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15 Things You Didn’t Know About The German Autobahn


Oh the Autobahn. Every American’s favourite place to go and be a reckless driver. Or at least every American’s dream place to go and be a reckless driver. But how reckless can one be on the Autobahn? In spite of what most people think, there are in fact speed limits on these stretches of freeway, so the notion of going as fast as one wants… it doesn’t quite apply as much as the layman might think.

As for even getting a German license to get out onto the Autobahn… it’s not as easy as one might think. Sure, there’s the occasional pileup, but every highway has those now and again. And for those slowpokes out there who are happy to hear there are in fact speed limits: don’t get too thrilled… there’s also a speed minimum, and some hefty charges for ineptitude on the fast freeway.

One might be happy to know that the Autobahn was not actually Hitler’s idea, though it did come to fruition during the Third Reich. In addition, in spite of all of the super cars available today, the speed record for the Autobahn was set by a Mercedes Benz in 1938, and has yet to be broken. There are all sorts of things that people didn’t know about the Autobahn, and these are just the start…

15. Is It Safe? Safer Than The U.S. At Least

Taking into consideration just the one fact that North American roads are more often than not poorly maintained, one can already make the argument that the Autobahn is far safer than freeways in the U.S. The Autobahn is extremely well maintained, and must be when people are near flying down the freeway at break-neck speeds. Of course, that being said, 67% of the accidents that occurred on the Autobahn happened in the limitless section of the highway. However, rural road deaths accounted for five times more people dying in collisions and auto accidents than people who were killed on the Autobahn. It might also be worth noting that the U.S. has 11.6 road fatalities per hundred thousand people, per year. Germany, on the other hand, has only 4.3 fatalities per hundred thousand… perhaps German drivers are just a bit more efficient? Speaking of efficiency: one never need worry about running out of gas on the Autobahn (in fact one can be charged if this occurs), because there are required gas stations along the freeway approximately every thirty miles. There are also emergency phones every 2km (with a dispatcher who can speak English).

14. The Left Lane Is The Fast Lane… Period

The Autobahn is set up such that the left lane is specifically for passing… and passing at great speeds. It is in fact illegal to simply doddle in the left lane, and drivers are allowed to honk at drivers who are taking their time, and just having a leisurely drive in the fast lane; they are even allowed to flash the slow driver with their high beams. Speeds can reach up to 241kph (150mph) in the left lane, so it is important that drivers don’t take their time, so as to keep the highway safe. However, for all the honking and light flashing, if one gets too close to a driver’s rear end, they can be charged up to $500, and have their license suspended for tailgating. The setup of the Autobahn is surprisingly built around safety, in spite of the intense speeds. Given that, one must never pass on the right. It is most certainly illegal. The left lane is the fast lane for a reason: it is the only lane for passing.

13. Germans Are Trained For The Autobahn

The process to receive a German driver’s license is, compared to the testing in North America, absolutely overwhelming. One could only imagine the cost involved if the same process were brought to Canada and the States. For starters, one must have basic first aid training, which means that should an accident happen, drivers are required to stop at the scene to get help and asses the situation. This makes drivers far more responsible, and must certainly help keep drivers in check. This applies to people who are not German as well, unless of course there are already medics on scene. High speed car-driving courses must be taken in order to get a license also. Not to mention that there are fourteen required theory lessons and at least a dozen in-car driving lessons. So never mind the legislation around the Autobahn itself: Germany ensures that drivers are skilled enough to take on the daunting motorway.

12. Not Only Traffic, But Construction Moves Quickly

Known as the world’s first motorway, Germany built a stretch of highway in Berlin between 1913-1921 (the Avus experimental highway). This was a 19km stretch which, at the time was not so simple as road construction is today (and just look at how poorly roads are built in North America today anyway). This piece of the motorway had two 8m lanes, separated by one 9m meridian. Then, after Italy began construction of motorways in the 20s, Germany opened a stretch between Düsseldorf and Opladen in 1929, and another stretch between Cologne and Bonn in 1932. That’s near 63km of highway in a matter of a few years. Given the structural quality and the width of it as well, this is no small feat. By the end of World War II the Autobahn stretched a staggering 2,128km. From 82km before the war really took off, to over 2000km by the end of it. Considering all the other problems Germany had to deal with during that time, it’s amazing the efficiency and quality with which the Autobahn was built. Following the war, between 1953-58, an additional 144km were added.

11. Built During The 3rd Reich, But Not Hitler’s Idea

It is always assumed (and perhaps justifiably so) that the construction of the Autobahn was Hitler’s idea. It makes sense as it would be incredibly useful for troop movements, as well as an economical boon, giving jobs to people who had, till then, been struggling through the Great Depression. However, the very first stretch of the Autobahn, then called the Avus experimental highway was, as stated above, created between 1913 and 1921. Hitler, for at least part of that time, was still busy being a failed painter. That being said, while the idea wasn’t his, Hitler did fully embrace the construction of the highway. By 1936, over 130,000 people were involved in the building of the motorway. The first official section of what was then called the Reichsautobahn (highway of the Reich), was opened up in 1935 between Frankfurt and Darmstadt. Not only was the Autobahn a show of the might of the Third Reich, but it was also a means of inspiring the German people; bringing them into a new age, free of the Depression.

10. Yes, There Are Speed Limits

It has long been thought, at least in North America, that one can drive as fast as one wants on the Autobahn, without worry of being pulled over by the police. This is certainly false. There are, in fact, speed limits on the Autobahn. Yes, there is about 60% of the freeway that actually does have no maximum speed limit, but there is a government-recommended speed of 128kph (80mph). Considering that the limits are typically 96-120kph (60-75mph), the government’s recommendation must still be a happy limitation to those American drivers who want to book it along the highway. At the behest of other nations, and their safety statistics based on their own national speed limits, Germany did hold a vote on implementing their own… the proposal failed entirely, and so there are still those sections where one can drive over 150kph, but that does not mean one ignores the rules of the road.

9. This Includes A Minimum Speed Limit

Now given that there are, at least on 40% of the Autobahn, maximum speed limits, it follows that there should be a minimum speed limit also. The minimum (though likely no one ever comes close too it) is 60kph (37mph). Going slower than this can result in being pulled over, and charged for obstructing the flow of traffic. Imagine the danger inherent in driving slower than 60kph when there are is a general flow of traffic moving at over twice that speed at near 130kph. Of course the left lane is for passing people who are moving anywhere near the minimum. However, given that the max limit is up to 120kph or unlimited on over half of the freeway, driving slower than 60kph is asking to be rear-ended (unless of course one’s four-ways are on). It must also be pointed out that while max limits may only be enforced on 40% of the Autobahn, the minimum speed limit applies to the highway in its entirety.

8. The VW Golf & Jetta Are The Most Frequently Used

An interesting statistic, but perhaps not overwhelmingly surprising as they are both German-made cars… the most frequently used cars on the Autobahn, by a large margin, are Volkswagen Golf and the Volkswagen Jetta. There are over 250,000 units of these to cars on the Autobahn regularly. The next most used cars would be the Volkswagen Polo, Opel Astra, and Mercedes C-Class. One might think that super cars like the Bugatti Veyron, or the Lamborghini Veneno would be used much more frequently, given the ability to really open up the cars on the freeway. However, it’s clear that, like in so many other stereotypical ways, the Germans are incredibly practical and efficient. There are not even enough registered super cars that hit the Autobahn, at least from German citizens, to make any sort of roadway statistics. It seems that, in spite of the incredible speeds which one can move at, economy cars are the popular choice to get from A to B.

7. The Speed Record Is 268.8mph… From 1938

That’s right. The Autobahn speed record was set in 1938, and no one has broken it since. To put the speed into perspective for those readers who go by kilometres, 268.8mph translates to 432.59kph. That speed is undeniably ridiculous! Rosemeyer got close in his V-16 Auto Union, which had a twin supercharged V16 engine and 513 brake horsepower. However, it would be Rudolf Caracciola, in his Mercedes Benz W125 Rekordwagen, which had a twin supercharged V12 and 736 brake horsepower, who managed to take the record. So why has a Veyron (which packs a W16 quad-turbocharged engine with 1000BHP) not wiped the floor with these cars? Well first off, the Veyron has topped out at only 408.84kph, so it’s still shy of reaching that record. But also, the record-holding car and its very close opponent were built specifically for speed, and were by no means production cars. In addition, sections of the Autobahn were closed down specifically for the speed records to be set.

6. Largest Pileup Involved 259 Cars

Second place in terms of number of cars to be involved in a pileup, Germany has seen a 259-car incident on the Autobahn. So when accidents do occur (even if less frequently than the United States) it would seem they are far more serious, given the high speeds at which vehicles move on the highway. In Braunschweig, in July of 2009, there was a heavy rain which clearly resulted in the failure for some to handle the high speeds of the motorway. The Autobahn A2, in Lower Saxony saw 259 cars collide. To be fair, not all of the cars collided. There were 73 collisions and 82 injured motorists (of which ten were critically injured). The incident resulted in two million dollars of damages, and took three helicopters, forty ambulances, and three hundred and fifty firefighters to deal with the whole event. Astonishingly no one died. In spite of the number of people involved in this incident, it is nowhere near as bad as the fuel truck that was knocked off a bridge by an allegedly drugged driver. The truck plummeted 100 ft onto the Autobahn and exploded, destroying the bridge, causing over three hundred and fifty million dollars worth of damage, and obviously killing the truck driver… amazingly only the truck driver.

