|“||Freie Fahrt für freie Bürger||”|
—popular saying and somewhat tongue in cheek political slogan, meaning "free driving for free citizens"
Germany is the birthplace of the automobile and its inventor, Karl Benz, and continues to be one of the top manufacturers of cars in the world, being home to well-known luxury car brands such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Porsche. Its Autobahn network is famed around the globe for its stretches without a speed limit. This, in addition to the high density and general good state of road infrastructure make driving in Germany a fun though somewhat expensive proposition. Inside of cities, however the picture changes and no city with half a million inhabitants or more is really fun to drive in. Many city centers and old towns are also pedestrianized.
Germans can be passionate about cars, even those who don't own one and those who oppose Germany's often car-centric transport policy. More than one comedian and even some a medical doctor has observed that the average German man will better maintain his car than his own bodily health. While many Germans will see their car as a mostly utilitarian object, the minority who see it as an object of passion, fun and even love is very vocal and well organized, the ADAC being the second biggest pro-car lobby group in the world (behind its US equivalent, the AAA) being just one example of this. Germans tend to have prejudices that foreigners - particularly those from more southerly or easterly lands - tend to drive like crazy and as such defensive driving often wins the day in Germany, especially if it is your first day in the country.
Just because there are stretches on the Autobahn, where people can go 200 km/h (120 mph) doesn't mean you must. You can be perfectly fine and happy doing some 80 km/h (50 mph) in the rightmost lane with the trucks. While some cities in the West did attempt in the 1950s and 1960s to become "car friendly", local opposition and the preservation of architectural heritage in the end won more victories against the car lobby than in - say - the US and some cities are now actively turning some "car friendly" developments back as mistakes of the past to be ashamed of. Trams are a common sight in many cities and even though they are increasingly not street-running, you should keep an eye open for them in cities like Dresden as they will inevitably win in a collision.
On Sundays and public holidays, it is not permitted for trucks weighing over 7.5 t gross or trucks with trailers, regardless of weight, to drive between midnight and 10 PM. However, there are numerous exceptions rom this rule (e.g. for trucks carrying perishable products), so in practice, you will see a lot of trucks on the roads, even on Sundays.
Car rental and carpoolsEdit
All German airports offer car rental services and most of the main rental firms operate at desk locations. Sometimes you can save a lot of money by going downtown (which is usually and cheap as hopping on a train that'll cost some coins) and renting a car there instead of paying various airport fees.
Rental cars and pool cars are also available in most cities, and one-way rentals (within Germany) are generally permitted with the larger chains without an additional fee. When renting a car, be aware that most cars in Germany have manual gearbox (stick-shift), so you might want to ask for a car with an automatic gearbox if you are used to that type. Drivers with an endorsement in their licence that restricts them to driving automatic transmission vehicles will not be allowed to rent a manual-transmission car. Automatic transmission cars have a (mostly undeserved) bad reputation in Germany and the locals usually avoid them. If you rent an electric car, the whole issue becomes a moot point.
Most car rentals prohibit having their cars taken to eastern European countries, including Poland and the Czech Republic. If you plan to visit these countries as well, you might choose to rent your car there, as those limitations do not apply the other way round.
Another great way to get around without your own car is using one of the popular carpool services. You can arrange many connections over their respective websites if you speak some German or have a friend that can help you out. Making contact is free of charge and getting a lift is often the cheapest way to get around. Two of the most popular hosts are Fahrgemeinschaft and Besser mitfahren. If you have your own car, taking other people is also a great way of saving money and protecting the environment.
All foreign licences are accepted for up to six months (or 12 months for a temporary stay only), but a translation may be necessary. If you want to continue driving after this period, you must obtain a German licence. These rules do not apply to driving licences issued in EU member states. To get a non EU driving license approved for long term use in Germany can mean anything from a short trip to a government office to taking an entire new driving class which may well set you back several hundred Euro. This varies drastically by country of origin of your license and even by individual US state.
Traffic offences are almost always fined and severe offences will lead to "points" being registered for your licence. Too many points (8) will lead to your driving licence being confiscated. As this system can not be applied to foreign licences, fines for severe offences are often significantly higher for foreign drivers to make up for the lack of long-term control. Some severe infractions carry a driving ban (usually a couple of months) in addition to a fine and points. As the central registry that keeps track of the "points" is located in Flensburg, people say they have "Punkte in Flensburg".
