Vehicles drive on the German highway A20 from Luebeck to Stettin, near Rostock, northern Germany.

AP Photo/Frank Hormann

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How the Autobahn Works

Let's say it together -- autobahn. The harsh German syllables contradict the images the word conjures in the mind of speed freaks the world over. Fueled by on-line videos of turbo-powered Porsches, drivers see themselves pushing 200 miles per hour (321.9 kilometers per hour) on smooth ribbons of highway through the Bavarian heartland. It's a vision that would warm any racer's soul and get the secret racing heart of a soccer dad beating just a little faster.

But it's only a pipe dream, really. Or at least most of it is, anyway. Instead the autobahn, or Bundesautobahn as it's known in German, is simply a federal highway system. Most German drivers consider it point A to point B transit, kind of like the U.S. Interstate System without the speed limit.

And that's the allure, the siren song, the attraction -- no speed limit. If your car can top 150 miles per hour (241.4 kilometers per hour), or even 200 miles per hour (321.9 kilometers per hour) or more, then feel free to mash the accelerator and feel the G-force crush you into the seat.

Just make sure you're on the right autobahn -- there are three national systems, after all. And with less than a quarter of the total federal highway system open to unlimited speed, make sure you're not breaking a law by zooming through a construction zone, an urban area, a convergence or divergence, or exceeding a safe limit as imposed by weather conditions.

The autobahn might be the stuff of dreams, but the reality -- where the rubber meets the road, so to speak -- is actually the stuff of every day.

Keep reading to learn about the allure of the autobahn, as well as why it's just another road.

 

Perhaps no other symbol can make a heart (or a car) race faster than the German Bundesautobahn "derestriction" symbol. It essentially gives drivers the green light to drive as fast as they wish.

HowStuffWorks.com

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Can't Drive 55: Autobahn Speed Limits

While some car makers use the autobahn as a proving ground for top speed performance, there are actually very few stretches -- about a quarter of the more than 8,000 miles (12,875 kilometers) of roads -- that have the right conditions for pushing a car or motorcycle to its limits.

The reason for this is simple -- The autobahn was never designed as a speed playground. Bundsesautobahn in German translates to "federal motorway." Similar autobahns are established in Switzerland, Austria, Spain and Portugal. Like the United States, these systems were designed to be an efficient transportation network to spur commercial development and allow for military transport in times of national emergency. Speed is just a byproduct rather than an end, though Germans do admit a certain pride in the association between fast cars and their highway system.

As in America, the autobahn has a posted minimum speed -- 37 miles per hour (59.6 kilometers per hour). This prohibits the use of mopeds, bicycles, smaller cars and other, slower forms of transport on the roads -- including an original and still-standing ban on horse-drawn vehicles.

Maximum speed limits, imposed in heavy congestion areas, environmentally-sensitive stretches, urban areas and where highways merge and diverge, can range from 40 to 100 miles per hour (64.4 to 160.9 kilometers per hour).

Of course these speeds are modified by road conditions, weather conditions and a host of other factors. For instance, a ban on eating and drinking in a car is not only on the books but enforced. For instance, if a driver is pulled over by the police, they can receive an additional fine if the officer determines they were driving and eating -- considered a distracted state.

In 2009, the transport ministry instituted the "Runter vom Gas" campaign, "Kill your Speed" in English. This successful campaign is aimed at younger drivers with a lead foot and access to the autobahn. Reports indicate the campaign has had some success in reducing the number of traffic-related fatalities in that age group [source: BMVBS].

While Germany does offer stretches of speed-limit-free highway, there can be a heavy price to pay if a driver is caught disregarding the country's strict vehicular rules and regulations. Read the next page to find out how a speeding thrill can turn into a speeding ticket.

A speed limit traffic sign stands on the motorway A38 south of Leipzig, Germany.

AP Photo/Eckehard Schulz

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Autobahn's Rules of the Road

Similar to the United States, Germany's autobahn is regulated and laws are enforced by a specialty branch of the federal police, the Autobahnpolizei. The German autobahn police rely heavily on advanced technology, including video surveillance, to crack down on nuisance violations like tailgating as well as other, more serious offenses.

