Brian's Guide to
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Roads and Driving
The Autobahn

This page last updated January 6, 2024
Autobahn from driver POV

The Autobahn from the driver's view
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

The Autobahn is the pinnacle of the German driving experience, perhaps the ultimate in driving altogether. Virtually all of the world's serious drivers have heard of it and longed to take their shot at conquering it. Teutonic cars are known for their precise engineering and craftsmanship, and the Autobahn completes the driving equation.

Americans (and maybe others) often come with some misconceptions about the Autobahn. Many think the Autobahn is a single road, but it's actually a network of highways, just like "the Interstate" is in the US. And some have visions of a twenty-lane superhighway where cars are barely a blur as they whiz by. But in reality, the Autobahn looks much like a typical freeway in the US and elsewhere, and despite rumors to the contrary, not everyone is hurtling along at the speed of sound. The stories of speed anarchy are only half correct — many sections of Autobahn do in fact have speed limits.

Still, the Autobahn offers the transcendent driving experience. The roads are superbly designed, built and maintained, even now in the east where the German government had to undo 40 years of Communist neglect. Amenities are numerous, and drivers are well-trained and cooperative. It's literally life in the fast lane on the Autobahn. (Don't tell me you didn't see that coming. 😜)


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History

What is generally regarded as Europe's first motorway — and the world's second — was built in Berlin between 1913 and 1921. The 19 km long AVUS ("Automobil-Verkehrs-und Übungsstraße") in southwestern Berlin was an experimental highway that, until 1998, was also occasionally used for racing. It featured two eight-meter lanes separated by a nine-meter wide median. It is still in use today as part of the A115.

Italy built several expressways (Autostrada) in the 1920s, and Germany followed with its first "auto-only roads" opening in 1929 between Düsseldorf and Opladen, and in 1932 between Cologne and Bonn. More routes were planned in the early '30s, and Adolf Hitler, seeing the propaganda and expansionist benefits of a high-speed road system, started a program to build two north-south and east-west links. The first of these Reichsautobahnen opened on May 19th, 1935 between Frankfurt and Darmstadt. At the end of World War II, the Autobahn network totaled 2,128 km.

Reichsautobahn

Reichsautobahn southwest of Berlin in 1943
(Photo by Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1979-025-30A, cropped from Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons license)

After the war, work began quickly to repair damaged or destroyed sections. Construction on new sections finally started again in 1953, with 144 km added between 1953 and 1958, bringing the total to 2,272 km. Starting in 1959, West Germany began Autobahn expansion in earnest by embarking on a series of four-year plans that expanded the Bundesautobahnen system to 3,076 km by 1964, 4,110 km by 1970, 5,258 km by 1973, 6,207 km by 1976, 7,029 km by 1979, and 8,080 km by 1984.

A new series of five-year plans, with the goal of putting an Autobahn entrance within 10 km of any point in West Germany, expanded the net to over 8,800 km by 1990. The reunification of Germany in 1990, however, put those plans on hold as the federal government focused on absorbing and upgrading the Autobahns it inherited from East Germany. The incorporation of those eastern Autobahns put the total Autobahn network at almost 11,000 km in 1992. Additions to the unified network increased the total to 11,515 km in 2000, 12,531 km in 2007, and 13,009 in 2018.

Until 2000, the Autobahn was the world's second largest superhighway system after only the US Interstate System. Today, however, the Autobahn network has dropped to fifth place, having been eclipsed by China, Spain, and Canada.

Autobahn system map

Map of Autobahn network
(Map by Brian Purcell)

Early Autobahns were rather crude by today's standards. Most of those first routes, like their Italian counterparts, featured limited-access and grade-separated crossings, but no medians. The first Reichsautobahnen did have narrow medians without barriers, but they lacked shoulders, and while the main roadway was concrete, ramps and waysides typically had cobblestone surfaces.

Reunification
When Germany was reunified in 1989, the Autobahns of East Germany were in virtually the same condition as they were in 1945, exhibiting the aforementioned qualities as well as mediocre signing, poor pavement, widely-spaced and often non-functional emergency telephones, and service areas consisting of a dilapidated roadhouse next to a short wayside. Newer West German Autobahns had for many years featured wide lanes, shoulders, landscaped medians with crash barriers, frequent roadside emergency telephones, and ample, well-provisioned service areas. After reunification, the German government expedited upgrading of the old East German Autobahns in a series of "German Unity Transport Projects." By the end of 2009, the program was nearly complete with about 2,100 km of upgraded or newly-built Autobahn.

Privatization (sort of)
Prior to 2021, the states planned, built, and maintained the Autobahn system on behalf of the federal government (much like in the US.) However, on January 1st, 2021, all responsibility for the entire national Autobahn network was transferred to a wholly federally-owned company called Autobahn GmbH. This was done to improve efficiencies, national planning, standardization, quality, and financing. Most of the revenue for the Autobahn comes from tolls paid by trucks, with the federal government providing supplemental funding.