- Traffic lights: Traffic lights are split for different directions, especially on large intersections: For one or more directions, an additional set of lights in the form of arrows regulates traffic in that direction. The non-arrowed light is for all other directions and traffic going straight ahead.
- Turning right on red is not permitted except when a small green right arrow is affixed to the traffic light, right next to the red light. Then, you may turn right carefully, but you must still stop and make sure that there is no traffic or pedestrians approaching.
- In many areas traffic lights are not hung over the intersection but placed at the corners. Do not creep into the intersection or you will not be able to see the lights change. A thick white stripe at intersections with traffic lights indicates where to stop. Many intersections use "self-regulating" traffic lights. The inductive sensor device used to determine if there's a car waiting is often located in the road surface in front of the white stripe mentioned above. Be sure to stop right in front of the this white stripe or the sensor might not recognise you. Lights will still turn green but you will have to wait quite a while longer.
- Yellow lights are short in duration (2–3 sec) and are also used prior to the light turning green (the sequence is green, amber, red, red-and-amber, same as in the UK). If the yellow light is flashing this means the traffic light either is defective or switched off (for example late at night or during weekends), and you then have to observe traffic signs or, if absent, the "right before left" rule. Driving through the lights at red carries a fine (up to €200) – and will not be anticipated by any other road users. Keep in mind that pedestrians - especially in cities - do jaywalk from time to time. This is especially common at tram (streetcar) or bus stops, where people race across the street to not miss their ride.
- Mobile phones: Using your mobile phone while driving is forbidden, unless you use a hands-free set. This includes using the mobile phone while stopped at a traffic light, etc. It does not matter if you use the phone for making a call or just reading the clock: If you pick it up, you are violating the rule. This also means that using a navigation software on a smartphone is not allowed, unless the phone is mounted in the car. The police are quite strict about this. To legally use a mobile phone in a car the engine has to be switched off or the car has to be in a permanently parked position, e.g. just stopping at the side of the road will still lead to a fine.
- Cyclists and road markings: Normal road markings are white. Yellow road markings invalidate any existing white markings, observe the yellow markings. Watch out for cyclists on sidewalk lanes, sometimes they are allowed to use the "wrong direction" lane (though many drive in "wrong direction" even if they are not allowed to do so). If a road crosses a bicycle lane (Radweg) it might have a red or blue color where it interjects with the bicycle lane or other special markings. Then, cyclists have right of way. If in doubt or there are no markings, its still a good idea to give right of way. Increasingly, one way streets are "opened" to cyclists in both directions, so be prepared for cyclists coming towards you in one way streets, especially in "bicycle cities" like Münster or Erlangen.
- Pedestrian crossings: Stopping at "Zebrastreifen" (literally "zebra stripes") is mandatory when there are people waiting to cross the street and German drivers virtually always stop. Accordingly, many pedestrians will not wait for the car to stop before they use the pedestrian crossing. Not stopping can be charged with a €80 fine and one point.
- Traffic police: The police will show blinking signs reading "Polizei Halt" (police, stop) or "Bitte folgen" (please follow) if they want to stop you. An audible "yelp-signal" is being introduced. Stay calm and friendly, and hand over the driving license and car papers (if you rent a car, you will have a copy of the rental contract) when you are asked to. In most cases, that is all that happens, and if you respect traffic signs and speed limits, it is very unlikely that you get stopped at all. Take notice that the police car will usually stop you by passing your car and then slowing you down to a halt on the emergency lane or even on the sidewalk. However when a police car is behind you on a crowded street with oncoming traffic, flashing blue lights without sirens may prompt you to pull over as well. Particularly on the Autobahn, the police are less visible than in other countries, because they often patrol in civil cars.
- Alcohol: The police may routine check vehicle drivers for alcohol; controls will be especially heavy at national holidays or close to mass events where people may consume alcohol. It's illegal to drive with a blood alcohol content of more than 0.05% (0.5‰ (permille)). Even below that limit, you may face severe fines if you seem unfit to drive or are involved in an accident (even if it is not your fault). The limit is zero for people under 21 and those who have held their license for less than two years. If your licence was recently renewed, it might be a good idea, if possible, to have a copy of your previous licence.
