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When driving on the German Autobahn, one realizes that auto racing is not confined to famous race tracks like the Nürburgring. Germans, and the Austrians and Swiss, like to drive fast, and they have been in love with their cars ever since Carl Benz (1844-1927) invented the first practical motor car in 1885.

Today's German autobahn system stretches 6,800 miles across most parts of unified Germany. Austria also has an autobahn network, with some mountainous portions being built as toll (Maut) highways by public companies. Austria has a speed limit on its autobahns of 130 km/h (80 mph).

The German Autobahn has taken on an almost legendary mystique. The reality is a little different than the legend. The myth of no speed limits is countered by the fact that Tempo limits are a fact of life on most of Germany's highways, and traffic jams are common. Signs suggesting a recommended speed limit of 130 km/h (80 mph) are posted along most autobahns, while urban sections and a few dangerous stretches sometimes have posted speed limits as 'low' as 100 km/h (62 mph). The fact is that Germany's autobahn system is an extensive network of limited-access freeways that can usually provide a driver with a speedy route from city to city.

The Rules of the Autobahn

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. Also, 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 American driver, you may have problems. You also need to be alert and pay even more attention to the road than required in the US.

No passing on the right!
The first thing any driver needs to know about the rules of the autobahn is that it is illegal to pass a vehicle on the right. You must move into a left lane in order to pass. The pass-on-the-left-only rule is one of the things that make the autobahn work. Slow moving vehicles must always move to the right, and faster vehicles may pass on the left only. The only exception is when both lanes are moving slowly (under 60 km per hour, 35 mph), as in the frequent traffic jams (Verkehrsstaus). In such cases drivers are allowed to pass on the right, but at a speed no higher than 20 km per hour faster than the traffic in the left lane.

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 suddenly appear out of nowhere and zoom past you at speeds exceeding 100 mph. You may be doing the 'recommended' speed of 130 km/h (80 mph) and see German drivers passing you as if you were standing still.

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.

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.

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 by the year. And while it may be legal, it may not be wise! You will also see square blue signs with white numbers reading '130' in Germany. That means 130 km/h (80 mph), 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 120 km/h (75 mph), 110 km/h (68 mph) or lower, especially in urban areas.

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 70 euro cents!). There are also more modest stops along the way with just picnic tables and parking. Take advantage of these for occasional breaks from driving.

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 in North America, 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 license (up to $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 realize that you are not in North America.

'Stau' Warnings
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). It is not uncommon for such congestion to stretch out for many kilometers. Some GPS units, called a Navi in German, can also identify traffic problems and route you around them. Bring your own GPS or rent one with your rental car. If you bring your own, make sure it has updated maps for Europe.

Although Germany began charging an autobahn toll for trucks in 2003; passenger car drivers can still drive the Autobahn without any extra charges (so far). But neighboring Austria and Switzerland (plus France and other European countries) charge a toll, for using their high-speed, limited access highways.

An Austrian or Swiss 'Vignette' must be displayed on a car's windshield. Motorists entering Austria or Switzerland without a vignette must purchase one or be subject to heavy fines. You're okay if you stay off the autobahn or Schnellstraßen (limited-access roads), but that's not easy to do. If you're lucky, your rental car may already have one. If not, you will have to contribute 40 Swiss francs to the Swiss treasury upon entering that country. As in the USA, ignorance of the law is no excuse.

Unlike Switzerland, Austria permits drivers to purchase an Autobahnvignette for various periods of time, from ten days to a full year. The so-called Mautvignette (toll sticker) must be affixed to the inside of the front windshield. The stickers come in varying colors in different years, making it easier for the police to spot an invalid Autobahnpickerl, Austrian slang for 'autobahn sticker'. To prevent misuse, the stickers are also designed to tear apart if removed from the window glass.