Design

Typical section of Autobahn

Typical section of Autobahn
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

The general rule for design is to provide for unimpeded, high-speed traffic flow. Unimproved older segments aside, most Autobahns feature the following design elements:

In addition, Autobahns are equipped with the following:

Maintenance is superb. Crews inspect every square meter of the system periodically using vehicles with high-tech road scanning equipment. When a fissure or other defect is found, the entire road section is often replaced as patches are often unreliable and can cause bumps or dips that are dangerous at high speeds. Signs, barriers, and other features are also well-maintained.

Typical section of Autobahn

Typical section of Autobahn
(Photo from Wikipedia)

Urban Autobahns
Generally-speaking, the mainline Autobahn routes avoid the metropolitan cores. Instead, spur routes provide Autobahn access into and within the cities. These spurs are usually built as "urban Autobahns" (Stadtautobahn.) Design features of urban Autobahns include six or eight lane elevated or depressed roadways with more closely-spaced interchanges. There are often no emergency phones or roadside reflector posts. Tunnels, overpasses, and sound barriers are more frequent, nighttime illumination is often provided, and traffic management systems are standard.

Tunnels and bridges
To help maintain safe grades, the Autobahn system has extensive tunnels, bridges, and viaducts. Some viaducts (Talbrücke) are over 500 meters above the valley floor and sometimes more than a kilometer long. Drivers should be cautious of crosswinds on these viaducts, and windsocks are often provided to help drivers determine the wind direction and force.

There are over 75 tunnels on the Autobahn network, both through mountains as well as in urban areas. The longest is the nearly 8 km long Rennsteigtunnel along the A71 south of Erfurt. As a result of several tragic tunnel disasters in Europe in the past few decades, extra emphasis has been placed on tunnel safety. All road tunnels have extensive safety systems including 24-hour monitoring, motorist information radio and dynamic signs, frequent refuge rooms with emergency telephones and firefighting equipment, extensive emergency lighting and exits, and smoke ventilation systems. So-called "block processing" is implemented as a safety measure during traffic jams (more on that in the "traffic management" section below.)

Autobahn tunnel Autobahn valley bridge
Autobahn tunnel (left) and viaduct (right)
(Photos from Wikipedia: Tunnel, Viaduct)

Rules of the road

To safely facilitate heavy, high-speed traffic, special laws apply when driving on the Autobahn:

In addition to the official laws, most drivers adhere to the following customs:

"Rescue lane" on the Autobahn

Ambulance using a Rettungsgasse on the Autobahn
(Photo by ADAC)


Speed limits

Despite the widespread belief of complete freedom from speed limits (and a lobbying effort that has the same influence and deep pockets as the American gun lobby), some speed regulations can be found on the Autobahns. Many sections do indeed have permanent or dynamic speed limits ranging from 80 to 130 km/h (50-80 mph), particularly those with dangerous curves, in urban areas, near major interchanges, or areas where there are specific safety concerns. In construction zones, the limit may be as agonizingly low as 60 km/h (37 mph.) Also, some sections now feature nighttime and wet-weather speed restrictions, and trucks are always regulated (see table below.)

That said, about two-thirds of the Autobahn network has no permanent speed limit, although there is always an advisory limit of 130 km/h (81 mph.) This recommendation is generally seen for what it is — an attempt by the government to cover itself without having to upset millions of Porsche and BMW owners/voters. However, if you exceed the advisory limit and are involved in an accident, you will likely be held responsible for a percentage of the damages even if you are not technically at fault.

MAXIMUM SPEED LIMITS
Car Motorcycle
130 km/h recommended
Car w/trailer Truck
Bus Truck with trailer
80 km/h

In some cases, vehicles may be authorized to travel slower or faster than the general limit for their vehicle class; these vehicles will display a decal resembling a speed limit sign displayed on the back of the vehicle indicating the maximum speed it is authorized to travel.

Over 3,200 km of Autobahn now feature dynamic speed limits which are adjusted to respond to traffic, weather, and road conditions. These speed limits and conditions are indicated using a rather elaborate system of dynamic signs (see the "traffic management" section below.)

Studies have attributed the high speeds on the Autobahn to air pollution that has caused widespread Waldsterben, or forest destruction. As a result, some Autobahns in forest areas have seen limits imposed. More recently, studies have also shown that a 130 km/h general limit could reduce carbon emissions by nearly 2 million tons a year and help Germany attain climate change goals. However, a national limit remains unlikely, and various efforts to do so over the years have floundered as demonstrated during the coalition government negotiations in 1998. In those talks between the then-new Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrat party and the Greens, one of the final points to be resolved was the Greens' desire for a nationwide 100 km/h speed limit on the Autobahns. In the end, a compromise was struck whereby energy taxes would be raised and local governments could reduce speed limits on city streets, but no national Autobahn speed limit would be implemented.

Subsequent discussions by various groups of a possible blanket limit have met with immediate and formidable political resistance. A proposal in 2019 to implement a 120 km/h speed limit to help Germany meet its 2020 climate goals died almost immediately. The proposal for a national speed limit during coalition talks in 2021 was abandoned equally quickly as the the Green party opted to focus political capital on other policies. Polls had consistently showed that about half of Germans opposed Autobahn speed limits, but a 2021 poll suggests that the tide may be turning, with 42% strongly supporting a 130 km/h national limit and another 22% somewhat supporting it; only 21% were firmly against it. Still, "Freie Fahrt für freie Bürger!", or "Unrestricted driving for free citizens!", remains a rallying cry for those opposed to a speed limit. With increasing use of electric vehicles, climate justifications for a speed limit may wane, but safety concerns will still remain.

