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National Transport
The Autobahn

This page last updated November 27, 2013

Autobahn photo

The Autobahn from the driver's view

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; the Autobahn completes the driving equation.

Some people are disappointed the first time they drive on the Autobahn.  They come with visions of a twenty-lane superhighway where cars are barely a blur as they whiz by.  In reality, the Autobahn looks like a typical freeway, 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 "maintenance".  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. <g>)


On this page:


History

What is widely regarded as the world's first motorway 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 was (and occasionally still is) used for racing.  It featured two 8 meter lanes separated by a 9 meter wide median.  Italy built several expressways 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 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.  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.  Major additions continued during the next two decades and the system reached 4,110 km in 1970, 5,258 km in 1973, 6,207 km in 1976, 7,029 km in 1979, and 8,080 km in 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, had 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 and 12,531 km in 2007.  Until 2000, the Autobahn was the world's second largest superhighway system after only the US Interstate System.  Today, however, the Autobahn network is the world's fourth largest singular superhighway system after China, the United States, and Spain.

Map of current Autobahn network

Early Autobahns were rather crude by today's standards.  The first Autobahns, like their Italian counterparts, featured limited-access and grade-separated crossings, but no medians.  The first Reichsautobahnen did have narrow medians but lacked shoulders, and ramps and waysides had cobblestone surfaces.  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 inadequate signing, infrequent (and often non-functional) emergency telephones frequently located in the center median, and service areas consisting of a dilapidated roadhouse next to a wayside.  Newer West German Autobahns had for many years featured 3.75 meter wide lanes, shoulders, landscaped medians with crash barriers, frequent roadside emergency telephones, and ample, well-adorned 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 completed with about 2,100 km of upgraded or newly-built Autobahn.


Design

Typical
        section of Autobahn

Typical section of Autobahn

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:

  • Two, three, or occasionally four lanes per direction.  Lanes on rural sections are generally 3.75 meters wide except the left lane of newer three lane segments-- it's 3.5 meters wide.  On urban sections, all lanes are 3.5 meters wide.
  • A landscaped "green" median 3.5 or 4 meters wide (3 meters in urban areas).  A double-sided guardrail runs down the middle.  Blinders are often used on curves.  Some newer sections have concrete barriers instead of green medians.
  • Outside emergency shoulders and long acceleration and deceleration lanes.
  • Full grade-separation and access control, generally provided by half cloverleaf interchanges at exits and full cloverleafs or directional interchanges at Autobahn crossings.  Interchanges are generally well-spaced, sometimes exceeding 30 km between.
  • Grades of 4% or less.  Climbing lanes are provided on most steep grades.
  • Gentle and well-banked curves.
  • Freeze-resistant concrete or bituminous surface.
  • Roadbed and surface typically measuring about 75 cm (30 inches) in thickness.

In addition, Autobahns also feature the following amenities:

  • Reflector guide posts at 50 meter intervals.
  • Frequent parking areas, often equipped with toilet facilities.
  • Extensive and ample service areas featuring fuel stations, restaurants, and hotels.
  • Automated traffic and weather monitoring and electronic signs providing dynamic speed limits and/or advance warning of congestion, accidents, construction, and fog.
  • Emergency telephones at 2 km intervals.
  • Pre-signed detour routes to facilitate emergency closures.
  • Standardized signage.
  • Wildlife protection fencing, crossover tunnels and "green bridges".

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 replaced.  Signs, barriers, and other features are also well maintained.

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 frequent and more closely-spaced diamond interchanges.  The standard rural signage standards are suspended in favor of more appropriate closely-spaced overhead signs.  There are sometimes no emergency phones or roadside reflector posts.  Tunnels, overpasses, and sound barriers are more frequent and nighttime illumination is often provided.

