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December 06, 2005

Pokey Autobahns

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Autobahns (auf Deutsch, Autobahnen), the German superhighways begun decades before Congress authorized our Interstate system, have a reputation for being a playground for high-speed Porsche, BMW and Mercedes cars.

'Taint necessarily so.

Congested autobahn.jpg
A summer Friday afternoon for an ultra high speed Autobahn.

As the picture shows, you can't count on zipping from Stuttgart to Munich at 90 miles an hour. But before launching into my own impressions, here's a comprehensive summary of Autobahn history, driving rules, signage, and other items of potential interest and use.

Actually, my first brief exposure to Autobahns conformed to expectations. Traffic wasn't very heavy and, yes indeed, those high-powered cars really did whoosh past us. What made the driving experience especially dicey was that I was driving a small, underpowered Peugeot 106.

Peugeot 106.jpg
Peugeot 106.

This was my first trip to Europe and I was trying to keep costs down by renting cheap. The 106 was fine in towns and two-lane country roads, but dangerous on an Autobahn. Yes, it could maintain an 80+ MPH speed, but only after spending an uncomfortable amount of time accelerating. Passing was especially trying because, at 70 or 80 MPH, it accelerated especially slowly which meant that it might take 20 seconds to get around a truck -- plenty of time for a BMW 7-series to appear out of nowhere and be rapidly closing on you, headlights furiously blinking.

So my next trip to Europe I rented a Volkswagen Golf (Jetta in the USA) which had adequate power for Autobahn driving. Sure, it cost more to rent, but the extra expense was well worth it.

As mentioned above, Autobahns can get clogged. I've noticed this especially on Fridays in July when people get an early start on a weekend jaunt, the sheer volume of cars and trucks causing everyone to creep along regardless of the lane being driven on. And then there are accidents which can snarl traffic out in the country dozens of miles from the nearest significant city.

In my opinion, the dangerous Autobahns are those with only two lanes in each direction. They are most dangerous when traffic is flowing smoothly. Why the danger? It has to do with speed disparity between the two lanes. You see, the outer or slow lane is usually occupied by trucks, which set the pace for any cars in that lane. The inner or fast lane has those Porsches and Mercedes zipping along. So if the speed that feels most comfortable to you is somewhere between that of the trucks and the Porsches, you have the choice of moving aside whenever a faster car closes on your rear or creeping in the slow lane, passing when you get the chance. (Actually, you'll find yourself doing both, alternating from one mode to the other.) Or if you are driving rapidly yourself, you can suddenly come upon a slower car pulling in front of you to pass a truck. So you jam on the brakes, cursing and hoping you don't rear-end that car.

Six-lane Autobahns, three in each direction, are much safer because the middle lane accommodates "moderate" speed traffic and acts as a buffer between the high-speed cars and slow trucks.

The Autobahn I hate most is the A8 from Munich to Karlsruhe via Stuttgart. I use it when trying to make tracks back to France from Austria. Parts of it are only four-laned, and there's no serious alternative to it, especially if your plans called for a stayover in Munich. Sometimes you breeze along at 85. But you run a real risk of getting caught in a traffic jam. And since it's such a long stretch of highway, you might encounter several places where you might creep for half an hour or more, making trip planning problematical.

Another source of Autobahn-creep is construction and repair, the Autobahns being very well maintained. My worst experience was back around 2000 on the A4 in former East Germany. Following reunification, Germany faced the task of bringing largely pre-war Autobahns up to 1990s snuff, and this took years. Between Dresden and the old border, we would merrily drive at 85 for 10-15 kilometers only to drop speed and scrunch into narrower lanes for 6-10 kilometers in construction zones, then repeat the process.

One nice thing about the eastern autobahns was that they had shiny, modern rest-stop facilities, unlike the sometimes ratty older facilities in the west.

I could go on, but might as well close by emphasizing my main message: Don't count on traveling fast on an Autobahn when planning a drive-it-yourself European vacation.



posted by Donald at December 6, 2005


Intersting to read about the fabled Autobahn!

Speaking of superhighways -- off and on, and only in a casual way, I've been looking for a comprehensive history of the highway. So far I've only been able to find bits and pieces -- and polemics -- scattered about here and there.