A national speed limit of 100 km/h (60 mph) was enacted during the energy crisis in November 1973. It was repealed less than four months later.

In 2008, the federal city-state of Bremen enacted a 120 km/h speed limit on all Autobahns in that state, the first and thus far only federal state to do so. However, in practice, this only added speed limits to 6 km of Autobahn as the remainder of the 60 km of Autobahn in that state already had speed limits in place.

Crash rates
Despite the prevailing high speeds, the accident, injury, and death rates on the Autobahn are remarkably low. The Autobahn carries about a third of all Germany's traffic, but injury accidents on the Autobahn account for only about 6% of such accidents nationwide, and less than 12% of all traffic fatalities were the result of Autobahn crashes (2019.) In fact, the annual fatality rate (1.41 per billion km in 2019) is consistently lower than that of most other major superhighway systems, including the US Interstates (3.45 in 2019.) That said, a 2019 report by Der Spiegel magazine showed that while the overall crash rate on sections with speed limits was higher than those without (79.9 vs 71.4 respectively per billion km in 2017), injury accidents (13.45 vs 15.79) and fatalities (0.95 vs 1.67) were appreciably higher on the unrestricted sections. Still, the fatality rate even on the unrestricted sections is lower than most other major superhighway systems.

End of all restrictions

"End of all restrictions" sign, indicating the end of all speed limit and passing restrictions



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Traffic

Because of Germany's robust economy and location in central Europe, traffic on the Autobahn is generally quite heavy. Motorists log a staggering 230 billion kilometers on the Autobahn annually, averaging almost 50,000 vehicles per day on any given segment. As a result, traffic jams (Stau) occur frequently on the Autobahn, especially on Fridays, Sundays, holidays, and anytime after an accident or during bad weather or road work. Regional traffic reports, with a variety of monikers including Verkehrsmeldungen, Verkehrsdienst, Verkehrsfunk, and Stauschau, are excellent and are provided on most radio stations. Germany is divided into several traffic reporting regions (Verkehrsrundfunkbereich.) There used to be "traffic information radio" signs Traffic information radio along the Autobahn to indicate the local radio stations carrying the traffic reports for the local area, but now this has been rendered obsolete as radios now have automated traffic report tuning via the Traffic Program (TP) function. You will need to have a working knowledge of German to understand the radio reports, though.

In addition to radio traffic reports, many sections of Autobahn are equipped with traffic monitoring systems and dynamic signs (see the "traffic management" section below) to warn of downstream incidents or congestion, provide a controlled reduction in the speed of traffic as it approaches the jam, and suggest alternate routes. On sections without digital signs, the Autobahn police (Autobahnpolizei) generally do an excellent job of warning of congestion via portable roadside signs, signs mounted on police cars parked along the shoulder, or on banners draped from overpasses. Traffic information is also available from several other resources including the websites of radio and TV stations, auto clubs, and government agencies, as well as GPS/satnav apps, and increasingly through on-board telematics systems using the Traffic Message Channel (TMC) service.

Typical holiday Autobahn traffic

Typical holiday Autobahn traffic

A couple of notes about traffic reports: sometimes the "traffic report" may include information that has nothing to do with traffic such as civil emergency alerts, police bulletins, etc. Also, if you have a German car and you're streaming music from your mobile device, don't be surprised if your tunes are interrupted by reports of a Stau somewhere — the European radio digital standard includes a mechanism to signal when a traffic report is being broadcast, and receiver units can be set to preempt auxiliary inputs and tune to the traffic report.

Traffic reports may use one of several terms to describe varying levels of congestion: "Stau" is the worst with stop-and-go conditions (usually mostly the former.) "Stockender Verkehr" indicates the only slightly more tolerable stacking or slow-and-go type traffic, while "dichter Verkehr" or "zähfliesender Verkehr" denotes the annoying but often not even noteworthy heavy or sluggish but moving traffic.


Road work and closures

Autobahn maintenance and improvements don't escape the German penchant for obsessiveness. As a result, work zones (Baustelle) are frequent and widespread. The standard protocol for large projects is a traffic shift — the lanes for both directions are narrowed and crammed onto one side of the Autobahn so that the other side can be worked on in its entirety. Such situations are well-marked with "lane crossover" signs Lane crossover.

Speed limits in work zones are usually greatly reduced — sometimes as low as 60 km/h. On the approach to a work zone, speed limits are usually stepped-down, for example from 100 to 80 to 60. Many work zones now use fluorescent yellow signs to enhance visibility.

Autobahn construction area

Autobahn construction area
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

In the event that a segment of Autobahn must be closed due to a crash, road work, or other incident, pre-posted detours are ready to guide traffic around the closure. As you exit, look for the U-numbered emergency detour sign Provisional detour on the exit ramp — this denotes the detour route for that exit. Follow the same-numbered route over the secondary roads and you'll eventually arrive at the next downstream entrance ramp. If that entrance is also closed, just follow the next sequential detour number to reach the next entrance after that — oftentimes, there will be a sign indicating this. However, there is one small gotcha — odd numbers are used in one direction, even numbers in the opposite direction. So if you're following an odd numbered route, be sure to follow the next sequential odd number (and, obviously the same goes for even-numbered routes.) These routes can also come in quite handy if you want to avoid an upcoming Stau.

