Speed: It's dangerous, exhilarating, intoxicating. This episode of Random Bits of Knowledge about Germany will feature a German icon: The Autobahn.
While the term Autobahn is probably one of the most known German words in the world, there remain many misconceptions about the Autobahn. So let's start by defining what the Autobahn really is.
Autobahn literally means auto lane. It describes the network of inter city highways in Germany - comparable I guess to the US interstate. In the past people actually referred to it as the Autobahnen, which would be the correct plural and is the official term. But over time both the individual road as well as the entire network have become known as just Die Autobahn.
Germany has one of densest highway systems of the world - third only after the US and China in total length, which is astonishing if you look at the country's size in comparison.
The Autobahn is almost solely financed through federal taxes. There are virtually no fees or toll roads, except for a toll on commercial trucks which has recently been introduced. Even though Germans like to complain a lot about the condition of their Autobahn, in reality the roads are incredibly well maintained. And have to be, considering how fast people drive here.
Of course the most unique feature of the Autobahn is the speed limit, or rather lack thereof. To my knowledge the Autobahn remains the only highway in the world without a general speed limit. There is the Richtgeschwindigkeit, a recommended speed of 130 km/h (which is about 81 mph), but that really is about it - it's a recommendation. Where ever only the recommendation is in effect, you are free to drive as fast as the car goes. And as you should know, German cars like to go fast.
There is probably nothing Germans are more proud of than their cars. Some fellow citizens might disagree with me on that, but overall it's true. And for good reason.
Between 10 and 15 percent of the entire German economy is bound to or related to the car industry. The standard vehicle for a taxi cab in Germany is a Mercedes E or C class. Your standard police patrol will drive anything from a Volkswagen to a Mercedes, BMW, or even Porsche. Foreign visitors are often enough astonished by the sheer rate of luxury vehicles on the German road.
Owning and maintaining a nice car remains the number one status symbol in Germany. In fact no worldly possession is regarded more universally as a sign of wealth and status among Germans. Where in other societies home ownership, physical appearance, travel, family and others are equal or better characteristics for being well off, nothing will top the car in the homeland of the motor vehicle.
The definite German road sign: All Limits Are Off
The definite German road sign: All Limits Are Off
Another interesting effect of that pride is that car modding is really uncommon in Germany. Actually it is really looked down upon. The in-house tuners like AMG, Abt, or M are probably the only socially acceptable choice outside of stock cars. Any custom jobs but those few will label you as an eccentric hobbyist at best, but usually a modded car, especially if it's foreign, will quickly get thrown into the white trash category.
But, since Autobahn performance is still the most attractive feature of high end cars, modding is really just unnecessary. Every German car maker offers a wide selection of options for every model, and stupidly powerful yet efficient engines are of course the most sought after. There is this "Gentleman's Agreement" between car makers to electronically limit all standard models to 250 km/h. You can still pay them between 2k and 5k Euro and accept an extra on your insurance to have this limit removed though if you desperately need to go 300 km/h and more. It's worth it for enough people apparently - I was more than once passed by some high powered BMW when I was going 250 km/h myself.
With these insane speeds, isn't the Autobahn incredibly dangerous? Oddly enough no; in fact the Autobahn is one the safest highways in the world. In 2011 there were a total of 453 fatal accidents on the Autobahn, which is 0.56 per 100,000 speed addicted residents. Compare that to the US interstate's 1.61 per 100,000 - three times as many.
I already mentioned two likely reasons for that: Excellent road conditions, and the best cars in the world. On top of that, Germany has very strict regulations on car maintenance. It's mandatory to have your car inspected every 2 years, and the safety standards are very high, which makes maintaining an older car very expensive. Driving your car for a considerable time over the 2 year period without inspection is a criminal offense. Most manufacturers impose even tighter inspection rules on you if you want to benefit from their long life guarantee plans.
I believe the most important difference though is actually the drivers themselves. Of course like every other country Germany has its share of terrible drivers. However consider how difficult it is to get a driver's license in Germany: You have to take mandatory theory as well as driving lessons at a licensed driving school. Driving lessons must include night driving, rush hour city traffic and of course driving on the Autobahn. You have to pass a test in theory, and a rather strict driving test as well; at least between 1/3 and 1/4 of all applicants fail the test the first time.
All in all getting just your license will cost you about 2000 Euro. If you only do the absolutely mandatory lessons you could go by with about 1500, but most people take more lessons to not fail the test.
Also traffic rules on the Autobahn are strictly observed. Well, more or less I suppose, but at least when it comes to safety most people behave. Speeding in areas where there is a speed limit is rather uncommon. Tailgating is the most enforced violation and has the highest fines associated to it. There is Rechtsfahrgebot, which basically means you are only allowed to pass on the left, and also you must not drive on the left lane if the right lane is clear. While the latter part is often ignored, at least people passing on the right is very rare.
But ultimately the main reason is not just the combination of excellent roads, superb cars, and safe driving - it comes down to culture. In Germany, driving is not just a means to get from point A to point B. It's an activity in itself, and one that has been treasured over generations; It's the German's way to express and experience freedom. It took German car makers until a few years ago to even include cup holders in their stock car options. That you would want to do anything but driving once in the car was long a completely foreign concept.
The architecture of the road goes along with the German culture of driving. There are very few simple straight flat sections on the Autobahn. Instead smooth bends, light hills, tunnels, and bridges leading through woodlands and over high plains award the Autobahn a certain grace, and yes, beauty. There are actual fan clubs cherishing especially aesthetic sections of the Autobahn like the A71.
But in the end all the beauty and insanity that the Autobahn still represents is increasingly becoming anachronistic. Ever more congested roads, long sections in constant maintenance, and especially environmental concerns have slowly shifted the public opinion on the Autobahn. Today just more than half of the total Autobahn network is truly without speed limits - the other half has permanent or temporary speed limits depending on conditions. Polls suggest that a majority of the public is now in favor of introducing a general nation wide speed limit. 2011 was the first year in history where fewer licenses were issued than the year before. A general Autobahn toll for all vehicles is now regularly being discussed; something that would have been political suicide just 10 years ago. These things will probably not happen too soon still, since the driver and car lobby is comparable in their influence and disputability to the NRA in the United States.
However I am fairly certain that I am among the last generation that can still enjoy the Autobahn in its original nature: An erratic, beautiful, ridiculously irresponsible display of pride in an otherwise sensible, humble, and orderly society.
Random bits of knowledge about Germany
Ep6: Gun ownership
Ep4: Bild and Fear
Ep1: Small Talk