I wonder if you know of a book (perhaps, a well-researched coffee table book?) that actually traces the development of the modern highway in a comprehensive way (with illustrations/photos, maps and diagrams, of course!) -- e.g., antecedents (toll roads?); first examples of separation of traffic horizontally (boulevards and parkways?); first examples of separation of grade at intersections (Central Park?); first extensive systems of limited access highways; first cloverleaf interchanges (New Jersey?); first use of three or four traffic lanes; first use of shoulders; the development of rest stop design; the history and development of various paving surfaces (from brick, to concrete, to asphalt); the development of highway lighting and signage (especially reflective signage); etc.

It would also be interesting to read a discussion of the development of highway terminology. In the New York area highways are named parkways (if commerical traffic is banned, e.g., Southern State Parkway), turnpikes (if tolls are charged, e.g., Pennsylvania Turnpike), expressways (Cross-Bronx Expressway), thruways (Thomas E. Dewey Thruway?), and highways (West Side Highway). They are never referred to as freeways. Freeways, of course, are associated with the west and California. I wonder when these various terms were first used, who coined them and where and when the usage spread to other localities?

I have the impression, perhaps erroneous, that in Texas, they used to name highways "expressways" (as is common in the New York area) but somewhere along the line they changed over and began naming them "freeways." And it seems that more and more the word "freeway" is replacing "expressway" or "highway" around the country. (All of this is just a guess on my part.) (In Great Britain, I think they are called motorways?)

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on December 6, 2005 11:38 PM

it may be true that you can't zip from Munich to Stuttgart on a July's Friday afternoon - but you can always zip from Stuttgart to Munich. Which is 1.) far more important (Stuttgart is nice, OK - but you'd really want to spend the weekend in Munich... and if you are already in Munich, why bother going to Stuttgart) and 2.) a little odd: who are these people that are all going in the wrong direction.

aren't pretty much all Autobahnen 2 lanes around Munich? A92 Landshut, A93 Regensburg, A95 Garmisch, A8 Salzburg... all a trip down memory lane for me -- especially A8 Karlsruhe where my parents are from. ([sudden outrageous German accent:] Unsafe-nonsense... if you know how to drive, you vill not be unsafe!)



Posted by: jfl on December 7, 2005 9:23 AM


I've heard good things about this book:

Also, as a Texan for 35+ years, I've only heard the term "highway," never "expressway" or "freeway." Don't know about the history of the terminology, though.

Posted by: beloml on December 7, 2005 10:41 AM

I read recently that authorities are closing rest stops along the Interstate highways in the U.S. because they are notorious spots for trysts between truckers and prostitutes.

What are the local girls going to do for a livelihood?

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on December 7, 2005 10:48 AM

"I read recently that authorities are closing rest stops along the Interstate highways in the U.S. because they are notorious stops for trysts between truckers and prostitutes"

To the extent that's happened, the closings have been of facility-less parking areas along the Interstates, not the rest areas with restrooms, vending machines and so on. A rest area in Connecticut that was just a parking area had to be closed some years back, as it had become noteworthy for romantic encounters of the non-straight variety.

Posted by: Peter on December 7, 2005 10:56 AM

Benjamin -- The only book I have on the subject is "The Roads that Built America" by Dan McNichol, Barnes & Noble, 2003. I bought it at a remainder table and read most of it, though I've already forgotten my impression. Quite a few pictures, though. But I'm not sure if it's scholarly enough for your needs. Try Amazon's advanced search feature and some alternative "Subject" titles and see what pops up.

jfl -- Remember I was heading to France (Colmar, actually) by way of Stuttgart. I was in Stuttgart once, and it was very hard for a newcomer like me to drive around. I'm pretty good with maps but still got semi-lost, trying to head out of town to the northeast, missing a turn, and finding myself near the good old A8 to the south!

As for "unsafe," that Peugeot 106 didn't help things. Schumacher or Fangio would have done better I suppose, but even they couldn't create horsepower out of thin air. The only way to drive a 4-lane Autobahn in comparative safety is to have gobs of power under the hood and powerful brakes: you'll need both. But I insist that slow traffic on one lane and fast traffic in the other is inherently dangerous.

And yes, Munich is a much more interesting place than Stuttgart. And no, I won't commit myself to saying which city makes the best automobiles.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 7, 2005 9:31 PM

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