In some areas, a new type of detour is being used in areas with long-term construction or frequent traffic jams. These so-called "red route" detours are marked with "red dot" (Rotempunkt) signs "Red route" detour and guide traffic along the most efficient route around the problematic section.

In some construction zones, "smiley" signs like those below are posted to show drivers the distance remaining until the end of the road work. One study found that these signs reduced crashes by a third.


Services

Autobahn service area

Autobahn service area
This is one of two service areas in Germany with a bridge restaurant.
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

The Autobahn has an extensive system of around 400 roadside service areas (Rasthof, Raststätte) that are generally spaced between 30 and 60 kilometers apart, are directly accessible from the Autobahn (i.e. have their own exit and entrance), and are open 24 hours a day. These facilities typically have a fuel station (Tankstelle); food service in the form of a restaurant (Restaurant), coffee shop, or snack bar (Kiosk, Imbiss); a convenience store; public telephones and Wi-Fi; and restrooms/toilets. Many locations also feature hotels, showers, playgrounds, conference rooms, electric vehicle charging, and even chapels. A map of the network of service areas and the facilities available at each is available on the web (see links below.)

Note that the restrooms in most service areas now require payment for use, typically around €1. Payment can be made by cash or card in most cases. You will then receive a voucher that you can redeem at the store or restaurant for a small discount.

Most of the service areas are operated by a national franchise that operates under the names of "Tank und Rast" and "Serways". The restaurants at the service areas range from cafeteria-style and short-order grills featuring a range of cuisines to well-known fast food outlets. Prices for food and fuel at service areas are typically a bit higher than you would find in similar facilities off the Autobahn.

Autobahn service area

Autobahn service area convenience store and restaurants
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

Signs announcing the approach of a service area give the name of the service area, the distance to it, and one or more of these pictograms indicating the services available there:

Fuel
Restaurant
Snack bar
Hotel
Service area approach sign

Service area approach sign
The sign at the bottom indicates the distance to the next service area with fuel.
(Photo by BASt)

Smaller parking areas (Parkplatz) are even more abundant along the Autobahn. Many of these include restrooms (WC), in which case they're then known as a Rastplatz. These are marked with signs like the one below. Unlike at the larger service areas, the restrooms at these locations typically do not require payment to use.

Parking area approach sign

Approach sign for parking area w/ WC
(Photo by BASt)

The past few decades has seen the proliferation of service facilities (mainly fuel stations and fast-food restaurants) just off Autobahn exit ramps. Especially increasing in popularity are truck stops or travel centers (Autohof) which offer facilities comparable to the service areas, but usually at considerably lower prices. Facilities that meet standards similar to those of service areas are marked by signs on the Autobahn like the one below.

Truck stop exit sign

Autohof announcement sign
(Photo by BASt)


Signs and markings

Signage on the Autobahn is excellent. All direction signs on the Autobahn, as well as those giving directions to the Autobahn, are white on blue. Signage before interchanges is standardized both in form and placement. Overhead signs are being used increasingly more frequently and generally take on the forms shown in the various pictures below.

Autobahns bear a one, two, or three digit number with an "A" prefix (e.g. A8); however, the "A" is not shown on signs. The one and two digit numbers indicate mainline routes; three digit numbers are used for shorter routes like spurs and bypasses. Even-numbered routes generally run east-west while odd-numbered routes run north-south. The three digit route numbers generally start with the number of the "parent" Autobahn it branches from followed by an additional digit or two to make three digits total (e.g. the A831 branches off of the A8; the A241 branches off of the A24.) Route numbers are assigned by region (e.g. the area around Munich is region 9, so most Autobahns in that area start with 9.) Route markers are an oblong white and blue hexagon:

Autobahn route number

Autobahn route number shield

Note that the route number shields are typically located at the bottom of guide signs rather than at the top like in the US. Drivers should also be aware that, unlike in the US, directions on the Autobahn (as well as other roads) are not given using the cardinal directions (North, South, East, West), but rather by destination cities. Know what the major cities are along your route before you start out. A helpful idiosyncrasy is the tendency to list major cities on signs on connecting Autobahns that lead toward a different Autobahn that will actually take you to that city. The most important cities start appearing on signs hundreds of kilometers away.

One other peculiarity is that when several cities are listed, the farthest city is generally listed first or on top; in the US, it's usually the opposite. The last place listed is usually the name of the next exit.

Finally, you may come across names that include a one or two letter abbreviation (e.g. "S-Vaihingen" or "HH-Zentrum"); these correspond to the official license plate registration city abbreviations and are used as shorthand for the name of the city when listing a district or other destination in that city. So "S-Vaihingen would be the exit for "Stuttgart-Vaihingen" while "HH-Zentrum" denotes "Hamburg-Zentrum", or downtown Hamburg.

