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How to Survive the German Autobahn

by Tom Nunamaker on March 18, 2011

Autobahn at Night

You probably can’t survive driving on the German autobahn.  The trucks are too slow and the cars are too fast.   Your brakes can’t stop you in time.  That’s what many Americans think about the autobahn before they get here.  They think it’s too dangerous.  Is this really true? Let’s first talk about what the autobahn is.

What is the autobahn?

The first autobahn was completed in 1935 between Frankfurt am Main to Darmstadt.  It has grown to over 12,000 kilometers of highway and was the first limited-access, high-speed road system in the world.  It’s built to last and is very thick.

How thick is the autobahn?

The autobahn is 27 inches thick, or 686 millimeters thick.  The life span is 40 years, compared to 20 years for the United States freeway system that is 11 inches thick.   Does the thick construction help you drive faster?

The thicker roads are less susceptible to cracks from freezing

The freeze-resistant concrete helps keep the road smooth.   German crews routinely inspect the road network with high tech scanning equipment.  When a defect is found, the entire road section is replaced.  You appreciate this attention to detail and smooth road when you travel over 130 km/hour.

Is the autobahn really dangerous?

No.  The autobahn accident rate is consistently lower than other super highway systems, including the United States Interstates.  The annual fatality rate is 2.7 per billion km in 2009 compared to 4.5 for the United States.  The German government found that accident rates on autobahn sections with no speed limit were the same as those with speed limits.  How much of the autobahn has no speed limit?

Over half of the autobahn network has no speed limit

There is an advisory speed limit of 130 km/hour unless a lower speed limit is posted.  The driver has to consider his vehicle, the road, weather and traffic conditions to decide to exceed the advised 130 km/hour speed limit.  The average speed in rural areas is 150 km/hour.  Vehicles traveling over 200 km/hour will pass you.  Always check your rear view mirror while you are in the left lane.

Make sure you honor any posted speed limit below 130 km/hour.  In reduced speed limit areas, plan to see a camera to take your picture for your speeding ticket!

The speed limit will be lowered for several reasons:
- Road construction
- Traffic jams
- Accidents
- Weather
- Pollution or noise reduction

If you are towing a trailer, the speed limit is 80 km/hour unless your trailer is certified for 100 km/hour.   The minimum speed to drive on the autobahn is 60 km/hour.  This keeps the mopeds off of the highway!   How do you pass a slower vehicle?

Do not pass on the right

It is illegal to pass another vehicle on the right.  Don’t do it unless you are in a traffic jam (a stau in German).   You are supposed to always travel in the right lane.  The left lane is for passing.  If you are driving fast, you will probably end up staying in the left lane because you will be passing a lot of vehicles.

If you approach a slower vehicle that is in the left lane, you can flash your bright lights but only from a safe distance.  If you tail gate and flash your bright lights, you can be fined for coercion.  What else can’t I do on the autobahn?

You can’t run out of gas

Running out of gas on the autobahn is illegal and you can be fined.  Just plan ahead and don’t push it.  It is also illegal to stop on the side of the road unless you are in an accident.  There are nice rest stops with some really scenic views.  One in particular I like is on the way to Trier on A 1.  It’s just as you start descending into the valley and the view is spectacular.  Here’s a photo I took from this rest stop:

Autobahn 1 - Near Trier Germany

In summary

The autobahns are very safe and outstanding roads to drive on.  Follow the rules and use good judgment if you want to drive fast.  Don’t run out of gas or stop and don’t pass on the right.  You’ll quickly get used to driving at higher speeds.

The only problem will be when you drive in the U.S. after having driven on the autobahn.  You’ll feel like you’re driving in slow motion and it’s very easy to get a ticket.

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