The autobahn. Germany. Take a poll, and you'll likely find that just about every gearhead dreams of driving on autobahns, Germany's speed-limit-free, no-holds-barred highways—though driving them isn't necessarily the experience you might expect. How did these famed road networks come to be, why are there no speed limits, and what's it really like to drive at any speed you like? Cinch up that seat belt and let's find out.
Early German Autobahn History
The world's first limited-access highways—ones on which vehicles could only enter or exit at designated points—were built in New York in the early 1900s. In Germany, construction on the first controlled-access highway began in 1913, though World War I delayed its opening until 1921. The Automobil Verkehrs und Übungsstraße (Automobile Traffic and Training Road), built just outside of Berlin, doubled as a race and test track. It was basically two straightaways bracketed by banked turns, but its divided roadways and limits on other types of traffic made it Germany's first modern highway. It remains part of the roadway network to this day, complete with the original wooden grandstand.
Germany's planning for an inter-city highway network began in the mid-1920s, with a Cologne-Bonn road opened in 1932, but it wasn't until the Nazis came to power in 1933 that construction began in earnest. The Nazi party initially opposed a highway network on the grounds that it would primarily benefit the rich aristocrats who could afford a car. It wasn't until Adolf Hitler realized the propaganda value of individual mobility—a nation-wide road network and an affordable "people's car" to populate it—that the Nazis embraced the idea. The project would become the world's first high-speed road network.
Construction on what became known as the Reichsautobahn proceeded rapidly, with an emphasis on east-west and north-south connections, and routes that showed off the German scenery. But working conditions and pay were poor, and by the late 1930s, with armament manufacturers offering better jobs, labor was becoming difficult to find. The onset of war detracted from construction efforts, and the Nazis didn't see the road network as much of a military asset, though some sections did have their center medians paved so they could be used as airstrips. Work on the Reichsautobahn was halted in 1943, by which time about 1,300 miles of roadway were completed.
Post-War and Post Unification Renewal and Expansion
Following Germany's defeat, the road network that would soon be known as the Bundesautobahn (Federal Highway) was in bad shape. Many sections were never completed, others were damaged by Allied bombs, and several bridges had been destroyed by the retreating German army. Ironically,
the autobahns in Germany proved more useful for Allied military forces than for their domestic forces.
Repair of the existing road network began in earnest, and by 1953 the West German government began to focus on expanding it. By 1964, the system had grown to 1,865 miles, and in 1984 it exceeded 4,970 miles. German reunification in 1990 expanded the system to 6,835 miles, though poor conditions of the highways in the former East Germany—many of which had narrow medians and no shoulders, just as they were in 1945—put the emphasis back on repair and modernization. By the turn of the century the German Autobahn System was growing again, and in 2004 it became the third-largest superhighway system in the world, behind the U.S. and China. Today, there are some 8,078 miles of autobahn in Germany.
Is There Really No Speed Limit on Germany's Autobahns?
The notion that there are no autobahn speed limits isn't entirely true: About 30-percent of the network has speed limits that range from 80-130 kph (50-81 mph). Some of these limits are static while others are dynamic, changing based on traffic and road conditions. Some roads have night-time or wet-weather speed limits, and some classes of vehicles, such as heavy trucks, have their own speed limits.
For cars and motorcycles traveling the bulk of the autobahn, there is an "advisory" speed limit of 130 kph (81 mph). It's not illegal to go faster, but in the event of a crash, a driver's liability may increase based on speed, even if the driver was not at fault. German automakers have a "gentlemen's agreement" to limit the speed of their cars to 250 kph (155 mph). Some lower-performance models have lower speed limiters in order to avoid exceeding their tires' limitations.
The autobahns also have a minimum speed requirement: Vehicles must be able to maintain 60 kph (37 mph) on flat terrain. Some stretches have minimum speeds of 90 kph (56 mph) or 110 kph (68 mph) in certain lanes.
