No Limits

Americans have a lot of myths and misconceptions about Germany.  We think that all Germans wear lederhosen and dirndls– they don’t; that’s just in the South of Germany.  We think that all Germans love beer and pretzels- ok, that part is actually mostly true.

Before I moved to Germany, I had a weird misconception that the Autobahn was a single world-famous stretch of roadway.  I stupidly didn’t register that “Autobahn” is really just the name for Germany’s entire system of highways until I was already here and seeing the separate segments of the highway.  I now know that Regensburg sits at the intersection of the A3 and the A93, and both of those roads are considered “The Autobahn.”

We think that the entire Autobahn has no speed limit.

nolimitsIt only takes one time on the highways here to see that this isn’t entirely true.  There are places on Germany’s roadways with no posted speed limits, designated by the circle and slashes seen to the right of this paragraph.  One ADAC estimate says that roughly half of the Autobahn  does indeed have a posted speed limit.  I can attest to this, since I drove on the Autobahn last week for the first time.

I don’t usually have a car here- when I moved over, I sold my beloved Honda Civic in favor of using the bus and train to get around.  I didn’t want to deal with the expense of parking, of getting gasoline, of insuring a car- and I really don’t need one here.    I drive when I’m in the United States, but not here.

When several of us went to Zürich for business last week and I had the opportunity to sign on as a second driver for the rental car, I didn’t have to think too long before signing up.  As a result, I got to drive a bit in both Germany and Austria.  I have a few thoughts on the experience:

  1. The places that do have speed limits here are somewhat infuriating because the speed limit changes rapidly and often.  In a five-minute span, you can find yourself seeing multiple speed limit changes.  It’s usually somewhat logical-  120 kilometers per hour to 100 to 80 as you approach a tunnel, for example.  Sometimes, though, it can be downright schizophrenic:  120 kilometers per hour to 80 to 100 to 60 to 120 and then, suddenly, no limits again.  In the US, highway speed limits tend to be one speed for much longer stretches of roadway.
  2. Even on the sections of the Autobahn that don’t have posted speed limits, there is still a recommended speed.  The Richtgeschwindigkeit, or recommended speed, is 130 km/h.  I can say from my new experience that 130-140 is actually a very comfortable speed.  This is perfectly logical, since this is roughly equivalent to 80-87 miles per hour.
  3. Our rental car was a Volkswagen Touran, which is basically the minivan version of a VW Golf.  This car isn’t really built for speed-  at one point on a straightaway, I took the car up to 180 km/h (112 mph) just to see what it felt like.  It felt terrifying.  At that speed, the entire vehicle felt like it was catching an updraft.  There was no sense of real control of the vehicle, and I was concerned that any good gust of wind would completely crash us.  I leveled it back down to a more relaxed speed very quickly, and didn’t break a three digit mph speed again for the rest of the trip.  I saw plenty of people doing 200-220 km/h on the Autobahn, but you really have to have the right car to do it without spontaneous outbreaks of sudden and horrible death.

Would I rent a fast car some time and drive fast on the Autobahn again?  Probably, it was kind of fun despite the terror.  Maybe next time I just need a faster car…

Have you been on the Autobahn?  What’s the fastest speed you’ve ever driven?



11 thoughts on “No Limits

  1. Robert

    Hm, a Touran is certainly not built for speed, but it shouldn’t behave as you described – maybe you drove on an especially bad part of the Autobahn?
    I’ve spent a couple of years a) going to Munich 2 or 3 times a week (60 miles each way) and b) going to Bad Hersfeld (near Erfurt) and back once a week (230 miles each way) – I found 110 mph to be a good travelling speed. You’re covering distance at a reasonable pace but you’re not as stressed as you are when doing >130. Going 150 for an hour will wear you out way quicker than 100 mph for 1.5 hours.
    The fastest I’ve ever done was 185 mph, but that requires a really free stretch of the Autobahn, very little traffic (two cars or trucks right behind each other means you have to slow down) and you have to think ahead for a couple hundred yards (a slight curve which you wouldn’t recognize as such at 100 mph may be way more interesting when doing almost twice as much).


  2. I’d just be happy with 140 kmh if there weren’t traffic jams half the time. The Autobahn on many stretches is just another warehouse on the factory supply: miles and miles of trucks plodding along. If I were king, truck shipments would be five times what they cost now, and railways built out to handle extra capacity. What we have now is completely unsustainable.


    1. Robert

      But who’s going to pay the higher shipment rates? It all comes down to the customer.
      Besides that – the Deutsche Bahn is actuall shutting down rails on routes that are not that cost-effective (for freight transportation). And building new rail-tracks is imho more or less impossible – every resident in an area where the new route would be will go to court to stop that from happening (and only 5 – 7% of the actual road goods traffic would overburden the existing system)…


  3. I said if I were king, and that’s not going to happen. It’s just the ideal situation, that’s all. Steel wheels on steel rails is a vastly more efficient way to move freight than dragging individual boxes along rubber tires.


    1. Robert

      Sure – but individual boxes on steel rails are vastly more inefficient than on rubber tire (except if you think 7 or 10 days is an acceptable timeframe for a packet being delivered). 😉


  4. germanmike

    The absence of a tempo limit is still supported in Germany, even by many members of the green party. Porsche, BMW, Mercedes and Audi would not make sense with a limit. In a country where everything is so highly regulated, it is the last resort of freedom and fun.


  5. I guess I’m THAT guy. Winter, I hardly every break 180, but Summer, I routinely turn the cruise control on at 180-200, of course, that is dependent on the stretch of Autobahn I am on. They are in the process of taking all of the fun out of the Holledau-Munich stretch of my weekly drive to the airport, but there is still a decent fast section on the Regensburg-Holledau bit.

    Fastest I have been was 250 and that was then limited with the speed limiter in the car, I have a more economical car now, though, and it maxes at 210 according to the papers, but can reach 230.

    It does depend on the car, though. I just had a Nissan Juke as a rental car and just barely made 180 with the thing and it was actually scary, talk about a jumpy little car.


  6. We rent cars occasionally for road trips through Germany to other countries.

    I generally like driving in France the best, followed by Germany, then Austria, Switzerland, and Italy.

    I don’t mind the speed limits in those other countries, but when I’m driving there, I do miss the lane and shoulder widths Germany’s highways provide. Particularly on the highways and ditch-lined roads in Italy.

    I have to second Robert’s comment about fatigue not being proportional to the speed. I get the tacho up to the 200 km/h mark once in a great while, but I usually top out at 170 km/h and tend to hover around 140-150 when conditions permit it. The one speeding ticket I’ve gotten in my life in Germany was for doing close to 100 km/h in a 70 km/h zone that snuck up on me on a Bundestraße…with my parents in the car, no less. “Getting blitzed” just doesn’t involve the same fun in Germany.

    But that’s something I’ve been wondering for ages: how much money/time/resources are spent on putting police cars in service on the highways to watch for and ticket speeders, and doesn’t it seem disproportionately less frequent here on the roads, as compared to the USA?


  7. Doug

    Last year, I had the opportunity to rent an Audi when traveling in Bavaria for a week. We traveled to Regensburg, Bamberg and the Rothenburg ob der Tauber areas and I found lots of stretches of Autobahn without limits. It was an absolute joy. Got it up to 240kph on several stretches but found it too fast to be passing all of the slower traffic. Was much more comfortable at 180 or 190. I can not wait to do it again.


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