 
Overhead signs Overhead signs
Advance overhead guide signs for
Autobahn junction
(Photo by BASt)
Typical overhead advance guide sign for exit
(Photo by BASt)
Overhead signs Overhead signs
Overhead exit signs at Autobahn junction
(Photo by BASt)
Overhead "butterfly" exit signs
(Photo by BASt)

Here are the main signs you will encounter:

Autobahn sign Autobahn entrance
  • Marks entrance ramps to the Autobahn and indicates the start of Autobahn traffic regulations
  • This symbol is also used on signs giving directions to the Autobahn
Interchange initial approach sign Initial interchange approach sign
  • Typically placed 1000 meters before exits and 2000 meters before Autobahn junctions
  • Shows the interchange number and name
  • The symbol indicates the type of interchange:
Autobahn exit
Exit
Autobahn junction
Junction
Interchange advance directional sign Interchange advance directional sign
  • Typically placed 500 meters before exits, and 1000 meters and 500 meters before Autobahn junctions
  • Shows a schematic of the interchange and gives additional destinations and route numbers
Interchange number
Interchange number
Interchange number
  • Shown on the initial interchange approach sign and on the first interchange countdown marker
  • Interchanges are numbered sequentially; if a new interchange is added, a letter suffix is used to preserve the numbering system
Countdown markers Interchange countdown markers
  • Placed at the indicated distances before the exit
  • Interchange number appears atop the 300 meter marker
Exit sign Exit sign
  • Located at exit point
  • Occasionally placed in the median
Exit sign Exit sign
  • Marks the exit ramp
Distance board Distance board
  • Placed after every entrance
  • Lists distances to major cities along the route
  • Distances to other nearby major cities accessible from an intersecting Autobahn are listed at the bottom with the respective route number
Service area approach sign Service area approach sign
  • Indicates an upcoming service area
  • The services available are indicated by the pictograms
  • Corporate logos for the services may also be included
  • The words "Rasthof" and "Raststätte" are omitted on many newer signs
  • The distance to the next service area (with fuel) is indicated on the bottom panel
Truck stop sign Truck stop
  • Indicates a service area (truck stop) located off the Autobahn at the indicated exit
  • The services available are indicated by the pictograms
  • Corporate logos for the services may also be included
Autobahn parking area Parking area
  • Marks the exit to an Autobahn parking area
  • The "WC" logo indicates a restroom is available
Kilometer marker
Kilometer marker
Kilometer markers
  • Installed along the roadside every 0.5 kilometers
  • Used to give locations of breakdowns and accidents
Emergency detour Emergency detour
  • Marks a pre-posted detour route for use in the event that the Autobahn must be closed due to a crash, road work, or other incident
  • Follow the same-numbered route to return to the next Autobahn entrance
  • Can also be used optionally to bypass Autobahn congestion
  • Odd numbers go in one direction, even numbers in the opposite direction
"Red route" detour "Red route" detour
  • Marks a pre-posted detour route in areas of long-term road work or frequent congestion
  • Follow the "red dot" signs for the most efficient detour around the problematic section
Detour approach Detour approach
  • Announces a closure ahead for which a detour should be followed, e.g. the A40 toward Dortmund is closed, so follow posted "U43" detour at the next exit
Alternate route Alternate route
  • Indicates a recommended alternate route on the Autobahn system for specific vehicles or destinations in order to avoid congestion
  • Type of vehicle and/or destination is typically shown in conjunction with this sign
End of alternate route End of alternate route
  • Marks the end a recommended alternate route
End of Autobahn End of Autobahn
  • Located on exit ramps from the Autobahn and indicates the end of Autobahn traffic regulations
  • When placed on the Autobahn itself, it warns that the Autobahn is ending
Diagram exit sign Diagram exit sign
Examples of diagram signs for complex interchanges
(Photos by BASt)

Pavement markings on the Autobahn are fairly intuitive. You can see examples of several of these in the picture below and on other pictures on this page:

See the signs and signals page for complete information on German road signs and markings.

Autobahn lane markings

Typical lane markings
(Photo by Brian Purcell)



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Traffic management

During the past few decades, German traffic engineers have developed extensive and sophisticated traffic management systems to manage the increasingly heavy and often congested traffic along many Autobahns and expressways. These systems consist of surveillance cameras, speed sensors, and a variety of dynamic message signs (Wechselverkehrszeichen), as well as equipment to detect and automatically warn of adverse weather including fog, rain, and ice, all connected by vast communications systems to centralized traffic monitoring and control centers (Verkehrsleitzentrale) located throughout the country.

There are two main objectives of these systems: to warn and provide systematic regulation of traffic approaching or driving through areas with congestion, construction, or hazardous weather conditions, and to divert traffic around incidents and congestion. Studies have shown that these systems have reduced accidents by as much as 30% within three years of being installed.

The first such systems were developed and tested in the mid '70s and since have been expanded to over 2,500 km of Autobahn especially near interchanges, in areas subject to frequent congestion or dangerous weather conditions, as well as in and approaching tunnels and metropolitan areas. These systems have also been installed on many non-Autobahn expressways, and the transport ministry is prioritizing their expansion.

Dynamic traffic flow control
Now in widespread use are dynamic traffic flow control systems (Verkehrsbeeinflussungsanlagen) that allow for the dynamic regulation of traffic in response to congestion, road work, or weather conditions. Common examples include the temporary implementation or reduction of speed limits, passing restrictions, or lane closures. The intent of these systems is to systematically control traffic approaching incidents or congestion by gradually reducing speed limits and implementing passing restrictions as needed. Many of these systems are completely automatic and adapt based on prevailing traffic and/or weather conditions.