Autobahn Germany: History of Speed Limits
The Nazi government passed the Road Traffic Act in 1934, limiting speeds to 60 kph (37 mph) in urban areas but setting no limit for rural roads or autobahns. In 1939, responding to fuel shortages, the government lowered the limit to 40 kph (25 mph) in town and 80 kph (50 mph) on all other roads. The West German government did away with all federal speed limits in 1952, ceding authority to the individual states. An appalling rise in traffic deaths led to a country-wide speed limit of 100 kph (62 mph) in 1972, though autobahns remained unrestricted.
In December 1973, the oil crisis prompted the West German government to set an autobahn speed limit of 100 kph (62 mph). The measure was instantly unpopular and was repealed the following March. The advisory speed limit was adopted in 1978. Legislation to set a hard speed limit (usually 130 kph/81 mph) comes up on a fairly regular basis and is always defeated.
Building (and Maintaining) For Speed
If you live in places where road construction and/or maintenance leaves something to be desired—Los Angeles and Detroit come to mind—German Autobahns are designed for high-speed driving. Freeze-resistant concrete or asphalt is laid over a heavy roadbed, with a combined depth in the neighborhood of 30 inches. Curves are gentle and slightly banked, and grades are limited to 4 percent. The roadways are split with a center median that features dual guardrails or concrete barriers. The routes generally avoid large cities, which are accessed by spur roads.
At high speeds, pavement irregularities can become fatal obstacles, so Germany's autobahn roadways receive frequent and detailed inspection. Repair generally involves replacing sections of the roadway rather than patching, which sounds like a dream here in the U.S.
Autobahn Germany: What's It Really Like to Drive?
Driving the high-speed sections of the autobahn in Germany is not a matter of simply flooring the accelerator and watching the speedo climb. Speed limits come and go, especially near cities, and high-speed sections are punctuated by speed-limited sections enforced by photo radar. Lane discipline is strict (though not as well observed as you might expect, especially nowadays), tailgating is frowned upon, and passing on the right is strictly forbidden.
When driving on an unrestricted section of autobahn in Germany, you must look far down the road—you may be bombing down the highway at 180 kph (112 mph) when a car doing 130 pulls into the left lane in front of you to pass a truck limited to 80 kph. You also have to keep one eye glued to the mirror for Porsches and big Mercedes coming up fast from behind—they really do seem to materialize out of thin air. While the Germans are fanatical about road inspection, there's no guarantee they will find a pothole before you do, so you also need to keep a careful eye on the road condition ahead
The end result is that driving fast on German autobahns can be an exhausting experience, a sharp contrast from the more relaxed driving style common on American highways. The concentration you must exert rises exponentially with speed; it's an adrenaline rush for sure, but once you've tried it, you'll understand why so many autobahn drivers in Germany cruise at more sedate speeds—or just take the train.
History of the Autobahn? ›
Plans for the autobahn date to the 1920's. Construction of the first segment (Cologne-Bonn) began in 1929 and was dedicated by Mayor Konrad Adenauer of Cologne on August 6, 1932. When Adolph Hitler assumed power as Chancellor of the Third Reich in 1933, he took the program over, claiming it for his own.What was the original purpose of the autobahn? ›
Construction of the Autobahn first began in 1913, making it the world's first motorway. It began in Berlin and was originally an experimental highway that was used for racing, featuring two eight-meter lanes that were separated by a nine-meter wide median.Why did Germany build the autobahn? ›
Adolph Hitler rose to power, and his aggressive military campaigns needed a viable and established road system to move men and war material. From these circumstances the autobahn was born. National Socialism arose during a time of economic hardship for Germans.What is the history of the speed limit on the autobahn? ›
Autobahn Germany: History of Speed Limits
An appalling rise in traffic deaths led to a country-wide speed limit of 100 kph (62 mph) in 1972, though autobahns remained unrestricted. In December 1973, the oil crisis prompted the West German government to set an autobahn speed limit of 100 kph (62 mph).
