You haven’t lived until you’ve tried your hand at driving on the autobahn in Germany—at least you haven’t had the heart stopping thrill of watching a big, black Mercedes approaching you in the rear-view mirror at a hundred plus miles per hour as you are poking along at what you think is a respectable 75 to 80 mph. The autobahn like all things German is very ordered with strict rules written and unwritten that you should obey or not, the later at your own peril.
The primary rule is to go fast. Everyone in Germany seems to be in a hurry. Whether it is to go to work, head to the grocery store or to go on vacation—if you are in a car you must go fast. Fast, but with order (those pesky rules again).
The larger autobahns that go between the major cities have three (or more) lanes with the right lane being reserved for trucks and other slow traffic, the middle lane for those who are not trying to be first to wherever, i.e. normal drivers looking to drive reasonable speeds of about 60-70 mph. The far left lane is reserved for the fastest drivers who can drive, unless otherwise posted, at whatever speed they are capable of reaching. Passing on the right is strictly forbidden (verbodden) so even if it is clear, no one will try to pass you on the right; so your primary concern is always in the left hand lane. In fact the second primary rule (actually the first rule for survival!) is always look left! That is where those big old Mercedes will be coming from. At a hundred plus miles an hour a clear lane a minute ago is quickly filled with an onrushing car ready to push you aside. As a private pilot you are taught to continually look outside your windshield for any unknown plane or object to which you may be unaware and can provce hazardous to your flight. The same principle applies to driving on the autobahn. Keep an eye on the left lane for cars hazardous to your health!
There are other things to worry about beyond the big black (they always seem to be black) Mercedes, BMW, VW or whichever power car of choice. The Germans take pride in their autobahns and thus seem always looking to improve them or keep them in top condition. As such construction is fairly common and you must obey the frequent “men working—slow down” signs that are posted. All traffic including the big guys are supposed to slow down and obey speed limits. In this case they usually divert the traffic around the construction by compressing three lanes and a shoulder to three lanes (or maybe two lanes) without a shoulder with the new lanes now being just wide enough to drive side by side assuming neither car has had a wax job recently (yes they are narrow). If you happen to be in the fast lane to the left, they generally put up separation barriers with little rubber markers extruding out—I guess so you can hear the gentle scrape of rubber before you hear the grinding of steel on steel if you get too close. If the work requires trimming down to two lanes then it’s not unusual to find yourself next to one of those trucks you’ve been zooming past just a few minutes ago. This gives you an excellent chance to study all of those sharp pieces of steel that are part of their wheels, fenders and other protruding parts of the trucks. Again you begin to imagine the sound of metal on metal either on your left or on your right now. Now is when rule number three kicks in: look both left and right and stay calm (!).
It would be an exaggeration to say that all the fast cars in Germany come in the jumbo size variety. Even the so-called “Smart Cars” have aspirations of grandeur. They come in various models and makes (even Mercedes has one). They are so small that they can fit perpendicular to the curb between two normal-sized cars parked parallel. On the autobahn they (their drivers at least) begin to imagine what it must be like to be big so they make up their size with their speed. There is nothing so discomfiting as tooling along in the fast lane and being overtaken, not by one of those fancy Mercedes that you wish you were driving but a little car, no bigger than Michael Jordan’s Nike shoebox, flashing their lights and honking their horns! Vans are yet another class of vehicles that seem to have their own culture built in for driving on the autobahn. Again they are always in a hurry and while unable to stay up with the regular cars in the fast lane, look to take advantage of every downhill to break from the pack and rush forward regardless of their lack of real speed in the flat stretches. For the moment they can imagine they are in the Mercedes (or other power car of choice) and able to pass everyone in the left lane. If pressed (i.e. you have the audacity to be in front of them when they want to get by even if for only the next two hundred meters) they will ride two inches off your bumper and indignantly flash their lights and honk their horns to get you to move aside.
Like all cultural experiences you encounter when you travel it is worth at least trying that which seems to be a major part of another country’s daily life. Traveling at speeds in excess of 100 mph can be exhilarating and even intoxicating if you have the car and the road conditions to allow it. If you don’t like life in the fast lane, there is always the choice to go with the slower and more ponderous herd of trucks and slower cars in the other lanes. To not try to break from the herd from time to time though would be a pity.—Paul Maxwell
This is the first of a series of articles I plan to write as I journey through Europe and elsewhere. I hope you find them of interest. You can also follow me on Twitter at @PaulMaxwell3.