Driving The autobahn: as German as bier and bratwurst

Photo of Sam Jeremic

"As you first climb up to a rapid speed it feels odd, as though you’re doing something illegal. Not having a whole lot of experience driving on the right-hand side of the road only adds to the foreignness of it all."

Along with bier, bratwurst and unlikeable Formula One drivers, it is one of Germany’s main cultural identifiers. It is often mentioned in hushed, reverential tones by motoring enthusiasts and looked at with a mix of awe and terror by outsiders.

The autobahn.

Given the country’s quality public transport system, most Australians who visit will likely spend next to no time on the country’s famed, speed-limit-free highways — let alone drive on them.

But if you get the chance and you’re not easily rattled behind the wheel, it’s well worth it as an eye-opening lesson in just how efficiently roads can operate.

On some drives, you may only encounter bursts of a few kilometres of autobahn driving and sometimes you have to travel slower than you’d like because of roadworks or traffic congestion.

But when you do see an autobahn sign (a speed limit sign with two lines through it), it’s certainly an experience.

As you first climb up to a rapid speed it does feel odd, as though you’re undoubtedly doing something illegal. Not having a whole lot of experience driving on the right-hand side of the road only adds to the foreignness of it all.

But then, even though you’re still concentrating at a much-heightened level and looking a lot further down the road than you otherwise would, things start to get easier.

As everyone is travelling at a similar speed, it is remarkable how 150km/h can quickly feel pedestrian after sitting on 190km/h for a few clicks. You find yourself spending a lot more time checking mirrors, as the speck a few kilometres behind you can very quickly turn into a cigarette-sucking grandmother whizzing past you in a BMW at 250km/h.

Nevertheless, it all works seamlessly and soon enough, a 200km or so trip is wrapped up in well under two hours. The thought of introducing such a system in Australia likely elicits images of bogans recklessly drag racing up and down highways, but the key here is the strict obedience to the rules by German drivers.

In short, they’re taught how to drive properly.

Even said Oma doing 250km/h will move out of the far left lane where possible. Everyone knows to check their mirrors multiple times before changing lanes to overtake.

And if you’ve spent much of your driving life in Perth, their ability to merge makes you almost weep with joy.

With our vast lengths of highway, some people may think Australia would be the perfect place for no speed limit sections; there is a stretch of the Stuart Highway in the Northern Territory which has no speed limit.

No doubt, it’d certainly make the boring part of Forrest Highway south of Perth a lot more riveting and after a few days covering long distances in quick time, I too was starting to think such a system would be great at home.

But I discovered it’s not flawless.

Travelling at such speeds chews through fuel in most cars and concentrating so intently is certainly draining.

Despite the strict adherence to road rules, accidents do still happen and there is no terror you’ll experience while behind the wheel as sharp as that you feel while sitting north of 200km/h and thinking the guy in the next lane in front of you is going to suddenly change lanes.

In reality, it took an army of people to construct carriageways good enough to handle such driving and the Germans have had the system for decades. More so, it is doubtful many countries would have drivers capable of having such a network at their disposal without it turning into a terrifying free-for-all.

So no, it probably would not be best for us if no speed limits were somehow made law.

Still, it is nice to fantasise about a world where down south is barely an hour away . . .

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