The Autobahn (IPA: [ˈaʊtoˌbaːn] ( listen); German plural Autobahnen) is the federal controlled-access highway system in Germany. The official German term is Bundesautobahn (abbreviated BAB), which translates as 'federal motorway'. The literal meaning of the word Bundesautobahn is 'Federal Auto(mobile) Track'.Why can't America have autobahn? ›
In more or less decreasing order of importance, why America cannot handle high-speed autobahn-type freeways: Car control. It's too easy to get a driver's license in America, i.e., formal car control courses are not required and are required for speeds greater than 70 or 80 mph / 130 kph.How did Germany pay for the autobahn? ›
The Autobahn is financed by taxes and maintained by the German state itself and not the regions it crosses. Cars have free access, but since 2005, lorries need to pay a “maut” (toll).Why does the Autobahn work so well? ›
To accommodate higher speed traffic, Autobahn road surfaces are constructed with multiple layers of concrete. Autobahn roads are also inspected regularly for irregularities in the road surface or any damage.Why is there no speed limit on the Autobahn? ›
Franklin argues that the autobahn is part of the German cultural identity because of its close association with the automotive industry, and Germany has proper institutions to keep the autobahn safe without speed limits.Why is it illegal to run out of gas on the German autobahn? ›
To be precise, its illegal in Germany to run out of gas on AUTOBAHN (HIGHWAY). The primary reason for this is, it can be dangerous to try to stop your car on the side of the highway (Autobahn) in an event car has ran out of fuel. This is an human error and can be easily prevented.
Can you go 100mph on the autobahn? ›
In fact, over two thirds of the network has no speed limit, although these stretches still have a 'recommended speed' of 80 mph (130 km/h). It may be no surprise to learn that drivers regularly top speeds of 100 mph on these parts of the autobahn, averaging 150 mph in the left lane.What was the fastest car on the autobahn? ›
It's that easy. The fastest speed ever officially recorded on the autobahn was set by famed German racing driver Rudolf Caracciola in 1938 when he reached 432.7 km/h (268 mph) in the Mercedes-Benz W125 Rekordwagen on a closed section.Who went the fastest on the autobahn? ›
The fastest speed ever recorded on the German Autobahn was 432 kilometres per hour. The speed was recorded by Rudolf Caracciola on the stretch just before his accident.What is the US version of the autobahn? ›
The Interstate Highway System was based on the German Autobahn system, which Eisenhower learned of and studied after World War II, when Germany was under Allied occupation.How thick is the concrete on the autobahn? ›
thick, Autobahns are about 8 in. thick, and other classes of pavements fall some- what m between. Expansion joints are usually omitted and contraction jomt spacings vary from 15 to about 35 ft.Who owns the autobahn? ›
Mark A. Basso - Founder President - Autobahn Country Club | LinkedIn.Can you go as fast as you want on Autobahn? ›
SPEED LIMIT ON THE AUTOBAHN IN GERMANY
The German government recommends a maximum speed of 130 kph, so about 80 mph per hour on autobahns, but drivers are free to go as fast as they want in de-restricted sections of the autobahns.
Only cars, motorcycles, SUVs and trucks are allowed on the Autobahn. Those riding mopeds or bicycles cannot enter the thoroughfare. With speeds at over 100 mph in most places, slow-moving vehicles are safe on the highway, so don't jump on the Bahn in anything that can't safely handle fast speeds.Are you allowed to race on the Autobahn? ›
While much of Germany's autobahn highway network has no speed limits, around 30 percent of the network does limit drivers to 130km/h (80 mph) or lower. Holding races on any public roads — speed limited or not — is illegal.What happens if you run out of gas on the autobahn in Germany? ›
It is illegal to run out of gas on the Autobahn; it's seen as a preventable circumstance and it leads to stopping, which is illegal. Entering and exiting is only allowed on the marked interchanges. Pulling over onto the shoulder is prohibited, unless your car breaks down.
How much does it cost to drive on the Autobahn? ›
Each race is $19.99, which is 14 laps for adults (ages 13 and up), and 12 laps for juniors (ages 8-12). The races take about 10 minutes to complete. We also offer multi-race packages ranging from 3 races to 20 race packages. For 1 license and 1 race per person it'll be $25.99 per person.What is the accident rate on the Autobahn? ›
Yes, there are speed limits on many sections of Germany's superhighways, but there are stretches with no speed limit. Yet the death rate per billion kilometers driven is lower on Germany's autobahns (2.7 fatalities) than on the US Interstate highways (4.5 fatalities).What is the average speed of drivers on the autobahn? ›
In practice, this means that there are only a few stretches of road where you can really drive at unlimited speeds during the day. The average speed of passenger cars on all autobahns is 125 km/h.What is the slowest you can drive on the autobahn? ›
2.2 Minimum Required Speed on Autobahn
Walking is also not permitted along the Autobahn. Driving slower than 60 km/h due to any reason is not permitted. If for example, a vehicle has some mechanical fault and can't attain the speed of at least 60 km/h, it must leave the Autobahn on the next exit and use other roads.