Autobahn dynamic signs

Dynamic traffic flow control signs
These signs indicate left lane closed ahead, road work, 100 km/h speed limit, and no overtaking for trucks.
(Photo by BASt)

These systems use dynamic signs that typically consists of an overhead gantry with a digital sign over each lane and as well as between lanes; a typical installation is shown in the photo above. Some installations also include additional signs on each side of the road. These signs display facsimiles of official traffic signs to warn of downstream conditions and implement dynamic regulations. The signs can also indicate lane closures using the standard international lane control symbols. Below are examples of these signs:

Dynamic sign - Attention Dynamic sign - Congestion Dynamic sign - Road work Dynamic sign - Slippery road Dynamic sign - Watch for ice or snow
Danger
Congestion
Road work
Slippery road
Watch for ice or snow
 
Dynamic sign - Speed limit Dynamic sign - No passing Dynamic sign - End of speed limit Dynamic sign - End of no passing Dynamic sign - End of all restrictions
Speed limit
No passing for vehicles over 3.5t
End of speed limit
End of no passing for vehicles over 3.5t
End of all restrictions
 

Dynamic sign - Lane closed Dynamic sign - Merge left Dynamic sign - Merge right Dynamic sign - Lane open
Lane closed
You may not drive in this lane.
Lane closed ahead
Merge in the direction indicated. This signal is typically flashing.
Lane open
This signal is not always displayed to show open lanes when other lanes are closed.

In addition to the symbols above, the following word messages may be used, typically below one of the warning signs:

In addition to indicating lanes blocked by accidents or construction, lane control signals are used in some areas to close lanes to help reduce congestion or conflicts at interchanges. For instance, if there is significantly heavier traffic merging from Autobahn 1 onto Autobahn 2, the right lane on Autobahn 2 may be closed to provide an unobstructed lane for the heavier traffic to merge into.

When reduced speed limits are displayed, it is important to comply, and you will find that the limits shown are generally very appropriate for the prevailing traffic or weather conditions. It should be noted that the speed limits and other regulations shown are enforceable, and many areas are also equipped with photo radar that is integrated with the system (and thus is aware of the current speed limit.)

Usually, the speed limits shown will be the same for all lanes. However, when different speed limits are shown on a single gantry, the limit shown on each sign applies to the lane under the sign.

Dynamic alternate route guidance
Over 1,700 km of Autobahn are part of dynamic alternate route guidance systems (Netzbeeinflussungsanlage.) These systems employ changeable guide signs which, when activated, display real-time recommended alternate route guidance to help drivers avoid incidents or congestion.

In some areas, "additive routing" is utilized. In this case, the regular blue guide signs are static, but additional white signs with changeable panels and the big (and weird) orange "alternate route" arrow symbol are used. The arrow points in the recommended direction to follow along with the destination city, route number, and/or vehicle types (e.g. trucks) that the suggested alternate route applies to. An example of this is shown in the photo below and indicates that traffic headed to Deggendorf and the Munich airport is being advised to exit in 1200 meters and follow the A99 and A92.

Autobahn alternate route signage

Changeable sign showing recommended "additive" alternate route

Once you are on one of these alternate routes, continue to follow the alternate route arrow signs until you have reached your destination or have returned to the original route. Note that many times much of the alternate route is marked by permanent static signs, but a dynamic sign is used at the initial "decision point".

Other areas employ "substitutive routing" where the destinations shown on the standard blue guide signs are changed using mechanical panels to re-route traffic onto different routes, such as in the photo below.

Autobahn alternate route signage

Changeable signs capable of showing "substitutive" alternate routes
Notice the destination names are on rotatable panels.
(Photo from Google Maps)

In recent years, a new type of dynamic route guidance signage has seen widespread deployment. The "dynamic route guidance with integrated traffic information" (Dynamische Wegweiser mit integrierten Stauinformationen) signs, typically located on the approaches to interchanges, are a hybrid static and variable sign. The static signage shows the lane arrows and route numbers of the upcoming interchange. The embedded digital panels, when activated, can show both incident and congestion warnings and corresponding recommended alternate routes. The placement of the dynamic information on the sign corresponds to the static lane assignments to help facilitate quick comprehension and decision-making by drivers. These signs are also often used to provide ephemeral route guidance to stadiums and special events.

An example of this signage is below and indicates there is a 5km traffic jam ahead on the A5 past the Heidelberg interchange (37) and recommends an alternate route to Frankfurt and Darmstadt via Mannheim junction by exiting on the A6/A61 ahead.

Autobahn alternate route signage

Integrated route guidance/traffic information sign
(Photo by State of Baden-Württemberg)

A newer version of this sign no longer incorporates the static panels. Instead, the entire sign panel is digital and can display essentially a combined substitutive routing and integrated traffic information message. An example of this signage below shows that there is a possibility of congestion ("Staugefahr") due to road work at the Hermsdorfer Kreuz interchange, so traffic headed to Berlin and Leipzig is being guided to take the next exit for A71 toward Sangerhausen.