5. The Autobahn Doesn’t Just Exist In Germany

That’s right, the Autobahn does not just exist in Germany. The direct English translation of Autobahn is simply ‘car road’. In proper translation, the term means highway. Now besides the fact that all developed countries have paved highways, this isn’t simply a cheeky poke at translation, pointing out how obviously there are other countries that have highways. That would be silly, and might suggest that this author thinks the average reader stupid. That’s not the case. In fact, there are stretches of German-built Autobahn in today’s Poland and Czech Republic. In addition to that, and to no surprise, Austria calls their highways Autobahns. This makes total sense as Austria is a German-speaking country. However, based on the term Autobahn, Croatia, the Czech Republic, and Switzerland have very closely related terms in their own languages. Considering that Germany is responsible for the very first highway of such scale, it makes perfect sense that these nations would so closely base their terms on that of the Autobahn.

4. Video Games Feature The Daunting Autobahn

The Autobahn is not only for those drivers who can manage to pass the fourteen written tests, and at least dozen driving tests, as well as the first aid and fast-driving courses. No, one can get a feel for the Autobahn in a virtual setting. It surely is nowhere near the same as going 175kph on the actual Autobahn, but it sure is cheaper and easier. The above video game car is going steady at 170mph (273kph). That might not be anywhere near the speed record set in 1938, but it’s still pretty damn fast.

Some video games of note that feature the Autobahn include: Need For Speed: ProStreet, Burnout 3: Takedown, Burnout Dominator, Crash Time: Autobahn Pursuit and Autobahn Polizei. The later game translates to ‘Highway Patrol’. As for Crash Time: Autobahn Pursuit, this game was trashed by critics for garbage handling and graphics. Based on a German TV show, this game has the player patrolling the Autobahn (and other roadways in Germany), shadowing, racing, and chasing vehicles. The game has since seen more than three sequels… so in spite of the horrible reviews, clearly people enjoy getting a chance to drive the Autobahn without any hassle other than poor graphics.

3. Stretches Of The Reichsautobahn Still Exist

Yup. There are reminders of the Fuhrer all over Europe, and not the least of which are the remaining stretches of the original Reichsautobahn. As a reminder, the Reichsautobahn is simply what the Autobahn was referred to during the Third Reich, and translates to ‘highway of the Reich’. With nearly 13,000km of Autobahn in Germany, and given the amount of expansion that occurred during World War II, there’s no surprise that some of the original stretches might remain, and not necessarily in Germany. As it would happen, Austria, Poland, and the Czech Republic still have considerable sections of the original highway. Clearly renamed, the original stretches themselves still exist. In addition, there are original stretches in the former Eastern territories of East Prussia, Farther Pomerania, and Silesia. Over half a century on, it’s incredible to think that not only are there still these reminders of the Third Reich, but also that they are still structurally sound. Many horrible things can be said of the villainous regime, of course, but one cannot say they didn’t know how to build infrastructure.

2. The Autobahn Can Support Aircraft

Speaking of being able to properly build infrastructure, the Autobahn is so structurally sound that one could land a plane on it. This has been the case since World War II. Hitler’s Third Reich was able to not only transport units and munitions by truck, but they also had the ability to land planes for quicker transport. Such ability requires a much stronger, and smoother surface than typical highways, but this was something that was well planned by the Third Reich for incredible strategy. Since World War II, many countries have installed their own, equivalent “Highway Strips”. In 1980, during the Cold War, the Allies were able to land not only fighter jets and bombers, but also cargo and transport jets. With newly improved, and larger aircraft since WWII, it’s amazing that stretches of the Autobahn could still support these machines. Between twenty four and forty eight hours, a section of the Autobahn can be swept, cleared of barriers, and turned into an emergency airstrip by flight control equipment stored nearby the designated stretches of highway. What an amazing bolster to emergency and war strategy.

1. There’s A 1975 Hit Song About The Autobahn. It’s 22min long

This… is perhaps the most ridiculous thing related to the Autobahn… and this author is saying so in full understanding that the Third Reich was heavily responsible for the greatest lengths of the highway. Kraftwerk is an electronic band from Germany that formed in 1969… and is amazingly still active (perhaps thanks to riding the coattails of the above track… somehow). According to The Observer, “no other band since the Beatles has given so much to pop culture.” One wonders how that could possibly be the case, but all the same, the near twenty three minute epic that is “Autobahn“, is indeed an interesting track. The song was cut to a 3:27min track in order to get radio play, and reached 25 on the U.S. top 100, as well as reaching number 12 in the Netherlands, and 11 in the U.K. The song was released in ’74, and made it to hit status by ’75. The album on which the track appears, sharing the same title, is part of the book ‘1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die’. So… why not start by giving the above epic a listen?

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