Thursday, July 05, 2012

Wir fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn

We drive drive drive on the Autobahn*

The German Autobahn: drive as fast as you want but beware of even faster cars coming up behind you. Well, except when there actually is a speed limit and when there is stau. One of the first words we learned here is "stau", which means "traffic jam."

And it's often because of this:

But the roads that aren't under construction are in really good shape, much better than the average U.S. highway. In the U.S. we'd need to have these two signs posted just about everywhere - they mean "road damage":

This sign is what many drivers want to see on the autobahn. It means there is no speed limit:

There is an advisory speed limit of 130 kilometers per hour (81 mph) on the autobahn but I can tell you that many people drive much, much faster when they are able. You'd think at those speeds there'd be accidents all over the place. There aren't because the Germans adhere to the policy that slower vehicles drive in the far right lane, and you only move to the left lane to pass. That's supposed to be the law in the U.S., right?  Well here in Germany, you really do only move to the left lane to pass and then you better get back over to the right or you'll have an Audi or a Mercedes or even a little VW in your rearview mirror when you thought for sure no one was back there when you checked before passing. You are also prohibited from passing on the right except when there is congestion. This makes the flow of traffic much more predictable - really important because when you drive at higher speeds reaction time is critical, and the last thing you want is to have someone do something unpredictable when you're driving over 100 mph.

One thing I'm pleasantly surprised at is that the truck drivers here are not aggressive drivers - or at least we have not witnessed this. If you've driven I-95 along the eastern U.S., you know the feeling of being nearly (or actually) squashed by the trucks. What I've experienced here in Germany as well as in France is that the trucks stay in the far right lane and drive almost convoy-style. They have a strict speed limit of 80 km/hr (50 mph). They do occasionally pass slower moving trucks and this sometimes causes congestion, especially on 2-lane autobahns, but it's temporary. Trucks from all over Europe drive through Germany and at first it was entertaining to discover where they come from: Poland, Turkey, Slovakia...but now I'm used to the international mix of trucks. Just one warning though - be prepared for the rest stops to be jammed with trucks on holidays and Sundays as they are not permitted on the roads before 10:00 pm. I did not know this until I did some research (i.e., Wikipedia) about the autobahn.

And what else did I learn about the autobahn from Wikipedia? The idea for the autobahn was conceived following WWI but didn't progress until Hitler embraced the project just after the 1933 Nazi takeover. I was surprised to learn that the autobahn was not intended as a major infrastructure for the military since military transport of goods was done via rail to save on cost. However, as the first limited-access, high speed road network in the world, the autobahn was a propaganda tool and was used to attract international attention. The first section opened in 1935 and was from Frankfut to Darmstadt - we've driven that route! Another bit of trivia is that one of the highest speeds ever achieved on a public motorway was set on this section of autobahn: 432 km/h (268 mph) set by Rudolf Caracciola.

*Lyrics from the 1975 song Autobahn by Kraftwerk. I remember this band and this song because my sister had an album by Kraftwerk with this song on it. Now wir fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn.

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