- Low emission zones: All cars - and yes that includes electric cars - driving into a low emission zone (Umweltzone) need a badge (Feinstaubplakette) indicating their pollution category. Badges come in three colors: green, yellow, and red. Signs marking the start of pollution-free zones—typically the central parts of a city—show the colors allowed into the zone. Entering without a badge costs you a fine if you are caught. If you rent a car, make sure it has a Feinstaubplakette. If you travel in your own car, get your badge for a small fee from:
- vehicle registration offices
- technical inspection organisations such as TÜV (you can request a badge online) or Dekra
- many car repair shops
- Studded tires are strictly forbidden throughout Germany, except a 15 km zone along the Austrian border and the short cut via B21 between the Austrian cities of Salzburg and Lofer.
- Turning left or right at a crossing: Generally you have to give way to pedestrians or bicyclists who are crossing the road you want to turn into.
- Right of way: If there are no markings on a crossing regulating otherwise, then the vehicle/cyclist approaching from your right has the right of way ("right before left" rule).
If you are involved in an accident, immediately stop where it happened (except if you're on a Autobahn or some other multilane road). Carefully get out of the car and check for injured people and damage on the cars.
If there is only minor damage, immediately move your vehicle to the roadside so that you don't block the road. It is a good idea to take some pictures of the scene before moving the cars. Germans are really crazy about their cars and accidents. That's mainly because they're shocked and think preserving the scene for the police might "help" in some way. It's not unusual that they will block an entire 4-lane crossroad during rush hours just because you slightly touched their bumper. Don't bother. Check the situation and tell them they have to clear the road (refer to the traffic regulations (StVO) §34.2) – and maybe remind them of the fine for blocking the traffic.
If there is only minor material damage you are only obligated to exchange names, addresses and insurance information. It is always a good idea to write down a report, stating all involved cars, drivers, witnesses and how the accident happened. Have it signed by all parties. It is neither necessary nor mandatory to call the police. Some people will want to call the police and expect you to wait for them but you do not have to. If you are driving a rental car, the car rental may want you to call the police and file a report; just ask when picking up the car.
In case of heavy damage or injuries (or one of the passengers complaining about headache) then it gets difficult. Injuries from car accidents often cause trauma with huge costs for medical treatment and the insurances will look very closely how the accident happened (and who is to blame). In this case do not move anything, secure the crash site and try to help injured people. Then call 112 for rescue service and state: Where, what, how many casualties, which injuries - then wait for further instructions. Even if nobody is hurt but there is a lot of damage (with parts lying around, especially oil leaking), call 110 for police. They will come, regulate the traffic and will call someone to clean up the road.
Most of the accidents (something around 80–90%) happen in cities and on rural roads. In the rare case you have an emergency on a Autobahn (or some other multi-lane road with heavy or fast traffic), slow down without endangering the traffic around and stop on the emergency lane. First of all, before getting out of the car, watch out for the traffic. Each year people who are trying to help in an accident are fatally hit by another car. Put on your reflective vest (all passengers), get out on the right side of the car (the side without traffic) and get behind the guardrail. Take the breakdown triangle (usually out of the trunk) and place it approximately 150–200 m (500–650 ft) behind the car on the roadside. Always walk behind the guardrail.
With the police involved there is also usually a fine to pay (approximately €25 if the accident was caused in "stationary" traffic: parking and can be up to €40 if the accident was caused in "moving" traffic), which must be paid either on the spot or at the nearest police station. The fine can be higher if there was an obstruction or hazard to other road users. Leaving an accident, if caught, is punished with a heavy fine (the German police possess surprising efficiency when it comes to tracking down foreign cars caught breaking the traffic laws).
