Updated: Feb 4, 2021
Cars aren’t the only thing built for speed in Germany! There’s the Autobahn! But first we need to address what it means to have a driver's license in Germany!
Driving is an expensive privilege in Germany! It is not taken lightly; the German driver’s license costs over $2000, after a minimum of 25-45 hours of professional instruction plus 12 hours of theory, and such a license used to be good for life. However, as of 2013, the German license conformed to the EU term of 10 or 15 years. German licenses issued before 2013 will become invalid by 2033 and must be replaced by the new European (EU) driver’s license.
We have all seen movies or heard tales about the lack of speed limits on the autobahn in Germany. Let’s talk about that!
Adventurous, speed-craving tourists think they can rent a car, jump in and drive without speed limits across the national highway network, and they can— sometimes. Germany is the only European nation to not have a general speed limit. Instead, there is a speed "recommendation" of 130 kilometers per hour (81 mph). But there are restrictions in certain places, such as near construction sites, dangerous stretches with curves or in and around cities; there are speed restrictions on about 40 percent of the German autobahn.
The reason there are no limits on the other 60 percent may have to do with the power of the automobile industry in Germany. The country is known for its fast, extremely well-engineered cars — a reputation that is a major selling point. It makes sense that they would want motorways that will accommodate the speed!
Some people in Germany would prefer set speeds because they think the allowable speeds contribute to fatal accidents, but statistics show 60 percent of all fatal accidents occur on country roads where the maximum speed limit is 100 km/h (62 mph)….rather than on the Autobahn.
Here’s another autobahn myth that may interest you: The myth of Hitler's role in building the autobahn
How fast can I go and when?
Speed limits do apply near larger cities. Depending on the urban area in which you're driving the autobahn, the speed limits range from 80 k/ph to 130 k/ph (50mph-80mph), these regulatory speeds are in place to prevent an excess of potentially fatal car-accidents in portions of the autobahn characterized by dangerous curves, heavy traffic, and major interchanges.
As you leave the more congested areas of the autobahn, the German government has implemented a system described as a zone of "dynamic speed limits." Here electronic signs display the speed limits and can be adjusted to reflect changes in weather, road conditions, or heavy traffic. Once you venture even further outside of these dynamic zones the autobahn really opens up and drivers are allowed to travel at their own pace, with speed limits being a mere suggestion. A handful of different signs are used to mark the variety of speed limit regulations, and further information can be found on Auto Europe's German road signs page.
Acquaint yourself with the autobahn traffic laws and regulations
Like many other highway, freeway, and expressway systems around the world, the autobahn in Germany has a series of regulations to facilitate the flow of heavy and potentially high-speed traffic. Most rules and regulations are fairly straightforward, though some may seem strange or foreign to an outsider traveling along the autobahn for the first time.
Bicycles, Mopeds, and Pedestrians are prohibited from entering or using the autobahn in any capacity, this also includes vehicles with a v-max of less than 60 k/ph (36mph).
Stopping, parking, U-turns, and backing up on the autobahn is prohibited.
Passing on the right is strictly prohibited, and if caught engaging in such actions, heavy fines will apply.
Entering or exiting the autobahn is only allowed on marked interchanges and pulling off into the shoulder is prohibited unless your vehicle has broken down.
Running out of fuel on the autobahn is illegal, as it as seen as a preventable circumstance, and leads to stopping on the autobahn, which, as stated in rule 2, is prohibited.
During heavily congested traffic, drivers in the right and left lanes are required to move as far as possible to their designated side, creating an open channel through the middle of the expressway in case emergency vehicles need to pass through.
Passenger vehicles will be assessed no toll fees.
Navigating on the Autobahn
It doesn’t take long for North Americans driving on the autobahn to notice the blue directional signs do not include compass directions; only the names of the next cities on your route are displayed. You can either rely on your GPS system to tell you which direction you are heading, or you can familiarize yourself with how the autobahn in set up. Even-numbered autobahns run east-west. Odd-numbered autobahns run north-south. Autobahns numbered 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 run north-south. Autobahn numbers begin with the letter A, but on road maps you usually only see the number. Autobahns numbered 2, 4, 6, 8, etc. run east-west.