Some of the more interesting laws are listed below:

  • Tires must be rated for a vehicle's top speed. There are allowances in the case of winter tires but the driver must display a window sticker advising police they are cleared to use those specific tires.
  • Not following the two-second rule -- leaving at least two seconds of reaction time between you and the car in front -- can result in the suspension of a driver's license for up to three months.
  • Refusing to leave the left lane to allow a faster vehicle to pass (if traffic allows) is a finable offense and can be considered coercion. While German traffic laws allow a driver to honk or flash their lights as a warning to a slower driver of his or her intention to overtake and pass, excessive honking or flashing can also be considered coercion.
  • The right lane must be used for travel, and the left lane for passing. If a car passes on the right it can be stopped and fined, even if the driver's excuse was a slower car occupying the left lane. If this was the case, both drivers can be fined.
  • Emergency lanes are for emergencies only. Even running out of gas isn't an excuse as this is an avoidable circumstance.

On Feb. 1, 2009, the transport ministry revised its fine schedule with the dual goal of raising more revenue for road construction and maintenance, as well as reducing accidents and fatalities on the roads. The following are some of the more notable increases:

  • Inappropriate speed 100 euros
  • Failure to keep to the right 80 euros
  • Motorway offenses (such as making a U-turn, reversing, failure to give way or similar offenses) 70 to 200 euros
  • Failure to keep a safe distance to the vehicle in front 75 to 400 euros (depending on the speed and distance in any given case)
  • Speeding offense (within built-up areas) 80 to 760 euros (depending on the extent to which the speed limit was exceeded)
  • Speeding offense (outside built-up areas) 70 to 600 euros (depending on the extent to which the speed limit was exceeded)
  • Failure to show consideration for vulnerable road users 80 euros
  • Dangerous overtaking 80 to 250 euros
  • Failure to give way 100 euros
  • Illegal motor racing 500 euros (organizer) 400 euros (participant)

[source: BMVBS]

You Can Get There From Here

The autobahn isn't merely a single road, but rather a series of roads covering Germany -- similar to the United States' federal highway system. Germany's autobahn road system is the third largest in the world with the United States and China taking first and second place respectively.

Autobahns are designated by a capital A, followed by a number. Even numbers are east-west routes, and odd numbers designate north-south routes. Often a second number is added denoting a regional route off a larger trunk road.

The classifications are as follows:

  • A 10 to A 19 - eastern Germany
  • A 20 to A 29 - northern and northeastern Germany
  • A 30 to A 39 - northwestern Germany
  • A 40 to A 49 - Rhine and Ruhr area
  • A 50 to A 59 - Rhine and Ruhr area
  • A 60 to A 69 - Saarland and the Rhineland area
  • A 70 to A 79 - Thuringia, northern Bavaria and sections of Saxony
  • A 80 to A 89 - Baden
  • A 90 to A 99 - southern Bavaria
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A Fast Debate: Autobahn Safety

According to the transport ministry, the number of traffic fatalities on the autobahn has steadily dropped since 1970 from an all-time high of more than 21,300 deaths in one year. By 2008, there were fewer than 4,500 fatalities on the roadways despite a three-fold increase in the number of cars and miles driven per year in that time [source: BMVBS]. The drop was credited to better engineering and construction of the roads, more stringent enforcement of driving laws and licensing procedures and better car manufacturing standards. Currently the German autobahn system is rated as one of the safest in the world.

There is some discussion over imposing an 80 miles per hour (128.7kilometers per hour) speed limit on the autobahn. The limit has less to do with speed and more to do with new concerns over carbon emissions. Proponents of lower limits argue the current speeds are polluting the environment around the country. After all, a vehicle's fuel consumption increases with speed. More fuel consumption increases exhaust, which equals more pollution.

While the debate still rages over the environmental cost, only few of the citizenry or government officials have proposed lowering the limit for safety reasons.

In 2007, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was reported as saying she would not support any measure to limit speeds on the nation's highway system. Saying a traffic jam was at least as environmentally damaging as high-speed driving. Instead, she called on automakers to increase fuel efficiency and reduce emissions.