Despite all the bad things with having an accident, it is nothing you have to worry about financially because each car must have a liability insurance. If you caused the accident, the insurance will pay for all the damage you caused (not damage on your own car!) and the medical treatment. If another driver caused it, his/her insurance will cover your damage and medical treatment. The only thing you have to look for is damage you cause on your own car; this is only covered if you have a "Vollkasko" (CDW). It is always a good idea to take out such an insurance (unless you own a pretty cheap/old car). Usually there is a deductible of €250–1000, but that's it. The only thing you should never do (like in every other country) is driving under heavy influence of alcohol (defined as 0,11 % or 1,1 permille blood alcohol or more) or other drugs (don't forget some pharmaceuticals). Although fines are pretty high, in addition to it you will have to pay up to €5,000 of the damage you caused (because of negligence) and CDW will not pay anything of your own damage.
Speed limits are the following in Germany (unless otherwise shown):
- Walking speed (4-7 km/h) on "verkehrsberuhigter Bereich" (traffic calmed area, marked by a blue/white sign showing a car, a pedestrian and a playing kid on the road). There are no lanes or sidewalks, cars don't have priority, parking is banned except in marked spots.
- 30 km/h in most residential areas within cities (marked with a sign "30-Zone Wohngebiet", 20-Zone and 10-Zone also exist, very often in combination within a right-before-left crossroad area)
- 50 km/h inside towns and cities. Be aware that there are no 50 speed limit signs on entry to a town or village, the yellow town sign is the marker for the start of the 50 km/h limit. And yes, that's why those signs are not at the same place as the administrative boundary.
- 100 km/h outside towns and cities (including "Kraftfahrstraßen" (marked by a sign showing a white car on a blue background))
- There is no constant general speed limit on the "Autobahn" or on "Kraftfahrstraßen" if there is any kind of barrier between two or more lanes of different direction. However, it is not an entirely unrestricted roadway as there are sections that are periodically or permanently assigned lower rates of speed. The recommended maximum speed ("Richtgeschwindigkeit") on the Autobahn is 130 km/h, and if you drive on the Autobahn for your first time and are not yet used to the usual heavy traffic, you should not exceed that speed. In addition, if you are travelling in excess of 130 km/h and are involved in an accident, you can still be held liable for part or all of the damage regardless of fault on your part. On some rental vehicles, you might lose your insurance. The best way to think about going past 130 km/h is as a speeding violation, which isn't fined. In case someone makes a mistake, you are fully responsible (as if you broke the speed limit).
- When towing a trailer or operating a truck/bus/heavy vehicle, the maximum speed is 80 km/h, even on a road with a higher posted speed limit, unless the components are rated for a higher speed. The maximum speed for trucks on country roads is 60 km/h, not raised by speed signage either.
Speed cameras are common in Germany (the country has one of the highest speed camera concentrations in Europe) and are found mostly in towns and cities. Temporary road works on the motorway are usually a favourite for the police so obey the speed limit, which is clearly marked. There is also some tendency to do shenanigans with the Ortsschild (the yellow sign at the entrance of towns) which signifies the blanket 50 km/h (31 mph) speed limit in effect inside built up areas, which is often further out than the edge of the settlement and sometimes moved without any change in the built environment. Sometimes there are official signs - "Achtung Radar!" or something similar - to warn about a speed camera. Take the advice - there can be a speed camera.
All forms of radar jammers and radar detectors are illegal. Radar (Blitzer) apps on smartphones and satellite navigation systems with a speed camera overlay are illegal for the driver to use but not for other passengers.
The following table gives an overview of the fines for speeding (the speeds below indicate the difference between the speed limit and the actual speed travelled after the 3 km/h allowance has been deducted)
Inside built-up areas
- up to 10 km/h €15
- 11–15 km/h €25
- 16–20 km/h €35
- 21–25 km/h €80 [1 point]
- 26–30 km/h €100 [1 point]
- 31–40 km/h €160 [2 points, 1 month driving ban]
- 41–50 km/h €200 [2 points, 1 month driving ban]
- 51–60 km/h €280 [2 points, 2 months driving ban]
- 61–70 km/h €480 [2 points, 3 months driving ban]
- over 70 km/h €680 [2 points, 3 months driving ban]
Outside built-up areas (such as motorway, country roads; also in road works)
- up to 10 km/h €10
- 11–15 km/h €20
- 16–20 km/h €30
- 21–25 km/h €70 [1 point]
- 26–30 km/h €80 [1 point]
- 31–40 km/h €120 [1 points]
- 41–50 km/h €160 [2 points, 1 month driving ban]
- 51–60 km/h €240 [2 points, 1 month driving ban]
- 61–70 km/h €440 [2 points, 2 months driving ban]
- over 70 km/h €600 [2 points, 3 months driving ban]
NB: There is an extra €23.50 for any fine over €40.