Autobahn alternate route signage

Newer dynamic route guidance/traffic information sign
(Photo by Autobahn GmbH)

Travel times
A relatively new use for dynamic signs in Germany is the display of real-time travel times (Reisezeit.) An example of one of these signs is below. Travel times often are shown in the format "11 min + 0" — this indicates the typical travel time (11 minutes in this case) with any delay shown after the "+" sign (no delay in this case.) So a display of "14 min + 5" would mean there is a 14 minute typical travel time to the indicated exit, but there is currently a five minute delay, meaning the current travel time is about 19 minutes.

Autobahn travel time signage

Travel time sign
(Photo by Adl252, cropped and rotated from Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons license)

Other dynamic signs
In addition to the various signs discussed above above, a wide variety of other dynamic signs are now in use. These include more basic conventional dynamic message signs that show plain text messages, digital panels integrated within standard static signs to give information about parking, events, etc., and comprehensive temporary dynamic sign systems in construction zones to indicate lane closures, traffic pattern changes, vehicle restrictions, and reduced speed limits. You'll also see many changeable "prism" signs, which are signs that have rotatable panels that can be activated to show a temporary message (or no message at all.)

Prism sign

Changeable "prism" sign
This sign is warning of a truck/bus inspection checkpoint ahead.

Ramp metering
In 1976, a ramp metering (Zuflussregelung) pilot project was undertaken on the A3 in the Bonn area. However, this project was discontinued due to numerous technical reasons. In 1998 and 1999, several pilot projects were launched to again test ramp metering, this time at three locations on the A94 in Munich, at five locations on the A40 between Gelsenkirchen and Bochum, and at one location on the A1 near Dortmund. Those experiments were successful and today there are about 100 locations throughout Germany with entrance ramp meters, mostly concentrated in the Rhein-Ruhr area, with 30 more locations planned.

Like their counterparts in the US and other countries, ramp meters work by limiting the number of vehicles entering the Autobahn using a traffic signal on the entrance ramp. This helps reduce congestion on the Autobahn by spacing-out entering traffic, thus eliminating the shockwave caused by the sudden inflow of a large number of vehicles. Studies show metering increases the capacity of the through lanes by up to 5% and increases the speeds on those lanes by 10-30 km/h. They also have been shown to reduce entry-related crashes.

Ramp meters use the standard red-yellow-green traffic signals although the cycle is much faster. A sign posted on the signal will indicate how many vehicles are allowed to enter on each green signal (e.g. "1 Fahrzeug bei Grün".) The signals are typically dark when traffic is free-flowing and activated when traffic density builds. They can operate on a regular-interval cycle, variable-interval cycle based on local traffic conditions, or in coordination with the regional traffic management system.

Autobahn ramp meter

Autobahn ramp meter
(Photo by Autobahn GmbH via X/Twitter)

"Block processing"
Similar to ramp metering is the so-called "block processing" (Blockabfertigung) used at tunnels during traffic jams. When in effect, traffic signals at the entrance to the tunnel will turn red to stop traffic in order to prevent vehicles from queuing in the tunnel as a result of downstream congestion. When there is sufficient capacity on the other side of the tunnel, the signals will turn green to permit a block (group) of vehicles to proceed through the tunnel. As congestion again builds to obstruct the tunnel exit, the signals will go back to red. This is done as a safety measure to prevent vehicles from being trapped in the tunnel in case of an emergency, to reduce the risk of a crash in the tunnel, and to improve air quality in the tunnel.

Hard shoulder running
Along some sections of Autobahn with heavy traffic volumes, traffic may be permitted to temporarily use the outside emergency shoulder as a traffic lane during congested periods (Seitenstreifenfreigabe.) Lane control signals and/or "shoulder open to traffic" signs Shoulder open to traffic indicate when this is permissible. Traffic managers will first determine that the shoulder is clear of breakdowns and debris before opening the shoulder to traffic. There is typically a 100 km/h speed limit implemented when the shoulder is in use. Hard shoulder running is used only for limited periods to accommodate peak traffic volume or during incidents where capacity is reduced.

Autobahn shoulder open to traffic

Autobahn with shoulder open to traffic
Note both the blue signs as well as the green lane control signal over the shoulder.
(Photo by State of Baden-Württemberg)


Emergencies

In the event of a breakdown, you should do everything possible to get to the shoulder. In areas without a shoulder, try to make it to an exit, rest area, or emergency wayside (Notbucht) if possible, the latter of which are generally placed at regular intervals along sections of Autobahn that don't have a shoulder and marked with "emergency wayside" Emergency wayside signs. Switch on your hazard warning flashers (Warnblinklicht) and put on your warning vest (Warnweste; required to be carried in all vehicles.) Assemble and place a warning triangle (Warndreieck; also required in all vehicles) 100 to 200 meters behind your vehicle near the right edge of the shoulder or roadway. Then proceed to the nearest emergency phone to call for assistance (see below.) Other passengers should exit the vehicle on the side away from traffic and wait somewhere safely off the roadway.