The German autobahn does not have potholes. The concrete and underlying roadbed is twice as thick, and the roads are rebuilt when they seem to American eyes to be in excellent condition. German cars are engineered for high speed and safety.How slow can you go on autobahn? ›
The legal speed limit is a black number on a round white sign outlined in red (see sign images below). Sometimes there are also overhead electronic signs indicating the speed limit and warnings. Many autobahn sections have limits of 120 km/h (75 mph), 110 km/h (68 mph) or lower, especially in urban areas.What road has no speed limit in USA? ›
AUSTIN, Texas — The new US 183 South toll road runs from U.S. 290 East to Texas 71 near the Austin airport.How safe is the autobahn? ›
Currently the German autobahn system is rated as one of the safest in the world. There is some discussion over imposing an 80 miles per hour (128.7kilometers per hour) speed limit on the autobahn. The limit has less to do with speed and more to do with new concerns over carbon emissions.What are the unwritten rules of the Autobahn? ›
- Don't overdo it,
- Don't driver faster than you feel comfortable. ...
- Only pass on the left.
- Be carefull when passing as much slower cars or trucks may change lanes.
- Very fast driving makes you tired, take a break every 2 hours.
- No matter how fast you are, there may be quicker ones. ...
- Don't overdo it.
Is the Autobahn safest? Research by the Federal Highway Research Institute states that the Autobahn experiences fewer vehicle-related fatalities than the U.S. This means this German highway experiences fewer deaths per billion miles traveled than American highways.
What is the hard shoulder in Germany? ›
hard shoulder as lanes, bus stops and taxi stands
Drive on the hard shoulder This sign allows hard shoulders to be used as traffic lanes; this is like driving in the right lane. The lane separator can be crossed like a guide marking.
As of 2018 the highest posted speed limit in the world is 160 km/h (99 mph), applied on two motorways in the UAE. Speed limits and safety distance are poorly enforced in the UAE, specifically on the Abu Dhabi to Dubai motorway – which results in dangerous traffic, according to a French government travel advisory.Who built the autobahn? ›
Hitler's autobahn construction began in September 1933 under the direction of chief engineer Fritz Todt. The 14-mile expressway between Frankfurt and Darmstadt, which opened on May 19, 1935, was the first section completed under Hitler.What is the highest speed limit in the United States? ›
The highest speed limit in the country is 85 mph (137 km/h), which is posted on a single stretch of tollway in exurban areas outside Austin, Texas. The lowest maximum speed limit in the country is 30 miles per hour (48 km/h) in American Samoa.How straight is the autobahn? ›
The Entire Autobahn Is One Perfectly Straight, Smooth Road
It curves through hills and forests, just like any highway, and it is woefully, tragically not just an 8,705 mile-long launchpad for tragedy.
Germany is the only wealthy country in the world without a general speed limit. A drunk at a bar might tell you that German highways are particularly safe. But you don't need to know much about physics to understand that a car moving twice as fast is going to have a lot more kinetic energy.Is there an autobahn in America? ›
The American autobahn
Just about 15 miles outside of San Antonio, Texas, lies State Highway 130. Highway 130 was created to relieve traffic from the highly-congested Highway I-35, and for that reason we expected it to be packed. Instead, the freshly-paved roads of Highway 130 are barely traveled.
A modern Autobahn divided highway with two lanes per direction has lanes 3.75 m (12.3 ft) wide with an additional clearance of 0.50 m (20 in) on each side; with three lanes per direction this becomes 3.75 m (12.3 ft) for the rightmost lane and 3.5 m (11 ft) for the other lanes.What is the longest Autobahn in the world? ›
Bundesautobahn 7 (translates from German as Federal Motorway 7, short form Autobahn 7, abbreviated as BAB 7 or A 7) is the longest German Autobahn and the longest national motorway in Europe at 963 km (598 mi). It bisects the country almost evenly between east and west.How do you know if it's an Autobahn? ›
There are 8,080 miles1 of Autobahn throughout Germany, with the distinctive roads being easily identified by a unique set of blue and white signs. Another set of highways in Germany, the Gelbe Autobahn (yellow Autobahn), features yellow signs.
What are the lengths of the Autobahn? ›
Today's German autobahn system stretches 13,192 km (8,197 miles, as of 2021) across most parts of Germany. That makes it the fourth largest in the world, after China's National Trunk Highway System (160,980 km), the US Interstate Highway System (over 78,465 km), and Spain's autopista/autovia network (17,377 km).How big is the German autobahn? ›
The current length of the entire network is more than 12,000 km (7,200 miles), making it the third largest system in the world, after those of the United States and China.Are German roads narrow? ›
Germany is a country with large roads but at the same time very narrow ones. You must also keep in mind that the price of a large rental car in Germany will be much higher.Do police patrol the Autobahn? ›
Although the autobahns are federal roads, the Autobahnpolizei are always part of the state police (Landespolizei in Germany). In Switzerland, the state police (Kantonspolizei) is responsible for highway patrols as well.Why are German roads so good? ›
To accommodate higher speed traffic, Autobahn road surfaces are constructed with multiple layers of concrete. Autobahn roads are also inspected regularly for irregularities in the road surface or any damage.Is there a part of the Autobahn with no speed limit? ›
First it's worth mentioning that only around an eighth of the Autobahn network is de-restricted (no speed limit). About a third is limited to 81mph (130kph) and the rest has a variable speed limit so you need to pay attention to any restrictions before planting your left foot.Why does German Autobahn have no speed limit? ›
Why does the autobahn have no speed limit? In 1934, the German government passed the Road Traffic Act, where speeds in urban areas were limited to 37 mph (60 km/h). However, no limit was established for rural roads or autobahns, and since then rules have remained similar.Who started the autobahn in Germany? ›
Hitler's autobahn construction began in September 1933 under the direction of chief engineer Fritz Todt. The 14-mile expressway between Frankfurt and Darmstadt, which opened on May 19, 1935, was the first section completed under Hitler.What was the autobahn used for in ww2? ›
Reduction of unemployment was presented as the main reason for the Reichsautobahn project, and propaganda both used the autobahn to represent the Arbeitsschlacht and Nazi reduction of unemployment in general and emphasized the project's role.Can you really drive as fast as you want on the autobahn? ›
SPEED LIMIT ON THE AUTOBAHN IN GERMANY
The German government recommends a maximum speed of 130 kph, so about 80 mph per hour on autobahns, but drivers are free to go as fast as they want in de-restricted sections of the autobahns. Yes, as fast as you want!
What is the fastest someone has gone on the autobahn? ›
It's that easy. The fastest speed ever officially recorded on the autobahn was set by famed German racing driver Rudolf Caracciola in 1938 when he reached 432.7 km/h (268 mph) in the Mercedes-Benz W125 Rekordwagen on a closed section.Is the Autobahn safer than US highways? ›
Is the Autobahn safest? Research by the Federal Highway Research Institute states that the Autobahn experiences fewer vehicle-related fatalities than the U.S. This means this German highway experiences fewer deaths per billion miles traveled than American highways.What is the US version of the Autobahn? ›
The Interstate Highway System was based on the German Autobahn system, which Eisenhower learned of and studied after World War II, when Germany was under Allied occupation.Can I drive in Germany with US license? ›
To sum up, you may drive in Germany with your American license for up to six months. Afterwards, you need to obtain a German license (with or without taking a German exam, depending on where you acquired your U.S. driver's license), unless a reciprocity agreement is in place.What can't you do on the autobahn? ›
You can pass only on the left. Stay in the right lane, especially if you're new to the Autobahn. The left lane is for drivers going extremely fast or for passing vehicles in the right lane. Stopping, parking, u-turns and backing up on the Autobahn is illegal.