Driving on the Autobahn

Driving on the Autobahn
When most of us hear ‘Autobahn’ we think of German motorways without speed limits. However, not all roads on the network let drivers put their foot down without restrictions.

Here, we run through the rules and regulations of the famous highways so you can drive with confidence on your next European road trip.

What is the Autobahn?

autobahn-berlin

In the UK we usually use the term Autobahn to refer to German motorways, without speed limits, however, in Germany, ‘Autobahn’ can be used to refer to a highway in any country. The official term is ‘bundesautobahn’, often shortened to BAB.

The federally-built roads feature at least two lanes travelling in each direction and, despite the common misconception, speed limits may apply.

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.

How to use the Autobahn

You’ll know you’re entering the Autobahn when you see this sign:

autobahn-sign

From this point on, it’s important to stay in the right lane unless overtaking. The rule works similarly to our own middle lane hogging laws.

If speed limits apply, you’ll see a black number on a round white sign outlined in red.

autobahn-speed-limit

The sign indicating the end of speed limits looks like our ‘national speed limit applies’ sign:

autobahn-speed-limits-end

From here, previous restrictions on overtaking and speed limits no longer apply.

An advisory speed limit of 130kph or 81 mph is recommended for all vehicles under 3.5 tonnes including passenger cars above 3.5 tonnes.

Remember, on roads without speed limits, it’s likely that someone is travelling faster than you, so you should move out of the left lane as soon as it’s safe to do so.

The hard shoulder

Like our motorways and unlike our ‘all lane running’ smart motorways, the Autobahn features a hard shoulder.

You shouldn’t use the hard shoulder unless you’re given permission by this sign:

autobahn-all-lanes

or instructed to by this sign:

autobahn-hard-shoulder

Roadworks

Keep an eye out for roadworks on the Autobahn by looking for yellow road markings.

The yellow lines have priority over white lines and might instruct you to stay within a lane over a stretch of road.

Exiting the Autobahn

When leaving the Autobahn you can drive faster than vehicles to your left after the exit lanes begin (look out for the broken white line).

Emergency vehicles on the Autobahn

autobahn-police

Emergency vehicles have right of way on the Autobahn and when traffic is moving slowly it’s important to create a ‘Rettungsgasse’ or emergency vehicle lane.

If there are two lanes in each direction, you should move your car to the far right or far left depending on your position to create a middle lane for emergency vehicles.

If there are more than two lanes, drivers in the right-side lanes should move further right, while drivers in the third or fourth left lane should stay on the far left.2

You might spot the specialised police force while on the German motorways. The ‘Autobahnpolizei’ are similar to our highway patrol officers and have even inspired a series of Autobhan Police simulator computer games.

Autobahn speed limits

Although many drivers dream of hitting the Autobahn to drive without speed limits, some sections of the motorways enforce restrictions.

In fact, roughly 30% of the Autobahn network has speed limits. 3 This figure breaks down to:

Speed limitCoverage of Autobahn
130 kph4.7%
120 kph7.8%
100 kph5.6%
80 kph2.3%
60 kph0.3%
Less than 60 kph0.1%

A further 9% of the Autobahn uses traffic control systems to regulate traffic.

When driving a caravan or towing a motor home if your weight exceeds 3.5 tonnes an 80kph (50 mph) limit applies.4

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Autobahn rules and laws

The rules of the Autobahn aren’t too different to those on our own motorways, (apart from the driving on the right hand side and unlimited speed limits of course).

If you follow the rules below you can enjoy a safe and legal journey on Europe’s most famous highways.

Rule 1: Always overtake on the left.

Overtaking vehicles on the right is verboten, or forbidden, unless traffic is moving at a very slow speed, for example, in a traffic jam.

Rule 2: Slower traffic stays on the right

One of the reasons that the Autobahn allows cars to travel without speed limits is because drivers in Germany understand the importance of keeping the fast lane moving.

Even if you’re travelling at 100mph or more, someone else could be travelling faster. Once you’ve passed slower vehicles and it’s safe to do so, you should always try to switch lanes to the right.

Rule 3: Use your indicators

This one’s simple and even more important when travelling at higher speeds than what we’re used to in the UK.

Rule 4: Stick to the speed limit

Possibly the most surprising rule of the Autobahn but you’ll need to keep your eyes peeled for limits on 30% of the network.

Look out for speed limit signs similar to ours at home or instructions on overhead gantries.

Other rules of the Autobahn

You should never:

  • Run out of fuel
  • Reverse or make any U-turns
  • Stop or park along the Autobahn
  • Drive in the left lane to prevent vehicles from passing
  • Tailgate and flash drivers to encourage them into right lanes
  • Get out of your car when stuck in a traffic jam

When driving in Germany it’s compulsory to keep a warning triangle and first aid kit in your car at all times. You can find out more about driving in Germany, here.

Autobahn etiquette

autobahn-traffic

If you stick to the right hand lanes between overtaking and use your indicators in good time you shouldn’t run into trouble when travelling on the Autobahn.

Although using headlights to force other drivers to move over is considered bad practice it can be common.

If drivers try to hurry you up while you overtake another car you should stay calm and carry on with the manoeuvre in the same way you normally would.

Is the Autobahn being banned?

Rumours that speed limits will be enforced across all of the Autobahn network crop up from time to time.

In February 2020, Germany’s parliament voted against a 130kph (80 mph) speed limit, but the issue is likely to arise once more, especially if environmental groups and safety campaigners increase their pressure on the Government.5 

A decision to enforce a 130 kph limit would prove controversial, as almost half (45%) of German citizens are against the idea, while 53% are in favour. 6  

Why doesn't the UK have an Autobahn equivalent?

A 70mph speed limit has been enforced on our motorways for almost 36 years 7. During that time, debates have mostly looked at increasing the speed limit rather than removing it entirely.

In 2011, an independent climate change committee found that a 10mph increase would generate an extra 2.2 million tonnes of CO2 a year. However, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps believes that the growing adoption of cleaner electric vehicles could pave the way for an 80mph speed limit.

The chief executive of Highways England, Jim O’Sullivan, supports the idea too: “parts of the network could already operate with an 80mph limit, but such a move was being held back by public opinion.”

More than a third (36.3%) of the public would welcome an 80mph speed limit in the UK. 41.1% wouldn’t welcome the increase, while a further 22.6% are unsure about their stance.8 

For the RAC and many motorists, increasing motorway speed limits is an issue of safety rather than balancing emissions.

 

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1. https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/Autobahn-germany-history/index.html
2. https://www.german-way.com/travel-and-tourism/driving-in-europe/driving/Autobahn/driving-on-the-Autobahn/
3. https://www.statista.com/chart/16810/breakdown-of-speed-limits-on-stretches-of-Autobahn-with-no-roadworks/
4. https://routetogermany.com/drivingingermany/Autobahn
5. https://fortune.com/2020/03/07/germany-Autobahn-speed-limits-green-party/ 
6. https://www.infratest-dimap.de/umfragen-analysen/bundesweit/umfragen/aktuell/mehrheit-sieht-wachsenden-antisemitismus-in-deutschland/
7. https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/uk-news/uk-drivers-want-see-speed-19211142
8. https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/uk-news/uk-drivers-want-see-speed-19211142

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† Price for 1 day cover for up to 9 people travelling in a vehicle up to 1 year old in Zone 1. For more information visit rac.co.uk/breakdown-cover/european-breakdown-cover

† Price for 1 day cover for up to 9 people travelling in a vehicle up to 1 year old in Zone 1. For more information visit rac.co.uk/breakdown-cover/european-breakdown-cover