You have the right to appeal against any traffic violation, but this process is long, complicated and can cost a lot of money.
Only vehicles with a maximum speed of more than 60 km/h are allowed on the "Autobahn" or "Kraftfahrstraßen".
If there is a traffic jam or slowly moving traffic, you have to leave space for emergency vehicles to be able to pass (German: Rettungsgasse).
Using the AutobahnEdit
In 1974 Düsseldorf electronic-music pioneers Kraftwerk had a hit with "Autobahn", which brought both them and the roads the song was about to the attention of the world. For many listeners the line "fahr'n fahr'n fahr'n auf der Autobahn" might as well have been referring to "fun, fun, fun on the Autobahn", since they took the song as an invitation to come to Germany and drive the Autobahn into the idyllic landscape of the album cover. The near-total freedom from speed limits was a big part of the attraction, as well.
It still is. Design standards call for generally level surfaces and wide, gentle turns, allowing higher speeds, and maintenance is intensive and regular. On nice weekends you'll find a lot of locals and foreigners out on the Autobahn in their Porsches or BMWs, or other high-performance vehicles, driving them the way they were designed to be driven. If you want to join in, if this is one of things you came to Germany to do, keep the following in mind:
- German drivers tend to drive faster, more aggressively and competitively than you might be used to, especially on the parts of the highway system without a speed limit.
- While most passenger vehicles have only a recommended speed limit of 130 km/h, buses have a speed limit of 100 km/h (or even 80 km/h), and most vehicles towing a trailer, along with buses in general and non-passenger vehicles with a gross weight of greater than 3.5 t, are limited only to 80 km/h. Some newer trailers have a speed limit of 100 km/h.
- Road signs on the Autobahn show possible destinations (mostly city names). They do not show the direction of the road (east/west), unlike in some other countries. However, every odd-numbered Autobahn will go north/south (e.g. A49), whereas the even-numbered ones go west/east. Furthermore, single digit Autobahn numbers indicate a very long Autobahn such as the A7 which goes from the border with Denmark all the way down to the Austrian border. Double digit Autobahns are considerably shorter like the A 73 that links Suhl in Thüringen with Nuremberg and triple digit Autobahns are often urban highways and generally only of local importance such as the A 100 which makes a never completed circle through Berlin.
- You must use the right lane if free, even if everybody seems to prefer the left and middle lanes (where they exist). You may stay in the middle lane only if there are occasional slower vehicles on the right. Overtaking on the right is not allowed and will be dangerous since other drivers won't expect it. You must always pass vehicles on the left side, except in very slow-moving traffic queues. Before overtaking, look carefully behind as there might be really fast cars or bikes coming. You must indicate your desire to switch lanes by using your indicators before you switch.
- Autobahns have an emergency lane where you can stop only in case of a breakdown or other emergency; it's illegal and dangerous to stop there for any other reason. The emergency lane is a dangerous place: you should leave your vehicle and stay off the road until help arrives! For everything else, always use the frequent service areas. Running out of fuel on the Autobahn may also incur a fine if the police happen to notice you, as this is considered to be avoidable. If you have to stop you must set up your warning triangle behind (provided in rental cars).
- Arrows on the small posts along the Autobahn will guide you to the next orange emergency phone. These will automatically connect you free of charge with a call centre that directs police, ambulances or just a mechanic.
- In some areas, emergency tracks are used as extra lanes in times of heavy traffic. This is always announced by electronic signs.
- In most countries, if you were nearing a car that you would soon have to overtake, even if you had another car going much faster than you that you would block by moving to overtake, you would overtake first, forcing the faster car to lose a lot of momentum, because you had reached the obstacle car first. In Germany, however, since the faster car has more speed to lose if you go first, the polite and safe thing to do is to tap your brakes or indicate right to tell the fast car that you have seen him and are letting him pass the obstacle first. Of course, you must judge how fast the fast car is closing on you, the make of car, if its lights are on, and if it is already overtaking. Cars that could have passed both obstacles in seconds will not be impressed that you jump in front of them instead of waiting.
- You are not allowed to force other cars in front of you to go into the right lane by continuously flashing your lights or use a turn signal if you want to overtake them, however a single flash to make sure other drivers know the fact you are approaching fast is permitted. Interpretation of what is pressuring other drivers and what is not is a legal argument you may want to avoid.
- Never overtake on the right. In addition to being illegal (except in traffic jams at speeds below 60 km/h) it's so rare that few drivers will expect it, making it quite dangerous.
While congestion is a problem on some parts of the Autobahn network as well as inner cities year round the beginning of Summer holidays in Nordrhein Westfalen and Bayern and certain weekends in winter tend to be worse for congestion. If possible try to avoid the beginning (and for all two week holidays) the end of school vacation periods and especially the Saturday and Sunday of them. Some routes are particularly prone to congestion, most of which are the historically busy north south routes such as A9 (Munich-Nuremberg-Berlin) or A7 (Hamburg-Kassel-Füssen) or routes running through densely populated areas like Ruhr. Other congestion prone streets are those that cross the former German-German border where years of neglect and the sudden change of traffic movements after the opening of the border and reunification have left a dilapidated system crowded beyond capacity. However twenty five years of construction and relieving bottlenecks have done much to ease the worst congestion. That being said construction is still more likely to slow you down in the east than in the west. A particular problem on highways in the former East Germany is concrete used in the early 1990s that is particularly prone to Alkali-Silica Reaction and now has to be replaced earlier than planned. Many highways in the East consequently have construction to replace crumbled concrete.
Rush hour in major cities is a bad time to drive anywhere and with the excellent public transit that almost all German cities enjoy there is really no reason to do so, unless you particularly enjoy staring at the tail lights of the car in front of you for hours on end. Most major cities have - usually free - park & ride facilities at outlying S-Bahn, U-Bahn or Tram (Straßenbahn, sometimes called Stadtbahn) stops to entice people from out of town to drop their car of there and take transit into town. This is always a good idea, but if there is a Christmas market or other big event in town it's an even better idea.
Gasoline prices are kept high by taxation. As of April 2018 prices float around €1.40 per litre for petrol (91 AKI, 95 RON), and around €1.25 per litre for diesel. Along the Autobahns the prices are much higher than elsewhere.
If still available, regular petrol (87 AKI, 91 RON) and "super" is the same price in Germany. At petrol stations, you have the choice between Diesel, Super (91 AKI, 95 RON), Super E-10 (91 AKI, 95 RON, but with up to 10 % ethanol) and SuperPlus (98 RON) or Ultimate (100 RON). Regular or "Benzin" (87 AKI, 91 RON) is rarely offered any longer. All fuel is unleaded ("bleifrei") and if you have a car that needs leaded fuel you would have to add the lead by hand.
Also, LPG (liquid petroleum gas) is available at more than 6,600 petrol stations with few problems on highways. Mostly the ACME-connector is used. At staffed stations adaptors may be borrowed at the cashier. The price is around €0.58 per litre (Apr 2018).
Very often you also might find "Erdgas" at a price around €1.05 per kilogram; this is compressed natural gas (CNG), neither LPG nor gasoline.
"Normal" gasoline contains 5% ethanol, but most car engines are said to have no problems handling that. "E10" (containing 10% Ethanol) has been introduced to reduce fossil dependency (with mixed results to say the least). While modern cars should not have any problem handling "E10", it should be specified somewhere in the documents pertaining to the car as otherwise you might be liable for any damages caused or allegedly caused by E10.
In Germany, you may first fill up your tank and pay afterwards (only if the petrol station is staffed, of course). Rarely stations will not release the fuel to pump unless you pay first or at least hand over a credit card in advance. Sometimes gas stations or small shops do not accept €500 or €200 banknotes, for fear of counterfeits. Be aware there are still some rural gas stations that only accept cash and local credit/debit cards!
Charging stations for electric cars are becoming more and more common in urban areas and in some places they don't charge anything in addition to the parking fee you'd pay anyways. While there are efforts to introduce similar charging stations throughout Europe, some are still not compatible with each other, so check ahead before trying to plug your car into the "wrong" station.