Commuting on the Autobahn

Commuting on the Autobahn

I have already written a post about driving in Germany, and in it, I mentioned that I could probably dedicate a whole post to the Autobahn. Well, here is that post! Though, I’m not debunking myths as much as telling you how to drive without getting run over by an angry driver in a BMW (it’s always the BMWs).  Now I commute on the Autobahn daily, so I feel like I actually have some of the experience necessary to talk about driving.


The left lane is for passing

I touched on this in the general driving post, but it’s one of the most important things to keep in mind when driving on the Autobahn. It’s essential for maintaining a good flow of traffic. You can’t just hang out in the left lane. By keeping slower traffic to the right, and having a dedicated lane for passing, Autobahn traffic is able to move more smoothly, and with fewer in-and-out weaving that causes jams and accidents.

A corollary to this is, only pass in the left lane. Drivers are not accustomed to regular passing on the right, so they are less likely to watch out for it. This can cause problems on highways with three lanes. For example, if a truck is driving in the middle lane, and a car is passing them on the left, they are not going to expect a car to also be passing on the right – which could cause an accident if they both try to merge into the middle lane in front of the truck.

This doesn’t look very safe.
Source: xenostral

The exception to this is at on-ramps and off-ramps, but in places where passing on the right is allowed, the lane markers are thicker, so drivers are reminded to expect passers on the right.


There are speed limits

This was also mentioned, but it’s the greatest misconception that the Autobahn is a complete free-for-all. C’mon, people, it’s in Germany – the land of Ordnung. Of course there are limits. There are sections with marked speed limits, primarily in heavier trafficked areas and major interchanges. And in the sections with no marked limit, there is an advised limit of 130 km/h (81 mph). You are allowed to drive faster, but if you get in an accident while going above this advised speed, it will count against you with insurance and determining liability. You are also expected to drive slower in the case of adverse road conditions, such as rain or snow, but again, the penalties will only come if there is an accident (unless speed limit signs had been posted for the weather).

Source: Michael Pereckas, Cropped by me
Source: Michael Pereckas, Cropped by me


There are speed cameras

I mentioned this in my previous driving post, but it does bear repeating. There are speed cameras on the Autobahn. These are much more common than American-style speed traps where cops hang out on the side of the road in conspicuous police cars. No, here they hid cameras under bridges all sneaky-like. The radio station I listen to when I forget to download podcasts actually announces where speed cameras (or Blitzer) have been spotted every half hour or so. I have no idea if this is a normal thing, or if I listen to a shady station.


You are never the fastest

So you understand the rules about passing on the left, but you figure that in your fancy-pants BMW (sorry, BMW owners, but you’re usually the worst offenders 😉 ) that you’ll be faster than everyone else, so you never need to leave the left lane. Hold on, buddy, is that a Porsche you see in your rearview mirror? You better get over, because you’re cramping their style.

Seriously, though. You are never the fastest person driving. There is always someone who will pop up behind you and jostle you to get over. The best thing to do is to just always get into the right if there is enough space for you to drive there for a bit, if only to give the speediest of speed racers a chance to pass. The German driving test I took has an actually time recommendation for this, but I can’t remember it now.

Fast Cars to the Left
This driver wants you to go faster or get out of the left lane!
Source: jo.sau, Cropped by me


It’s illegal to run out of gas

The Germans are really big on keeping things running efficiently – that means absolutely no stopping on the Autobahn unless necessary. You know what’s not necessary? Running out of gas. This is not a joke. You are expected to have sufficient amount of gas in your car at all times, and it’s considered your fault if you did not plan properly.

You really shouldn’t run out of gas though. If you are on the proper Autobahn, there is a maximum distance allowed between gas stations, and each stop with a gas station has a sign that tells you how far away the next one is. No excuses, keep your tank full!

Fun fact, I complained to Mr. Faultier about my “idiot light” turning on, and asking him about how far the car could go with that much gas – and he told me that he doesn’t think he’s ever let it get that low!


Source: Sauerlaender
Hopefully they didn’t run out of gas!
Source: Sauerlaender

Not all highways are the Autobahn

While Autobahn may be used colloquially to mean any German highway, the Autobahn system does not cover all highways in Germany. It’s similar to how, in the US, there is an Interstate highway system, as well as smaller state highways. From Wikipedia:

Various other controlled-access highways exist on the federal (Bundesstraße), state(Landesstraße), district, and municipal level but are not part of the Autobahn network and are officially referred to as Kraftfahrstraße

You can tell what type of highway you’re on by how it’s named. A # is an official Autobahn, B # is a Bundesstraße, L # is a Landesstraße – very logical, very German. Bundesstraßen in particular are very similar to Autobahnen, but they generally smaller,  more likely to have speed limits, and may not have a hard shoulder. Landesstraßen are generally even smaller, and remind me of itty-bitty country highways.

For a road to be classified as an Autobahn, it has to meet some very particular construction standards regarding central barriers, shoulders, curves, and so on. If you want an overview, the Wikipedia article is pretty solid. It has 96 references, if you also desire deeper reading.


Trucks have different speed limits

Larger vehicles, as well as cars pulling trailers, have different speed limits, indicated by stickers on the back of the vehicles. This is the most noticeable with semi-trucks, which have a speed limit of 80 km/h (50 mph). This usually keeps them in the right lane and easy to pass.  Until one going 81 km/h tries to pass another going 79 km/h and you have elephant racing (Elefantenrennen). If there are more than two lanes, everyone angrily gets over to the far left, which slows down the speedsters. If there are only two lanes, break lights flash and everyone starts swearing.

Elephant Race
Source: Tino Rossini, Cropped by me


There will be construction somewhere along your route


Source: WikimediaImages


Source for header: Sauerlaender

5 thoughts on “Commuting on the Autobahn

    1. Ah! I just reread that section and I wasn’t very clear. I did actually know it’s illegal – it’s just that it’s also illegal in many parts of the US, but only rarely enforced. So for me, it very different that it’s a rule people actually follow here.

  1. I hate being so very German on this, but passing on the right is actually minor breach of law – it is not just a habit. Although it may seem like one.
    So, unless one drives below 60km/h one has to pass on the left. It’s minor, but you could actually get a fine for that. That’s all.. wanted to save you some money 😉

    1. Ah! I just reread that section and I wasn’t very clear. I did actually know it’s illegal – it’s just that it’s also illegal in many parts of the US, but only rarely enforced. So for me, it very different that it’s a rule people actually follow here.

      I will need to remember that I will have to be very clear with visiting Americans that it’s a big deal.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: