There’s magic in the air when it comes to German motorways – “die Autobahn” is famous among motor enthusiasts around the world. Legend has it that Germany does not have a speed limit. And it’s true: Roughly half of the German motorway network offers “freie Fahrt für freie Bürger” (“free speed for free citizens”), and any discussion about introducing a national speed limit dies a quick death due to public opinion. Germans love their cars.
And they demand quality. That doesn’t only apply to the vehicles themselves, although the German MOT (called “TÜV” after the main provider of these road safety checks) is much tougher than the British equivalent. It also applies to the drivers, with the driving test being comparably hard to succeed and the compulsory education long and pricy. Penalties for traffic offences can be severe. Running a red traffic light will cost you your license for at least one month. Drink driving might lead to even longer bans and depending on the damage caused to felony charges. The German traffic laws are very lenient in one area only: Driver’s licenses don’t expire, and there’s no age limit, although this is being discussed.
There is a limit to limitless speed, though. German motorways are very crowded, although the country features the second biggest street network on the planet. This is partly due to geography: Being in the middle of Europe, lorries from East and West, North and South roll over Germany’s streets. Another reason is the high level of individual vehicles among the population. The driving license is part of adulthood – although expensive and hard to achieve. The first own car is usually due around the 18th birthday, clogging the car parks of secondary schools just as much as the Autobahn. Visitors to German towns are often surprised about the four or five cars parked in front of detached houses: Parents and kids all have their own cars, at least in the middle class surroundings of rural and suburban places.
Besides that: The “Richtgeschwindigkeit” in Germany is set at 130 km/h, that’s a bit less than 80 mph. You are allowed to drive faster, but in case of accidents or other issues you will automatically be seen as the guilty party, and your insurance might not cover all damages. Brits driving in Germany might want to be a bit careful anyway about their insurance policy. Often European cover is either not included, or it’s reduced to Third Party damage.
If you get the chance to drive on the German motorways, don’t miss the chance to stop at a Raststätte, the German services. Most of them are far superior to their British counterparts, the food is lush and the surrounding pretty. Prices, on the other hand, resemble airports.
The love to cars is part of German DNA
While Britain is the birthplace of trains and railways, Germany can put some claim to be the cradle of the automobile. Gottlieb Daimler registered the first patents for a gas motor and speed regulation by foot throttle in 1883. They were the basis for the first combustion engine, the famous OTTO motor. In 1886 Carl Friedrich Benz patented the first automobile, a car with three wheels. Daimler Benz is to this date one of the biggest automobile corporations on the planet, well respected in the luxury car segment – like BMW in Bavaria, Audi in Ingolstadt or Porsche in Zuffenhausen.
Porsche is closely related to another German automobile empire: Volkswagen, which despite being founded by the National Socialist worker’s movement in the 1930s enjoyed a great reputation for quality, durability and great engineering. VW also stood for honesty, integrity and fair working conditions, until the Diesel scandal of 2015 shattered this image rather drastic.
Volkswagen had always been a pioneer in Diesel engineering, delivering innovations around the direct injection concept and at some point even creating the first car to need less than 3 litres of fuel for 100 km. Diesel seemed to be the ecological option, delivering higher fuel efficiency. Today, this image has changed, and Diesel appears to be dirty, contaminating the air with dangerous fine dust particles. In many German cities Diesel cars are banned already. The conflict about this has since become quite toxic.
While public transport in Germany is generally decent and discussions are ongoing about making it free, at least in the bigger cities, the car remains the backbone of individual mobility. The trend towards cycling and other ecologically correct means of travel is strong, so the infrastructure for safe bike roads and built-up bicycle lanes is growing. Pedestrian areas are common, and in some cities the bike has become so important that car parks have been turned into cycle garages – like in Münster, the capital of cycling in Germany.
Like everywhere on the planet, driving a car in inner-city areas or towns is a major pain. The German language even has an own word for locations with confusing or unclear signage: “Schilderwald”, a forest of street signs. Especially in older cities these can be quite challenging.
Tips for driving in Germany
In general: Getting behind the wheel in Germany is nothing for unconfident minds. German drivers tend to be pedantic, dogmatic and stubborn. They are so stuck to their rules that you will see pedestrians waiting at Zebra crossings, in the middle of the night, on a street devoid of any traffic. They won’t walk. The light is red.
These rules also include the idea of an inverted speed limit, or in other words: Don’t drive too slow. If the sign reads 70, drive 70 (but keep in mind that this is kilometres, not miles). Do not be slow. On German roads you might find yourself tailgating or being tailgated, and little in between. If you think this is an exaggeration, you might be right. But you might also remember these words when you are driving 60 km/h on a curvy road in rural Germany, speed limit 70, and behind your car is a long queue of impatient drivers who really had enough of you driving “snail speed” (Schneckentempo). Memorize that word. You will hear it a lot, and many others. There is no better way of learning German swearwords than joining a German driver.
Never ever fall asleep at a red traffic light. As soon as it turns green, you have to be on your way to avoid angry beeping coming from the cars behind you. Beeping might also happen if you are waiting at a traffic light, wanting to turn right, and you miss the little green arrow showing that you might drive despite the red light – if there is no other traffic. It is an East German invention that has been warmly welcomed in West Germany after the reunification.
Always take care of pedestrians when turning. Even if your traffic light shows green, there might still be pedestrians crossing who also have a green light, and the right of way is theirs.
Never make a mistake on right of way. “Vorfahrt” is so important that a proverb says that “Mercedes and BMW cars come with Vorfahrt preinstalled”. No matter what car, most drivers will insist on this right, no matter what, so mistakes can be expensive.
Keep in mind that the vehicle coming from the right has right of way by default, unless signs or traffic lights say different. If you turn left, you have to give way to all oncoming vehicles.
If any of that ever goes wrong and you end up in an accident, consider calling the police to secure responsibilities. Officially, the police can charge you a fee if they have to come out despite the accident being minor. As a foreign driver, it’s probably the better idea to involve officials. Police will ask for your driver’s license and other documentation (for example proof that the car you drive is really yours). Unlike in Britain, you can’t produce this paperwork later at a police station, you have to carry it with you.
Hopefully, you will not end up in any situation including injuries. But if you do, or even if you witness an accident just passing by, be aware that Germany has a Good Samaritan law. You are required to help, at a minimum you have to call help, you cannot ignore a critical situation as a witness. The number for emergency calls in Germany is 112.
For this reason, every car driving in Germany needs a standardised First Aid kit, a reflective jacket and a warning triangle. If you are driving your British car in Germany, don’t forget to adjust the headlamps for the other side of the road, so you don’t dazzle oncoming traffic. If your car doesn’t allow for this adjustment, you can buy headlamp beam deflectors.
Last not least here is the one advice that can’t miss from an article like this.
Do not forget it, however tempting it might be.
When in Germany, do as the Germans do:
Drive on the right side ;-)
*Disclaimer: Before you drive abroad, please inform yourself appropriately on traffic rules and regulations of your insurance. This article does not claim to be official advice and cannot guarantee completeness or accuracy.