ausfahrt that I meant to use!

A1. Do not stop, and under no circumstances drive rearwards or turn around. Otherwise you will meet some extremely unfriendly people, or worse, 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 to separate from mainstream. This rule takes you through two pieces of the clover leaf and gets you into the opposite direction.

As a suggestion for training this, try second choice, then always first choice, which will keep you spinning around the clover leaf forever, in a Lissajous type pattern.

Q2. OK, but how do I know there is a clover leaf ahead, rather than a 'triangle' intersection?

A2. 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, do count the number of choices you get. Having three choices means that there is a clover leaf ahead.

Q. I took my radar warning kit over from the USA. Does it do me any good?

A. No. Speeding at places where you must not is not a good idea. Electronic Warfare is a thing the german police are quite good at. They use different frequency bands than US police radars, they prepare ambushes, they have laser guns, and when they get to see your device, you won't possess it any longer. They also use civilian cars, equipped with the latest opto-electronic developments, which they hide inside car convoys.

By the way: Beware of sedans (of any colour) standing on bridges. Most likely this is also the police, videotaping and measuring car-to-car distances.

Q. I keep hearing a noise like hundreds of people saying uuuossshhh. What is this?

A. It is a bright summer day, you are being overtaken by a herd of motorcycles, and you once again disregarded the rearview mirror for more than 5 seconds.

Q. The wheel suspension is emitting a sound like wop-dup---wop-dup-.... What's up?

A. Your piece of Autobahn is one of the oldest in Germany. In the 1930s they constructed Autobahns out of rectangular concrete tiles. These tiles have settled down over time, each one by its own amount. Come back in some ten years to see one of the worlds longest Baustellen, and magnificent Staus.

Q. Uuuh! My tyres are making music. How that?

A. You are about to reach the french-german border near Aachen, where some clever engineers have carved a specific pattern into the concrete surface that your wheels are running on. The music that you hear is Germany's national anthem. [This is not a joke!]

Q. The car up front is swerving across lane boundaries. Is this yet another silly game?

A. Yes. This is another way to create a Stau which has not been addressed in the section above. This driver does not need support for his head by one hand. Be assured that he is having a conversation via cellular phone (handy in german parlance), and is unable to concentrate on driving, not to speak of any ability to timely react upon changes in the situation.

Although strongly recommended, at the time of this writing there is no law prescribing any kind of PA system for mobile telephones, nor is it mandatory to stop the car while talking over phone. Just for comparison, Switzerland does forbid the use of pure cellular phones whilst driving.

Amendment: As of Feb 01,2001, PA systems will be mandatory if using a phone whilst driving. Only in stop-and-go situations within city boundaries are you allowed to hold that tiny piece up to your ear. Dialling phone numbers is a no-no as well, the only exception is pressing a single key in order to call a pre-programmed number. Plans within the ministry of traffic also include to apply the same to byciclists.

Q. My own car starts swerving across the lane, I am not on the phone, and my front wheels don't do what the steering wheel commands them to do.

A. This is what the sign Spurrillen was meant to tell you. First, the road structure has undergone a good portion of massage treatment by heavy cargo traffic, and moved aside. Second, the geometry of your front axle was designed to run on flat terrain, but not to negotiate a pair of troughs. Take a little time and try to gather experience with the physical phenomena associated therewith.

Q. Last question, so what is the most important thing on german Autobahns?
A. Should be clear by now. Towels may be most important in intergalactic travel, but on german Autobahns, they come second to... rearview mirrors.

And just one final note: People are individuals, and drivers are people, hence there is no such thing as the BMW or Porsche driver. The simplifications used here are just this: simplifications.

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