We outline the German Way’s seven golden rules for driving on the Autobahn like an expert, not a tourist. Hint: there are speed limits involved.
The Autobahn in Germany, Austria and Switzerland can be a fun, fast way to reach your destination – or a frustrating traffic jam (Stau) experience. This guide is designed to help you make your Autobahn experience as positive as possible. Below we present the most important ‘Autobahn rules’ – these rules of the road can be for driving on the Autobahn or any other European limited-access highway.
The Autobahn commandments
If you are used to driving on interstate highways and freeways in the US, you need to know about the differences between US traffic laws and those in Germany and Europe.
When driving in Germany, you need to drive like a German – at least like the good German drivers. That means not only knowing the rules (official and unofficial), but adapting to a different style of driving. Europeans, Germans in particular, have a more aggressive approach to driving. If you remain a typical, more laid-back driver, you could have problems.
You also need to be alert and pay even more attention to the road than required in the US. On the high-speed Autobahn, there is no place to make mistakes.
Autobahn rule one: No passing on the right
The first thing any driver needs to know about the rules of the Autobahn is that passing on the right is verboten! It is illegal to pass a vehicle on the right. You must move into the left lane in order to pass. The only exception is when traffic is moving very slowly, such as during a traffic jam. The pass-on-the-left-only rule is one of the things that make the Autobahn work.
Autobahn rule two: Double check your side-view mirror before moving into the left lane
Always check your left side-view mirror. Especially on sections of the autobahn with no speed limit, this is critical. Speeding cars can sudddenly appear out of nowhere and zoom past you at speeds exceeding 160km/h (100mph). You may be doing the ‘recommended’ speed of 130 km/h (80mph) and see German drivers passing you as if you were standing still.
Autobahn rule three: Slower traffic stays to the right
As in the US, whenever possible, move into the right lane. Most German drivers are good about this but some non-German drivers are not. If you are passing several vehicles in a row (usually trucks), you can stay left or in the middle lane, but as soon as there is space move right. If you see a vehicle coming up from behind you at a higher rate of speed, signal and move over. Don’t be surprised if they flash their high beams. It’s common and only considered mildly rude. Just move over.
Autobahn rule four: Always use your blinkers
German drivers use their signal lights to indicate a lane change, and so should you. German-made cars have blinker controls that make the turn signal blink three times and then shut off automatically. A slight nudge on the control lever activates that feature. A stronger push activates the normal turn signals that you have to turn off, or that turn off after a right or left turn.
Autobahn rule five: Obey the speed limit
Contrary to popular myth, there are speed limits on the Autobahn. While there are still a few stretches of Autobahn where it is legal to put the pedal to the metal and drive at top speed, those sections are limited and growing more limited with time. And while it may be legal, it may not be wise.
You will see square blue signs with white numbers reading ‘130’ in Germany. That means 130km/h (80mph), the recommended top speed on the German Autobahn (and the legal maximum speed on motorways in most European countries). 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 120km/h (75mph), 110km/h (68mph) or lower, especially in urban areas.
Germany uses unmarked police cars and automated roadside radar/photo devices that take pictures of violators. Yes, you will see scofflaws who blatantly exceed the posted limit but it can be expensive if you join them and get caught. Read more about speed limits below.
*Advocating Autobahn speed limits in Germany is like advocating tougher gun-control laws in the US – and just about as likely.
Autobahn rule six: Take a break every two hours
Driving on the Autobahn can be draining. After two hours or so, it’s wise to take a break. The Autobahn has rest stops (raststätten) with gas stations, restaurants, shops, picnic tables and toilets (with an entrance fee of around EUR 0.70). There are also more modest stops along the way with just picnic tables and parking. Take advantage of these for occasional breaks from driving.
Autobahn rule seven: Go with the flow
German drivers can be aggressive on the Autobahn. When they pass you and suddenly cut in front of you, with a much smaller comfort zone than is normal elsewhere, don’t take it personally. It is just the way they drive. You’d think that for all the money it can cost to get a German driver’s licence (up to USD 3,000), they would be better drivers. Well, for Germany, they are, and you can’t change that. Just learn to go with the flow and realise that you are not in your home country.
Tips and advice for driving the Autobahn
Unfortunately, construction delays and traffic jams are also part of driving on the autobahn. If you understand German, most German radio stations announce the location and length of traffic jams (Staus, pronounced ‘shtows’, rhymes with cows). It is not uncommon for such congestion to stretch out for many kilometres.
Some GPS units (a GPS is called a navi in German, pronounced ‘nah-vee’), can also identify traffic problems and route you around them. Bring your own navi or rent one with your rental car. If you bring your own, make sure it has updated maps for Europe.
Speed limit signs in Germany
In Europe, including Germany, you will rarely see warnings like ‘reduced speed ahead’. One minute you may be doing 130km/h, and suddenly you see a 110 limit sign. You are expected to pay attention to the posted limits. Approaching a construction zone (or on exits in France), you will see a series of speed limit signs, usually starting with 100 (62mph) then another sign with 80 (50mph), then another with 60 (35mph). You can’t resume speed until you see an end-of-speed-limit sign or a new posted speed. See the sign examples above.
Paying for gasoline (benzin)
At Autobahn and other gas stations, you pump gas (or diesel) and then go inside to pay the cashier. (Lock your car and leave it at the pump, since no one can pump gas there until you’ve paid.) The cashier will ask for your pump number (you do know your German numbers up to 10, right?), so note that before you go inside. You can pay cash or use a credit card. Some stations require pre-payment during late hours, but usually you pay after you pump.
Non-Autobahn stations in Germany may or may not accept card payment. Look for the usual credit card logos at the door or by the register. (The EC card is not a credit card; it is a bank debit card for European residents only.)
Credit card readers at the pump (pay-at-the-pump) seem to be a thing of the past in Germany. I never found one on my last trip. I always had to go inside and pay the cashier, whether cash or credit.