What on Earth is an Autobahn?
There are a lot of aspects of German culture that never really caught on in the rest of Europe. English skate parks remain mercifully free of lederhosen clad youths, and you’ll rarely find a first date couple wolfing down a pair of steaming currywursts.
When it comes to cars, however, Germany sets the world standard for quality and power. With such car manufacturing behemoths as BMW, Audi, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche all based there, it’s no wonder that Germany has been referred to as Die Autofahrernation the nation of motorists. With a country so car-barmy, you would expect a road system to match.
A bit of background
Germany’s Autobahn is renowned the world over, and has been a source of national pride since its beginnings almost a hundred years ago. Construction of the motorway was begun in the early 1920’s and the road network grew exponentially over the next couple of decades. Progress slowed in the 1940’s, when sections of the Autobahn were used during the Second World War as makeshift runways for aircraft, with many stretches damaged beyond repair during the fighting. After the war, work began anew to finish the vast project, and today the Autobahn is over 8,000 miles of immaculately maintained German engineering.
Are there really no speed limits?
Now that we’re all nicely clued up on what the Autobahn is, it’s time for the burning question: how fast can you go?
The Straßenverkehrsordnung (good old Germany and their massive words) is the law relating to road traffic, and Germans love it for one simple reason: it states there is no upper speed limit for the Autobahn. This isnt true of all sections, or for all vehicles, and there is a government advisory speed limit of 80mph, but this isn’t enforceable. Basically, when you see a sign marked “Ende aller Streckenverbote” (“the limits no longer apply”), you’re free to put your foot down. Roughly 50% of the Autobahn has no speed limit.
Good lord! Is it safe?!
While in any other country the ability to blast down the motorway at warp speed would likely lead to chaos, in Germany, would-be drivers have to pass a rigorous set of theory lessons, first aid tests, and courses in high speed driving, due to the radically different way cars handle at speeds above 90mph. Consequently, Germans are well prepared to handle their motorways, and their sky high tax rate means their beloved Autobahn is extremely well maintained.
The only real restriction to your speed on the limit-less sections of the motorway is your own car. Many German cars have a built in speed limiter, restricting you to a maximum of a rather generous 155mph. It’s possible to remove this limit, but it can play havoc with your insurance.
But how do they keep law and order?!
In order to maintain law and order on the Autobahn, unmarked police cars patrol the roads constantly. Drivers can be pulled over for tailgating, speeding in restricted speed areas, or being a hated ‘Linksschleicher’ (roughly translates to ‘left sneaker’) someone who drives too slowly in the fast lane.
In Germany, it is also an offence to run out of fuel on the motorway. Petrol stations are placed every 30 miles or so, and so it’s considered entirely avoidable that you should have to stop on the Autobahn. Enter the motorway with the knowledge that your engine is running on fumes and you could have your license suspended for six months. If your car gently wheezes to a halt in the fast lane, you can expect to be efficiently slapped in irons and bundled into a Polizeiauto for endangering the public.
As you may have guessed, Germans are quite fond of their cars. Losing your license, therefore, is like slamming the car door on your hand: painful and embarrassing. To make matters worse, Germans who have had their licenses lopped in half and who want a new one have to pass a psychological examination to prove they are sane and road-worthy, an exam which is colloquially known as the ‘idiot test’.
Should I visit?
So, if your Ferrari is gathering dust under a sheet in the garage and you’re looking for somewhere to really open it up, the Autobahn is the place. Just make sure you’re not drunk. Or going too slow. Or in the wrong lane. Or tailgating. Or running low on petrol. Or driving too fast in the limited zones. Beyond that, burn rubber!