In the event of a crash, stop immediately, switch on your hazard warning flashers, check yourself and any passengers in your vehicle for injuries, then put on your warning vest and check for injuries in the other vehicle(s). If there are no injuries and the vehicles can be moved safely, quickly take photos of the scene, pick up any debris on the road, then move the vehicles to the shoulder or nearest emergency wayside, rest area, or exit, and place a warning triangle 100 to 200 meters behind the scene. If there are injuries or the vehicles are too damaged to be moved, secure the crash site with a warning triangle, send someone to contact emergency services using an emergency phone (see below), and tend to any injuries. All uninjured people (except those attending to the injured) should get off the roadway.

Emergency phones
If you have an emergency along the Autobahn, you are never more than a kilometer away from help. Nearly 17,000 orange emergency phones (Notrufsäule) are located at two kilometer intervals along each side of the Autobahn. The nationwide installation of emergency phones along the Autobahn began in 1955, and while most European countries have now removed their motorway emergency phone systems, Germany remains one of the few to keep its system in operation. Despite the proliferation of mobile phones, the Autobahn emergency phone system still handles about 200 calls a day, and authorities still recommend using the emergency phones since your exact location can be immediately determined. Before 1999, calls were routed to the nearest Autobahn district office (Autobahnmeisterei), but the system is now privatized, and all calls now go to a central call center in Hamburg.

Autobahn emergency phone Roadside post with arrow pointing to nearest emergency phone
Autobahn emergency phone
(Photo from pxfuel)
Roadside post with arrow pointing direction
to nearest emergency phone
(Photo by Brian Purcell)

The direction to the nearest phone is indicated by a black arrowhead atop the black and white roadside reflector posts. In tunnels, emergency phones are located in refuge rooms every 100-200 meters. When trekking to a phone, be sure to put on your warning vest, and try to walk behind the guard rail as much as possible.

There are two varieties of emergency phones in use: those with a cover and those without. If there is a cover, lift it up all the way. Inside, you will find a loudspeaker and two buttons: a yellow button with a wrench symbol for reporting a breakdown, and a red button with a red cross symbol to report an accident. Press the appropriate button and wait for the call taker to answer. There are still some older phones in use that don't have the buttons; in this case, just wait for the call taker to answer after lifting the cover. On phones without a cover, the loudspeaker and buttons will be visible externally.

Regardless of which button you press, the call will go to the same call center in Hamburg. However, pressing the red button prioritizes the call and alerts the call taker that emergency services will be needed.

Emergency phone with cover Emergency phone without cover
Emergency phone with cover
(Photo by Brian Purcell))
Emergency phone without cover
(Photo by Brian Purcell)
Emergency phone buttons and location labels

Close up of emergency phone buttons and location labels

The exact location of the phone is usually transmitted to the call center automatically when your call is connected. However, be prepared to give the call taker the kilometer location or box number (Notrufsäulen-Nr.) of the phone as indicated on a label on the inside of the cover or near the loudspeaker, as well as your direction of travel.

Speak into the microphone located next to the buttons. An English-speaking call taker is always available; ask for one if you feel this situation is not the best time to practice your German.

If you are reporting a crash, the call taker will connect you to the nearest police or emergency services dispatcher. Be prepared to report the number of vehicles involved, if there are any injuries and their severity, and if there is a fire or fuel spill.

For breakdowns, the call taker will need information such as the location of your vehicle; your vehicle's description and/or license plate number; insurance, auto club, or rental car details; and the nature of the problem. They will then contact the appropriate service such as the "Yellow Angels" of the ADAC or AvD auto club, or a nearby affiliated garage or tow truck service.

Man demonstrating use of an emergency phone

Man demonstrating use of an emergency phone

After completing the call, carefully return to your vehicle or the crash scene and wait for help.

As an alternative to using an emergency phone, you can reach the Autobahn emergency call center via mobile phone at 0800‑6683‑663, or "0800‑NOTFON‑D" ("NOTFON" for "emergency phone" and"D" for "Deutschland") for breakdown assistance. For crashes, dial 112 for the emergency services.

What to expect
Depending on the time of day, volume of calls, and traffic conditions, response time for a breakdown may vary from a few minutes to possibly over an hour.

Roadside assistance for breakdowns is free, but you'll likely have to pay for any needed parts. If you need to be towed, there is no charge to tow the vehicle off of the Autobahn to the next exit, but you will have to pay for towing beyond that. If you're driving a rental car, assistance may be covered by the rental agency — check your rental agreement.

In the event of a crash, a cavalry of emergency aid will descend on you quite quickly, sometimes arriving even before you have completed the call and returned to the scene. Police, fire service, ambulances, emergency doctors, and tow trucks are all typically dispatched to Autobahn crashes. A medical evacuation helicopter is also always available if needed.


Other sites of interest

The German Way (by Hyde Flippo)
https://www.german-way.com/travel-and-tourism/driving-in-europedriving/autobahn/
German Autobahn Page (by Henning Maruhn)
https://www.autobahn-online.de
Autobahn Atlas (by Patrick Scholl)
http://www.autobahnatlas-online.de
Autobahn GmbH (Corporation that manages and maintains the Autobahn network)
https://www.autobahn.de/
Autobahn service area guide
https://www.raststaetten.de/
German Federal Transport Ministry
https://www.bmvi.de/
German Federal Highway Research Institute
https://www.bast.de/