Tunnels and bridges
To help maintain safe grades, the Autobahn system is well-provisioned with tunnels and bridges.  So-called "valley bridges" (Talbrücke) are often over 500 meters high and sometimes over 1 kilometer long.  The Autobahn system now has over 65 tunnels, both through mountains as well as in urban areas.  As a result of the tunnel disasters elsewhere in Europe during the past decade, extra emphasis has been placed on tunnel safety.  All Autobahn tunnels have extensive safety systems including 24-hour monitoring, motorist information radio and signs, frequent refuge rooms with emergency telephones and firefighting equipment, emergency lighting and exits, and smoke ventilation systems.

Autobahn tunnelAutobahn valley bridge

Autobahn tunnel (left) and valley bridge (right)


Traffic regulations

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

  • Bicycles, mopeds, and pedestrians are specifically prohibited from using the Autobahn, as are any other vehicles with a maximum speed rating of less than 60 km/h (36 mph).
  • Passing on the right is strictly prohibited!  Slower vehicles must move to the right to allow faster traffic to pass, and drivers should stay in the right lane except to pass.  When passing, you must do so as quickly as possible, and it's in your best interest to do so lest you become a hood ornament on that Porsche that was just a speck in your mirror a second ago and now is close enough for you to see the look of distain on the driver's face.  You are, however, allowed to pass on the right in heavy traffic when vehicles have started queuing, but only at a slow speed.  You may also pass on the right while you are still in the designated acceleration lane upon entering the Autobahn.
  • Stopping, parking, U-turns, and backing-up are strictly verboten, including on shoulders and ramps (except for bonafide emergencies of course.)
  • Entering and exiting is permitted only at marked interchanges.
  • Traffic entering the Autobahn must yield to traffic already on the Autobahn.
  • On Autobahn sections with three travel lanes, trucks over 3.5 tonnes and any vehicle with a trailer are prohibited from using the far left lane.
  • During traffic jams, motorists in the left lane are required to move as far to the left as possible and those in the adjacent center or right lane must move as far to the right in their lane as possible, thus creating a gap (Rettungsgasse) between the lanes for emergency vehicles to pass through.
  • If you have a breakdown or accident, you must move to the shoulder if possible and place a warning triangle 200 meters behind the scene.  You must report the incident to the authorities using the nearest emergency phone (see below).
  • It is illegal to run out of fuel on the Autobahn.  Technically, there is no law specifically against this, but it is illegal to stop unnecessarily on the Autobahn and this law is also applied to people who run out of fuel as such an occurrence is deemed to be preventable.
  • There are no tolls for passenger vehicles to use the Autobahn.  However, trucks now must pay a per-kilometer fee.  This fee is collected electronically.

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

  • Motorists at the rear of a traffic jam usually switch on their hazard blinkers to warn approaching traffic of the slowdown.
  • Many drivers flash their high beams ("Lichthupe", or "light honking") or switch on their left turn signal to politely (or not) request that you vacate the left lane to let them pass.  There are conflicting opinions about whether this is legal or not and why, but there are reports that drivers have been cited for doing this.  So while there is no specific law regarding this, it appears that such actions can be construed to violate Germany's coercion laws, so do so at your own risk.

Autobahn
          section

Four-lane Autobahn section


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 with unusually constant heavy traffic.  In construction zones, the limit may be as 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 could be held responsible for some of the damages even if you are not at fault.

MAXIMUM SPEED LIMITS
(These are "default" limits; where posted, signs override these limits)
CarMotorcycle
130 km/h
                            recommended
Car
                              w/trailer Truck
Bus Truck with
                              trailer
80 km/h

Vehicles that are limited to a lower speed limit will usually have a decal resembling a speed limit sign displayed on the back of a vehicle indicating the speed it is authorized to travel depending on its specific characteristics.  In some cases, those vehicles may be authorized to travel slower or faster than the general limit and will display the appropriate decal indicating such.

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 electronic signs (see below).

