The Autobahn: Germany’s Race Track for Everyday Drivers

cr 52d7f1b86544aeb13eebedce3ddbf96d AutobahnThe famous German autobahns are renowned for being among the few public road systems in the world with significant sections of roadway without posted speed limits for cars and motorbikes. In 1938, Rudolf Caracciola attained a speed of 432 km/h (268 mph) on the autobahn that set a new worlds land speed record. His speed remains one of the highest off-tract, public roadway speeds ever achieved.  Known as Bundesautobahnen (federal expressways) these roadways form the German national or “interstate” road system. In fact, the autobahn system was the first limited-access, high-speed road network in the world. Today, it is third longest national highway system in the word behind the National Trunk Highway System (NTHS) of China and the U.S. Interstates.
During the late 1920s under Weimar Republic, the idea for the construction of a federal highway system was proposed but found little political support. Nevertheless, a private consortium began construction of a Frankfurt am Main to Basel autobahn. The first section from Frankfurt am Main to Darmstadt was completed in 1935.  During World War II, allied bombing and German military demolition heavily damaged the autobahns, and thousands of kilometers remained unfinished after the war. In West Germany, the German Federal Republic (GFR) soon repaired most existing autobahns, undertook completion of unfinished sections and extended the program.
As of 2012, Germany’s autobahns consist of a system of high-speed roadways with a total length of 12,845 km (8000 mi). The majority of modern autobahns are similar to major highways in industrialized countries. Modern autobahns are designed with multiple lanes of traffic in both directions and a central barrier between them, and all road junctions are grade-separated. Vehicles with a top speed of less than 60 km/h (37 mph) are not allowed on the autobahn system. Finally, a 120 cm (47 in) wide hard shoulder provides an emergency lane.  Post war construction introduced a 69 cm (27 in) asphalt-concrete cross-section with fully paved hard shoulders with life span of 40 years. The U. S. freeways are 11 inches thick. The top “design speed” is approximately 160 km/h (99 mph) in flat country, including curves. A few old sections of autobahn exist with two lanes and no emergency lane.
No general speed limit exists for auto or motorcycles on the autobahns, but there is an advisory (Richtgeschwindigkeit) limit of 130 km/h (81 mph). Buses and vehicles towing trailers are limited to 100 km/h (62 mph). Additionally, limits are imposed for pollution or noise reduction, road construction, traffic jams, accidents and weather. In reality, the average speeds used on unmarked autobahn stretches are about 140 km/h (87 mph).
Traffic Laws and Enforcement
Unmarked police vehicles with video cameras patrol the German autobahn. Lane usage and posted speeds are strictly enforced. Drivers are required to use the right lane when it is free, and the left lane is to be used only for passing. Drivers can be fined for prolonged use of the far left lane when other lanes are free. Passing on the right is strictly forbidden.  Not yielding the left lane to allow a faster vehicle to pass is finable. However, excessive honking, light flashing or tailgating are also finable offenses and may be considered coercion with stiffer penalties. Except for emergencies – traffic jams or an accident – stopping on the autobahn is illegal. Even running out of gas is subject to a fine.
Byline:  Terrence Wadsworth is a freelance writer based in Tallahassee who focuses on cars, car gadgetry, the history of automobiles, and other things car related, including auto insurance; click to learn more about the top 10 cars in Canada in terms of car fuel consumption and insurance.