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7 things you should know before driving on the Auto Bahn

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If there is one place where the phrase “the journey is the destination” comes literally true, its Germany. For millions of travelers visiting Germany every year, hurtling down the black top of Auto Bahn at breakneck speed is part of the experience. But, before you get in to the driver’s seat of your rental Porsche at the airport, here are 7 things you should know.

“Its not the Destination, It’s the journey.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

1. There are speed limits

Contrary to what you have heard, there are speed limits on the Auto Bahn. It is indeed true that there is no blanket speed limit on the Auto Bahn. But, about 30% of the Auto Bahn has either a permanent or temporary or weather dependent speed limit in place.

Having a blanket speed limit on the Auto Bahn is a highly emotional topic in Germany, often compared to gun control in the US. With the climate change argument heating up, the environmentalists in Germany are advocating for a common speed limit now more than ever.

As of now, the recommended driving speed on the Auto Bahn is 130km/h(approximately 81mph) where no other limits apply. This is only a recommendation; you are allowed to drive as fast as the traffic and weather conditions safely permit.

Speed limits in Germany

To know when you have to stick to a speed limit and when you can let loose, look a the next point.

2. Know your traffic signs

“No speed limit” might sound at first like a pandemoniac free-for-all. This assumption couldn’t be farther from the truth. Auto Bahn is one of the safest freeway systems in the world. One of the reasons for this is disciplined driving. Germany is one of the countries where getting the driver’s licence is the hardest in the world. You have to undergo endless hours of training under various conditions – in city, outside of the city, on the Auto Bahn, at night etc. – before going through a gruelling 45 minutes scrutiny by a TÜV agent who decides whether you are expert enough to drive on the streets of Germany.

Part of this training is getting to know the various traffic signs. Here are some of the signs you should be familiar with before hitting the acceleration ramp.(Images credit: adac.de)

Route to the Auto Bahn: Before you are on the Auto Bahn, these blue sign posts guide you to the nearest Auto Bahn.
Auto Bahn ahead: This sign informs you that you are entering an Auto Bahn. Beyond that point, all the Auto Bahn specific rules apply.
End of AutoBahn: The same sign crossed diagonally with a red line indicates that you have exited the Auto Bahn.
Speed Limit: The red circles with white background with only a number written inside indicates the speed limit. Germany follows the metric system. That means the speed limits are in km/h and distances are in kilometres. This sign is not exclusive to Auto Bahn. The same format is used all over Europe to indicate speed limits.
Auto Bahn Number: This sign shows you the number of the Auto Bahn you are on. In Germany, the odd numbered Auto Bahns run North-South and the even numbered Auto Bahns run East-West.
Give Way: This sign means that you are approaching a higher priority street and you should give way. On the Auto Bahn, you typically come across this sign on the acceleration ramp to indicate that the traffic already on the highway has higher priority.
No Limits: This is the sign of joy for fast drivers on the Auto Bahn. This means that all the limits are lifted and you are allowed drive as fast as the conditions safely permit.
No Entry: A white horizontal line with a red circular background means “no entry”. On the Auto Bahn, coming across this sign often means you are about to enter the Auto Bahn in the wrong direction and you should immediately check your bearings.
Auto Bahn Exits: The Auto Bahn exits are well marked. The number inside the circle indicates the exit number – often also mentioned by the navigation systems.
Just before reaching the exit, there are signs marking the distance to the exit, 300m, 200m and 100m before the exit accompanied by three, two and one diagonal while lines to orient you about your location and speed.
The actual exit is marked by a rightward pointing(or leftward in the rare instances of left exits) arrow with the word “Ausfahrt” in it.
Tourist attraction: These brown coloured signs along the Auto Bahn hints at a local tourist attraction. Typically, this means that you have to exit at the next off-ramp to visit this.

3. You can be fined for driving too slow

Only vehicles with that can do at least 60km/h(37mph) are allowed on the Auto Bahn. And, you are expected not to block the flow of traffic by going too slow for the traffic conditions. Sometimes minimum speed limits apply for different lanes. This is marked with the sign below.

If you do end up driving too slow, you will most probably be confronted by the Auto Bahn police who will escort you out of the Auto Bahn and fine you heftily if you had no reason to go too slow.

4. Halting on the Auto Bahn is prohibited

Stopping on the Auto Bahn is absolutely forbidden unless in unavoidable situations. This includes the hard shoulder too. There are frequent rest stations for taking a break or for toilet breaks.

Running out of fuel is seen as an avoidable circumstance by the authorities and you will be fined if you are trapped on the side of the Auto Bahn with an empty tank. Keep an eye on the fuel meter as the consumption will be higher at speeds typical on the Auto Bahn. If you are not sure if you will make it to the next gas station on the Auto Bahn, take the next exit and look for a local gas station rather than stay on the Auto Bahn and risk running empty. It will not only be expensive for you but also dangerous as speeding drivers behind you might not recognise that you have stopped.

5. Don’t hog the left lane

The so called “Rechtsfahrgebot” applies on the Auto Bahn(and on the freeways of most other European countries driving on the right). What this means is that you drive as far to the right as possible. The left lane is only for overtaking. Move over to the right lane after overtaking another vehicle when it is safe to do so. On stretches with more than two lanes in one direction, you are allowed to stay in the middle lane when there is slow moving traffic in the right lane. If you don’t follow this, you will often be confronted with frustrated drivers filling your rear view mirror with their sport sedans who first remind you politely with their left indicators and then aggressively with flashing headlights.

6. Build the “Rettungsgasse”

You will often see signs along the Auto Bahn reminding you to build the “Rettungsgasse”. Rettungsgasse is the emergency lane built for emergency vehicles in case you find yourselves in a traffic jam on the Auto Bahn. This is done by the vehicles in the left most lane moving as far to the left as possible and the vehicles in all other lanes moving as far to the right as possible.

This is enforced very strictly by the police in Germany and you will be fined if you fail to do so.

7. No overtaking on the right

Unlike on the freeways in most other countries, overtaking on the right is strictly prohibited on the Auto Bahn. You move over to the left lane if you want to overtake another vehicle and move over to the right so that the other vehicles driving faster than you can overtake you.