Note: If you do see a reference to compass directions it typically applies to a part of town, NOT necessarily the direction you will be heading. For example, if it says Amberg Süd it means Amberg South and points you in the direction of that part of the town!
Watch carefully for changes in Speed Limits
In Europe, including Germany, you will rarely see warnings like “reduced speed ahead.” One minute you may be doing 130 km/h, and suddenly you see a 110 limit sign. You are expected to pay attention to the posted limits. Approaching a construction zone, you will see a series of speed limit signs, usually starting with 100, (62 mph) then another sign with 80 (50 mph), then another with 60 (35 mph). You can’t resume speed until you see an end-of-speed-limit sign or a new posted speed.
Watch out for the cameras! They are easy to see……..once they have taken your photo! These are not only on the autobahn, but also on small country roads!! They are often hidden in rural areas and in the small villages along your route where reduced speed is announced in advance.
“Stau” Warnings (pronounced SHTOWS, rhyming with COW), meaning a stall in traffic. Unfortunately, construction delays and traffic jams are also part of driving on the autobahn. Unless you understand Deutsche and can tune into a German radio station, you will probably need to rely on your navigation system (or apps like Waze) to alert you BEFORE you are stuck in a stau, in hopes of finding an alternate route!! This type of congestion will often stretch out for many kilometers. Important! If you bring your own vehicle, make sure it has updated maps for Europe. While on this topic, this might be a good time to remind you to also change your speed readout and heads-up display (if you have them) to KILOMETERS!!! You won't want to mistake miles for kilometers and vice versa!!
Also be aware of this major difference between driving in the states: German traffic law REQUIRES drivers to form an emergency vehicle lane) whenever traffic backs up on the autobahn due to an accident or some other emergency requiring ambulances, fire trucks, police, or any other emergency response. If there are only two lanes in each direction, drivers are required to move their vehicles to the far right and far left, creating a middle open lane for emergency vehicles. If there are more than two lanes then drivers in the right-side lanes stay far right, while drivers in the third or fourth left lane stay on the far left. The far-right emergency parking lane should not be blocked unless signage or a police official indicates otherwise. (See illustration.) This law also applies to driving in Austria!
While you must pull over for approaching emergency vehicles in the US, I’ve never seen drivers automatically form a designated lane for them during a traffic jam. Here, you can drive many miles with the center lane empty; it has been cleared for anticipated emergency vehicles.
Fueling your vehicle Just like along the motorways in North America, there are gas stations along the autobahn; you pump gas and then go inside to pay the cashier. Lock your car and leave it at the pump, since no one can pump gas there until you’ve paid. The cashier will ask for your pump number; this is where it will come in handy to know how to count to ten in Deutsche! You can pay cash or use a credit card. Some stations require pre-payment during late hours, but usually you pay after you pump. Non-autobahn stations in Germany may or may not accept card payment. Look for the usual credit card logos at the door or by the register. (The EC card is not a credit card; it is a bank debit card for European residents only.) The big difference between what you're used to and Germany, is that it's illegal to run out of gas on the autobahn! See #5 above in the Autobahn Rules!
If you are in Germany courtesy of the US Military, you will want to find Esso gas stations near the autobahn so that your fuel will be tax-free; you may want to locate the Esso stations along your route if you are planning a long drive.
U.S. military, DOD civilians ID cardholders and their dependents stationed in Germany may purchase tax-free fuel at Esso stations through a fuel card program sponsored by AAFES. Money is added to a pre-paid card for future purchases, and all registered vehicles have a monthly ration based on the vehicle’s size and weight, as noted on your vehicle registration.
AAFES' Esso Program Details
The program is only available in Germany at on-base AAFES facilities and at off-base Esso gas stations.
The fuel ration card is only good for one assigned vehicle and for purchase of the type of fuel the vehicle uses.
More than one vehicle may be registered, and up to two ID holders may be assigned to a fuel card for each vehicle.
The prepaid balance is shared across owners and vehicles.
Exceeding your fuel ration allowance or prepaid balance or buying with an expired card will result in paying the taxed, economy fuel price.
Using the Card
On base: Use pre-paid balance or other form of payment.
Off base: You must pay using your pre-paid balance.
Pump gas, then take the fuel card, vehicle registration and ID card to the attendant.
Know your 4-digit PIN.
Amount purchased is deducted from the account’s monthly ration.
Know your ration and card balances: odin.aafes.com/esso, toll-free number on card or last receipt.
If you are at an Esso station and the payment system goes down, the staff is trained to call a dual language system to complete the transaction. Or call the AAFES 24/7 Military Star Card center.
Add money to card: cash, check, Military Star card, debit or credit at AAFES Shoppettes/gas stations; online at odin.aafes.com/esso; by phone at the number on the back of the card; and by automatic bank transfer or payment.
Immediately report a lost or stolen Esso fuel card by calling AAFES at their toll-free number 0800-181-9945.
To help locate Esso stations across Germany, download the Esso map app for your smartphone. You can also learn more about Esso fuel rations at www.aafes.com.
There are no tolls on German roads for normal passenger vehicles. A few years ago, there was some consideration to charging tolls to non-German residents only, but that was never implemented. So as long as you are driving a vehicle that weighs less than 7.5 tons, you’re good to go. If your vehicle exceeds that weight, you can go to the convenient “Toll Collect” site to determine the amount of the toll and how to pay it.
However, if you are traveling the autobahn outside of Germany, you may want to ready my short post from September 15, 2020 regarding Road Tolls and Taxes!
Getting Around Germany
As I’ve mentioned in other posts, unless you live on (and never leave) a US Military Base, you are likely to discover most European roads are too narrow for large pickup trucks, and in some cases even larger cars. The same is true for most parking lots! When visiting retailers/restaurants, there is not nearly as much space between parking lanes so it’s often easier to back into a spot than attempting to back out!
There are many streets where only one car can get through. A Straße (road) normally consist of two-way traffic and accommodates vehicles to travel in both directions, but others are very narrow, which means some maneuvering is required. Sometimes the road may narrow in spots which require vehicles to alternate their passage through that area. If both vehicles try to both come through at the same time, they better be Smart cars or Volkswagen Beetles!
By the way, the “ß” in Straße is a unique character used in Germany to represent a double s, so that word in the US would be written Strasse; it will be combined with the actual street name to form one word (Leopoldstrasse or Ludwigstrasse for example). I would tell you exactly how to pronounce Strasse, but that is going to depend upon where you are in Germany. Just like in the US, there are various dialects for various regions.
There are many streets (especially inside City Centers that are one-way only; pay attention to the signs. And remember, on some of those narrow streets, you may also have to get around cars parked on either side, which is permissible unless otherwise indicated!
Vehicle size is also going to make a difference on the autobahn (yes, believe it or not!) …..in construction zones! Often those areas are reduced to two lanes where only the right lane is large enough for a normal size vehicle. The left lane is SO TINY that I admit it will often intimidate me enough to keep me from passing in a construction area. It doesn’t stop my husband, but he might think twice if he was still driving a Ram 1500! If you’re brave and want to give it a shot, watch out for that trucker on the right who has had his big rig on the road for many hours and through several countries and may not be quite as aware as he should be of approaching vehicles on his very narrow left!!
Aside from the size of your vehicle being an issue, there are other concerns. In many city centers or small residential areas where parking is very limited, residents with a parking placard registered to that village has a much better chance of finding parking. If you are a resident, don’t forget to put your placard in the front windshield, or risk a parking ticket. With the placard you can stay parked in any legal parking spot for an unlimited amount of time.
If you are not a resident with a designated placard, you will need to follow the directions provided by signage, and you will often make use of the "parking disc" which designates your arrival time. This link has is a really good description of all parking scenarios in Germany!! You won’t want to go anywhere without a “parking disc” (shown on left); most people keep one in each vehicle. You’re going to need it.
