Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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In the mind of foreigners, the Autobahn may be the greatest achievement Germany has. People come here just to go on a road 'as fast as they can'. Unfortunately the whole thing is nowhere as glamourous as it sounds. The main mistake they made in designing the Autobahn is that it's not been made to be a tourist attraction. It's main purpose is being a motorway. In fact, the very word 'Autobahn' is nothing but German for motorway.

This in turn means that if you want to get from one place to another with non-trivial luggage, say, you may end up having to go by car and thus on the Autobahn.

Autobahn sign When I was little, I used to think the sign for motorways means you have put on your life jacket. I still think it really looks like it – and it took much more time until I saw the dual carriage way and the bridge in the abstracted picture. (I assume this was when we just returned from South Africa by plane, where I picked up the thing about life jackets. That said, this was also the time when I thought every animal at the side of the road was dangerous – lions in Kruger national park vs. cows on German meadows...)


This may be a good place for the following disclaimer: I am not very fond of driving. I much prefer going by train. It's much more relaxing, you can work, read or sleep on the ride. It's cheaper when you're traveling on your own. You don't need to have a car to look after. And so on. You get the idea. In addition I think the perfect traffic situation is the one with me on the road and no other cars. That would make things easier. Just keep in mind my perspective when reading this. Other people might disagree and I'd completely not understand why.

Should I happen to use words like 'great', 'rewarding' or 'relaxing' while talking about something that involves moving a ton of metal at high speeds, just consider these expressions as rhetoric figures for 'not too bad'.

The good scenario

In the good case, using the Autobahn is great. There are few cars and even fewer trucks around. Gaps between the cars are large enough that you'll always have a comfortable safety distance to the next car. And you'll be able to cruise at a relaxing 140 km/h in the slow lane. You can be as fast as a train. There'll be enough space for you to overtake the occasional truck. And there'll be enough space for people in fast cars to zoom past you at 200 km/h or however fast they choose to go. Everyone's happy.

There's also the really good scenario which is essentially the same but with three lanes on a Sunday. But before going to that, there comes a bit of. These restrictions indicate that you may be in for some


When thinking of the Autobahn as speeding paradise, people think of wide roads. Yet it is a fact that most Autobahnen only have to lanes (each way). That's the standard case. And that's why the really good case is a triple lane road. In part that's because building an Autobahn seems to be rather costly because it's something that has to be done properly. Not only do they do all kinds of fancy engineering to make it temperature tolerant, it also needs extra-wide lanes (yeah we know that a car will comfortably fit in a 2 metre lane, but even at 60km/h that's not too comfortable). Cars seem to become wider at high speeds (It would be tempting to make a joke pointing to special relativity theory here. It would also be so wrong that I'd better not admit I even thought about it in the first place.)

Also, there may be no nasty surprises. No potholes, not traffic lights, no level crossings, no narrow curves, clear signs. Everything designed in a way so it still works safely at high speeds. In fact, I learned at driving school that the rule that you should always adjust your speed so you could break within the distance you oversee, doesn't hold on the Autobahn. If there is a hill you can expect the road to go on as you'd think it does after it. This is particularly important at night because there's no way you'll be able to see all the hundreds of metres you'll need to come to a complete stop from 200km/h (and you're not even allowed to use the full beam on the Autobahn because it blinds drivers going the other way).

Let's say it's very German. Everything is taken care of and you can trust things work. And if they don't, appropriate measures will be taken to keep everything safe. And that's where the next disappointment comes in: The Autobahn is full of speed limits: Busy interchanges or exits with a lot of traffic or accidents? Here comes the speed limit. Often that's 120km/h. Construction sites? Here you'll usually have to go in narrower lanes (e.g. both directions go on one half of the road while the other is being refurbished) and be slowed down to 80km/h. If workers are around it'll usually be 60km/h as people are really squishy things that get killed easily. There needs to be a narrow curve? Here comes another speed limit. And so on.

What's quite strange is that many of the speed limits actually give a reason. This may actually break with the cliché that Germans always do as they're told without questioning. But you'll see many signs like 80 – no hard shoulder for 500m and so on. Apparently people don't like to accept those limits on a because I told you so basis. I always find myself being upset when there is a speed limit for no apparent reason. Is there actually a safety reason for it? Is some bureaucrat being an ass? Or do they just need a bit of extra cash from speed tickets?

On the other hand, many 'reasons' are ridiculous. My favourite is: Fahrbahnmarkierung fehlt. You'll be slowed down because the lanes aren't marked for a bit. I see how this can be a problem. But on the other hand I've seen this for really short distance – like people couldn't keep lane for 100 metres without those lines.

Add all these caveats to the good case scenario from above and add some extra traffic and you'll get the

The real Scenario

To begin with there are many trucks. They aren't allowed to go over 80km/h and they block the slow lane. Depending on the number of lanes this leaves one or two lanes for driving. (And don't forget that trucks like overtaking each other, to save that precious minute on their ten hour trip. In fact, sometimes even the third lane won't go faster than 100km/h because of this.) Then there are people in fast cars who are real asses and drive right up to your bumper wanting to force you out of their way and between some trucks without any distance for your safety. Then, there are just many many construction sites: Slow down, go in narrow lanes for some kilometres, go on...

Thus the reality isn't glamourous at all. Often the Autobahn isn't better than any other motorway elsewhere. The only time when things tend to be better is at night, when there's less traffic in general or on Sundays when the trucks aren't allowed to drive.

August 5, 2004, 19:41


Comment by d.w.: User icon

On the plus side, it did inspire a truly amazing record. :)

August 7, 2004, 0:35

Comment by jackson mclean (aus): User icon

this is very interesting thank you

April 25, 2005, 5:32

Comment by 4dtyidtyi: User icon

The Autobahn is a very safe road and the people who do die on it are stupid and stupid people dieing only improves the master race.

December 4, 2005, 4:17

Comment by gootendag: User icon

FACT: 90% the people who die in the autobahn are the american tourist.

July 16, 2006, 8:15

Comment by dan: User icon

i think dieing is cool

January 30, 2007, 18:17

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