An Autobahn Experience

With the dollar so far down against the Euro, it feels as if the only favorable exchange rate left to Americans is one of distance: you still get 1.6 kilometers for every mile.

When the crowds of the Oktoberfest have taken their toll, and you’ve just about overdosed on museums and local sights, it’s time to head out on your own.

The famous autobahns, the freeways that make up Germany’s wonderful highway system, and the country’s compact size mean that within a half-hour of Munich’s center you can be driving through rolling green hills with the Alps practically at your feet.

And when you consider that Chiemsee, Salzburg, Vienna, Baden-Baden and Strasbourg are all within day-trip reach, the proposition gets even more attractive.

But while Americans are among the world’s most dynamic drivers, covering incredible distances each year by car, many here find themselves facing a whole new set of baffling rules and practices that amount to an entirely different driving culture.

Passed At 110
“I was going about 110 mph – fast enough to be dragged away in handcuffs at home,” said Mark Walsh, a Chicago native living in Munich, “and I got passed by a guy on a motorcycle with a passenger!”

An American driving on the autobahn is very likely to have just that sort of disconcerting experience 10 or even 15 times during an hour’s drive. On U.S. highways, getting from Point A to Point B may be the primary objective, but in Germany, it’s not just getting there, but how fast you can possibly do it.

Here’s How It Can Be
A black Mercedes appears in my rear-view mirror. It wasn’t there when I looked a second ago, and now it’s bearing down on me with great vigor. An angry flash of headlights – it’s almost on my rear bumper! I swerve frantically into the right lane and the black beast accelerates past me as if I were standing still, leaving swirling exhaust fumes and a turbo whine in the air. I glance at my speedometer: It reads 180 km/h – 113 miles per hour.

“Every German driver is convinced of two things,” says Munich native Oliver Bengl. “First, that they are an excellent driver, and second, that everyone else on the road is an execrable one.”

Bengl is exceptionally qualified to comment – he’s been a professional driver on Germany’s roads and autobahns for 10 years, in everything from Munich taxis to long-distance freight trucks, from film company vans to one of Bavaria’s most beloved vehicles, beer delivery trucks.

Wind in the Hair
Bengl suspects that Germans, who behave extremely conservatively in everyday life and business, simply need the release of high speed and feeling the wind in their hair – even if that wind is just the light puff of their car’s air conditioner.

“The average German,” he says, “spends his day in close contact with very conservative people. When he gets into his big car at the end of the day, he reverts to a Stone Age hunter mentality – he’s King of the Road.”

This assertive on-road demeanor has resulted in gesticulation (at best) and sometimes even physical fights at the roadside. It is for that reason that it is now a misdemeanor in Germany to “gesture obscenely or shout insults” at other drivers, punishable by a large fine.

Speed aside, driving on the autobahn is a very enjoyable mode of transport that can even be cheaper than public transportation if you’re traveling with someone. And contrary to public belief, there are speed limits on about 85 percent of the autobahns.

Speed limit signs are red-ringed circles containing a number. On autobahns it will usually be 110 or 120 kilometers an hour (70-75 mph). Speed traps occur rarely, but they do happen. If you don’t see a sign, there’s probably no speed limit.

All other road signs are international symbols and almost always instantly understandable.

One key exception is the puzzling circle containing a striped black slash over a blank white background.

This means, basically, “Any sign telling you not to do something before you saw this one is now overruled.” For example, the “slash” sign can end a no-passing zone.

The Kreuz
The Kreuz – the German version of a cloverleaf interchange – can be very confusing, too, even to veteran German drivers.

Modeled after, it would seem, Los Angeles’ most confusing transfer points, a Kreuz connects several highways. Signs are not what they could be, and it’s best to slow down and pay attention: Exits come up fast, and if you miss yours, it’s usually a long drive to get to where you can turn around and try again. The best strategy is to stay in the middle lane until you can figure out which way is off, then get there fast.

And Bengl adds one warning: “No matter how fast you go, someone’s going to be faster; no matter how clear your rear-view mirror is, check again… . There’ll be someone there.”

While traffic is outwardly more orderly than in the States, there’s vicious competition for passing lanes, usually from taxis.

The best bet for inexperienced drivers is to stick to defensive tactics, staying slow and safe and letting the taxis do what they wish.

There will be a far higher number of bicyclists on the streets than you may be used to, and while they usually have a separate lane, be on alert. Motorcycles and scooters are also more popular than in the States, and it’s considered very bad form indeed to sideswipe any of them.

Finally, remember that there is no right on red law in Germany.