Paying Traffic/Parking Fines
Now that we’ve discussed potential traffic and parking fines, let’s discuss how to pay them! This may vary by Region and/or communities. I’m sharing two different examples:
Speeding ticket in Rheinland Pfalz (which includes the Kaiserslautern Military Community), as the result of a traffic cam. You will receive a notice (usually a letter sized document) in the mail that includes a photo of the driver’s face and the license plate. Although it will all be in Deutsche, the fine (in Euros) will be centered in bold about ½ down the page; making it easy to determine how much you owe. But how do you pay it? In the paragraph below the amount (again, in Deutsche) near the bottom, it will include bold lettering that reads something like “Verwendungszweches 265903125 auf das Konto DE49 5901 0042 xxxx xxxx xx”. You will pay it just like you pay any other German bills. As you can see, the Konto in Germany is what we would refer to in the US as the bank’s routing number plus account number.
Though some municipalities may be slightly different, most will make the fine and to whom it should be paid very visible.
Parking Ticket in Stadt Amberg: A piece of paper the size of a sales receipt will be placed in your windshield; it looks like a receipt because it is typically generated by a hand-held device. Although it is in Deutsche, it’s VERY EASY to see the date and time, your license plate number, and the amount of the fine. At the very bottom, it is also easy to see the IBAN and BIC numbers you must reference in order to pay the ticket.
Navigational Differences from the US
Before you can obtain your German Driver’s License you will have to be acquainted with ALL the traffic and parking signs, and there are way too many to talk about here. This link is a great source that describes all of them IN ENGLISH!
However, a few things that are worth mentioning that are different from what most of us are accustomed to:
Traffic lights are not positioned across the intersection like in the US, so if you pull too far forward at the intersection, you won’t be able to see them!
There are “Priority Roads”. You may be on a street/road that merges with another; where they come together you will want to pay attention to which of them has the right of way! If you are not on the thick black road as indicated on the sign, you must yield to those who are!
(Example of a Priority Road Sign)
If you don't become really familiar with the Priority Road signs, you could easily be the cause of an accident!
Yellow traffic lights: In the states we are accustomed to the yellow light coming after the green to indicate it’s about to turn red; hence all the people who run yellow lights! But in Germany, it’s different. Prior to the light turning green, the yellow signal will come on with the red for a second. This indicates that the green signal is about to be activated, giving drivers a "get ready" warning. (As seen here)
Crosswalks: Although pedestrians are SUPPOSED to have the right of way even in the states, it is enforced in Germany. Even if you are coming out of a traffic circle onto a main road and there’s no light, but someone has entered the crosswalk on the opposite side of the street, you MUST stop to allow them to cross before proceeding!! And it will be a rare sighting to see a German cross a street other than in a crosswalk!!
Pedestrian Zones; You may very well enter a road and go only a block or two before you see a sign that indicates no vehicles are allowed (could be no vehicles at all including bicycles, or it could mean no cars/trucks/motorcycles. These are known as Pedestrian Zones, and sometimes Pedestrian/Cyclist zones. In many towns the Pedestrian Zone is very large and consists of streets in all directions. In most of those towns, bicycles will be allowed because many German residents use bicycles for their everyday shopping. Pedestrian zones make it easy to go from one retailer and kiosks to another and to use the full width of the street to do so. The history of how Germany’s pedestrian zones originated (a marketing ploy!) is an interesting read!
If you do see a vehicle in these areas, it’s usually permitted for loading/unloading/stocking the retail establishments. Although many large shopping areas have rear accessibility for this, the retailers inside city centers and where pedestrian zones exist aren’t likely to alleys or rear entry loading zones.
Side note: Although Germans are known as heavy drinkers (specifically beer), they take DUIs VERY seriously! That’s one reason many residents and tourists take advantage of the awesome train systems in Europe! You do not want to get a DUI anywhere…………but especially in Germany! Penalties are severe!
NOT RECOMMENDED! Just showing for the entertainment aspect! 344 kilometers an hour is equal to almost 214 mph!!
RESOURCES and/or valuable insights:
AutoEurope.com Check out their TOP 3 AUTOBAHN SPORTS CAR RENTALS