Merkel's opposition serves to illustrate the German love affair with cars. The country has been characterized as a "nation of drivers," and one that seems loathe to relinquishing its right to speed.

Yet the tide is shifting. Autobahns in Austria and Switzerland have implemented speed limits where once they were free from restrictions. Germany may, in time, be one of the last of the developed countries without speed restrictions, even if those restrictions are lifted only on a portion of the road.

The history of the autobahn is as controversial as its present debates. On the next page, we'll take a look at how the German national road system came into being.

Kraftwerk

Various movies and slew of YouTube videos have cropped up either referencing or being tied-in to the autobahn. But only one band has really embraced the Germans' love for their road system. Kraftwerk, a German electronic band formed in the 1970s, produced and recorded the song "Autobahn." It's one of the few musical tributes to the German federal highway system known at this time.

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Where it All Began: Origin of the Autobahn

On August 6, 1932, the first German automobile road was opened between Cologne and Bonn. The road was strictly for the use of cars and motorcycles, it had no cross streets and slower vehicles like horse-drawn carts were banned from using it.

While not an "autobahn" per se, it was the seed of what would become the nation's highway system.

By the late 1930s the Nazi Party began taking over the country's political system. Adolph Hitler rose to power, and his aggressive military campaigns needed a viable and established road system to move men and war material. From these circumstances the autobahn was born.

National Socialism arose during a time of economic hardship for Germans. Hiltler saw the potential of the roads to produce jobs and spur national growth and began an aggressive road building campaign under the Reichsautobahnen supervision. The roads were the first high-speed limited-access roads in the world at the time. These first sections were even used for Grand Prix race car testing at times.

Gas shortages during WWII resulted in a neglect of the roads, which were found to be too steep and winding for much military traffic. Further, German citizens simply could not afford the gas to drive the roads during the war years. By the end of the war many of the roads were neglected to the point of impassability. A reconstructed Germany began a campaign to restore the roads and add more miles. By the 1990s, following German unification, the road system had caught the imagination of the world and "autobahn" was synonymous for the speed and drivability we see today. And while the future of the roadway's unrestricted speed may be in question, it's doubtful the autobahn will be a thing of the past anytime soon.

For more information about Germany's autobahn, follow the links on the next page.

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Lots More Information

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Sources

  • Brian's Guide to Getting Around Germany. "The Autobahn." Jan. 29, 2010. (June 2, 2010) www.gettingaroundgermany.info/autobahn.htm
  • Car and Driver. "Eight Rules for Driving on the German Autobahn." April 2009. (June 2, 2010) http://www.caranddriver.com/features/09q2/eight_rules_for_driving_on_the_german_autobahn-feature
  • Cremer, Andreas. "Merkel Rebuffs German Social Democrats' Call for Speed Limit." Bloomberg.com. Oct. 29, 2007. (Jan. 30, 2009) http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601100&sid=an0o8jIAgisY&refer=germany
  • Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development - BMVBS. "Germany's commitment for improving road safety in Europe." (June 2, 2010) http://www.bmvbs.de/en/dokumente/-,1872.1096185/Artikel/dokument.htm
  • Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development - BMVBS. "Planned changes to the schedule of fines and penalties - Higher fines for traffic offences." May 21, 2008. (June 2, 2010) http://www.bmvbs.de/en/dokumente/-,1872.1057005/Artikel/dokument.htm
  • Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development - BMVBS. "Roads." (June 2, 2010) http://www.bmvbs.de/en/Transport/Roads-,1900.963681/Roads.htm
  • Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development - BMVBS. "Runter vom Gas! (Kill your Speed!) - New billboard posters on motorways." Jan. 22, 2009. (June 2, 2010) http://www.bmvbs.de/en/dokumente/-,1872.1063368/Pressemitteilung/dokument.htm
  • Runter Vom Gas. (June 2, 2010) http://www.runter-vom-gas.de/homepage.aspx
  • The German Way. "Driving in Germany & Europe." (June 2, 2010) www.german-way.com/driving.html
  • vom Scheidt, Gregor. German Translator. Personal Communication via e-mail. Conducted on Jan. 29 and Feb. 1, 2010.