8 Surprising Facts About Germany's Autobahn

The sky's the limit on the Autobahn. (Photo: powell'sPoint/Shutterstock)

We are driving an Audi A3 e-tron on the Autobahn between Vienna and Munich, and it’s safe to say we’re not going slow. We were humming along to "Autobahn," Kraftwerk's 1975 techno masterpiece: "Wir fahr'n fahr'n fahr'n auf der Autobahn!" These German roads are, as you know, built for fast cruising, and they fully live up to their promise (unless traffic jams turn them into parking lots). But a lot of what you may have heard about the Autobahn is probably wrong, so here are some misconceptions cleared up:

There are speed limits. It’s a myth that you can drive 200 mph with impunity. Instead signs "suggest" a recommended limit of 80 mph on most sections of the highway, and urban segments will see you crawling along at 62 mph.

It wasn’t Hitler’s idea. The Fuhrer generally gets credit for the country’s first limited-access highways — built as a way to quickly move military units across the country. The network was indeed constructed during the Third Reich, but the concept was established earlier. The Avus experimental highway in Berlin was built between 1913 and 1921, when Hitler was still dabbling as an unsuccessful still life painter. The Italians also set the pace by opening a section of autostrada between Milan and the lake district in 1923.

The dirigible is a nice touch, don't you think?
The dirigible is a nice touch, don't you think?. (Photo: National Archives UK/Flickr)

It happened fast. The first section, between Cologne and Bonn, opened in 1932, and by 1938 (the year of Kristallnacht and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declaring "peace in our time"), 1,860 miles had been added. Today, the system totals 6,800 miles, and further expansion plans are often met with outcries from environmental protesters.

The Autobahn in 1937, when it was brand new.
The Autobahn in 1937, when it was brand new. (Photo: Het Nieuwe Instituut/Flickr)

It’s not an excuse for reckless driving. It’s difficult to get a driver’s license in the united Germany. For instance, would-be auto pilots have to take formal courses in high-speed car control, because the way cars behave above 90 mph (a lighter front end being part of the dynamics) is radically different. "I had no idea it could be this hard,” said Karen, an American trying to get licensed in Germany. There are 14 required theory lessons and at least a dozen driving sessions. The bottom line is that German drivers are well-schooled in handling no-speed-limit highways; Americans, unfortunately, aren’t.

Impressive road maintenance. Another reason the Germans can get away with unlimited-speed Autobahn sections is their highways are extremely well maintained, which means smooth sailing. The broken roads we have in America could be lethal above 100 mph.

The Autobahn is impressively maintained for high-speed driving.
The Autobahn is impressively maintained for high-speed driving. (Photo: Kecko/Flickr)

Mind your manners. The left lane on the Autobahn is the passing lane. Period. You can’t just loaf along at 50 mph in your AMC Pacer, with your left turn signal continuously blinking. According to Marc Hoag on Quora, “A big reason the Autobahn works in Germany is because people religiously obey the lane rules; you keep as far to the right as possible, and use left lanes for passing ONLY.”

Safety? The jury’s out. A 2008 report from the European Transport Safety Council (ETSC) looked at 645 road deaths in Germany, and found that 67 percent occurred on highway sections without limits. That’s a bit scary, but it’s worth noting that 60 percent of road deaths in Germany occur on rural roads not the Autobahn (which is responsible for only 12 percent). Some German officials have called for a national speed limit, but it seems unlikely. One British source says that since a 70 mph limit went into effect on roads there more than 45 years ago, the risk of fatalities in road accidents has fallen to a third of what it was — but roads were also made safer in other ways since then. Finally, the speed-crazed U.S. has 11.6 fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants per year. Germany? 4.3.

The green choice. As you may recall, the U.S. inaugurated a 55-mph speed limit, leading to outraged cries from Sammy Hagar (“I Won’t Drive 55”) and state legislatures. It was repealed in 1995 by, as the Cato Institute notes, “the Republican Congress.” Thirty-three states then immediately raised their limits. It’s debatable how much that improved safety on the highways, but it was a blow to fuel economy. According to the Department of Energy, your car is most efficient at 55 mph or below. It’s 3 percent less efficient at 60; 8 percent less efficient at 65; 17 percent less efficient at 70; 23 percent less efficient at 75; and a whopping 28 percent less efficient at 80. We’re probably using billions of gallons more imported fuel because of that particular act of liberation.

And in case you never heard it, here's Kraftwerk's "Autobahn" in all its 22-minute glory. Note the period cars: