Going fast is fun! Legend has it, Autobahns have no speed limit. A few road signs tell your legal moves from speeding and when to better get out of the way.
Autobahns are controlled-access highways. The photo above reveals some design details that make safe, fast travel possible. Rather than pouring out asphalt and see where it sticks, there's a bridge built across a rather shallow valley, the hill in front has been cut into to lay the road through. Built in seven layers, the road surface is flat, smooth and provides grip, drainage puts away with rain, side rails keep you on track if necessary. Autobahns are built for high throughput and high speed. That makes them expensive and different from roads in much bigger countries that must stretch across large distances at economic expense.
You'll find speed limits where they make sense:
- around densely populated areas, i.e. in vicinity of cities (sound pollution)
- when approaching interchanges (German: Autobahnkreuz)
- when approaching construction zones
- multiple on-ramps in short distance after each other
- weather conditions inflict a risk of water collection during heavy rain
- the landscape makes tighter curves or steep grades necessary
- a local administration needs funds, thus sets up speed traps
Speed limit signs are round, white background, black font, red outer ring:
Take speed limits extra seriously if you see the same speed limit three times within a very short distance. Expect a speed trap right after the third sign.
Recommended Maximum Speed
German Autobahns have a recommended maximum speed: 130 kph. Sometimes you will see a blue, square sign:
This sign means nothing else than "recommended maximum speed of 80 kph". Exceeding this is legal.
In some places you'll find a blue, round sign like this:
This sign means nothing else than "minimum speed of 30 kph". Exceeding this is legal. Going slower is not. Imagine you are traveling on an older three-lane Autobahn approaching a steep hill. You can expect heavy trucks to slow down while trying to get up. You can also expect more powerful trucks going 52 kph trying to overtake less powerful trucks going 49 kph while you zoom in. We call that situation an elephant race (German: Elefantenrennen). Putting slower vehicles in place, the above sign is often combined into one of these:
Go at least 50 kph when in the center lane, at least 80 kph when in the left lane.
In some places you will find a speed limit accompanied with another sign on the same post:
The sign literally says: "when wet" (German: bei Nässe). The speed limit is binding when the road is wet. Some aged Autobahns may have groves on the right lane (made by heavy trucks) in which water will collect during rainy weather. In some places water can collect on the road surface during heavy rain falls and lead to aquaplaning. Look out here for your own safety.
This is not a speed limit sign but important to understand another sign:
The above image relates to all vehicles: No overtaking (German: Überholverbot). The following sign applies to you if your vehicle has a permissible maximum weight of over 3.5 metric tons, e.g. trucks:
The following two signs end the above passing limits:
Oh yes! This sign ends all speed and passing limits. Shift down, floor it and get into the fast lane. The friendly driver in that Audi R8 or Mercedes AMG or BMW M5 behind you will do that. Be fast or please get out of their way.
The fast lane
When traveling on the Autobahn, stay in the right lane. That is not the emergency stop lane. Just stay right. The left (and middle) lane are for overtaking. Usually, trucks will stay on the right lane. They will usually keep a pace that looks close to 100 kph on your speedometer (I'll spare you the details). If you need to go faster than them, overtake. You will see many motorists staying in the middle lane at their chosen cruising speed between 120 kph and 160 kph. Use the left lane if you want to go faster than them. When you're done overtaking, go back to the middle or right lane. Always overtake on the left. Overtaking on the right is illegal and savagely fined, unless you are in a lane to or from a ramp. There are fast cars roaming German Autobahns. You might find yourself going 200 kph and that Porsche zooming past you makes you feel like you're at stand-still. Especially when it has flashing blue lights on top. Please be aware of that before entering the fast lane. Double check your mirrors.
Distance saves lives
You're probably used to keep your distance to the vehicle ahead. Higher speed, higher distance. Here's a rule of thumb for speed beyond 100 kph: chose your distance - in meters - to be half of what your speedometer shows. Example: your speedometer shows 100 kph, then your distance should be at least 50 meters. What distance covers 50 meters? On Autobahns, it's the distance between two of these delineators (German: Leitpfosten):
These are usually equidistantly placed on the right side of the pavement every 50 meters. Spot them in the photo above? Neat! The above rule of thumb is proportional. For 150 kph, chose at least 75 meters. For 200kph chose at least 100 meters.
On Sundays and public holidays, trucks aren't allowed to use the Autobahn. That is, from Saturday night 10pm until Sunday night 10pm. Which makes an excellent time for joy rides.
Copyright Notice: All road signs were copied from Wikimedia Commons. These images are in the public domain according to German copyright law because they are part of a statute, ordinance, official decree or judgment (official work) issued by a German federal or state authority or court (§ 5 Abs.1 UrhG).