A movement by the environmentalist Green party to enact a national speed limit has not made great strides.  The Greens claim that the high speeds contribute to air pollution which has caused widespread Waldsterben, or forest destruction.  As a result, some Autobahns in forest areas have seen new limits imposed, but a national limit remains unlikely, 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 national speed limit of 100 km/h (60 mph) was enacted in November 1973 during the energy crisis. 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 affected 6 km of Autobahn as the remainder of the 60 km of Autobahn in that state already had speed limits in place.

Accident 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 6% of such accidents nationwide and less than 12% of all traffic fatalities were the result of Autobahn crashes (2009).  In fact, the annual fatality rate (2.7 per billion km in 2009) is consistently lower than that of most other superhighway systems, including the US Interstates (4.5 in 2009).  Furthermore,
a 2005 study by the German government found that Autobahn sections without speed limits had the same accident rate as those with speed limits.

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


Traffic

Because of Germany's location in central Europe, traffic on the Autobahn is generally quite heavy.  In 2008, motorists logged a staggering 225.3 billion kilometers on the Autobahn, 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 construction.  Regional traffic reports, with a variety of names including Verkehrsmeldungen, Verkehrsdienst, Verkehrsfunk, and Stauschau, are excellent and are provided on most radio stations.  Germany is divided into several traffic reporting regions (Verkehrsrundfunkbereich); Sign 368 signs along the road indicate the local radio stations carrying the traffic reports for the region you are in.  You will need to have a working knowledge of German to understand them, though. 

In addition to radio traffic reports, many sections of Autobahn are equipped with traffic monitoring systems and electronic signs (see below) to warn of downstream incidents or congestion and to provide a controlled reduction in the speed of traffic as it approaches the jam.  On sections without electronic signs, the Autobahn police (Autobahnpolizei) do an excellent job of warning of unexpected jams 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, and increasingly through on-board telematics systems.

Typical
          weekend and holiday Autobahn traffic

Typical weekend and 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 emergency alerts, police bulletins, etc.  Also, if you have a German rental car with a cassette or CD player, don't be surprised if your favorite tape or disc is interrupted by reports of a Stau somewhere-- German radio tuners continue to monitor the last-selected radio station even when a tape or CD is being played.  Radio stations broadcast a special tone at the start of traffic reports which causes the tuner to switch the audio from the tape or CD to the radio so that you can hear the information.  Traffic reports use one of several terms to describe varying levels of congestion: "Stau" usually means a colossal traffic jam where you'll probably get to know the people in the cars around you, "stockender Verkehr" indicates the only slightly more tolerable stacking or slow-and-go type traffic, while "dichter Verkehr" or "zähfliesender Verkehr" denotes the hardly-noteworthy heavy or sluggish but moving traffic.

As a stopgap measure to help improve traffic flow, traffic is now being permitted to use the emergency shoulder as a traffic lane during congested periods along some sections of Autobahn.  Lane control signals, Sign 223.10 signs, or other cars doing so indicate when this is permissible.

Autobahn
          shoulder open to traffic

Congested Autobahn with shoulder open to traffic


Construction & closures

Autobahn maintenance and improvements don't escape the German penchant for obsessiveness.  As a result, construction 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 Sign 501.11 signs and speed limits are usually reduced greatly in these areas.

Autobahn
          construction area

Autobahn construction area
Note the yellow road markings. These supersede all regular markings in work zones.

In the event that a segment of Autobahn must be closed due to an accident or other emergency, pre-posted provisional detours are ready to guide traffic around the closure.  As you exit, look for the U-numbered Sign 460 detour sign 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.  However, there is one small gotcha-- odd numbers continue 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 also come in quite handy if your patience runs-out and you want to get around a Stau.


Service areas

The Autobahn has an extensive system of service areas (Rasthof, Raststätte) generally spaced between 40 and 60 kilometers apart.  These usually feature a fuel station (Tankstelle), restaurant or snack bar, convenience store, telephones, and restrooms.  Many also feature hotels, showers, playgrounds, conference rooms, and chapels.  There are over 700 service areas in operation and they're open 24 hours a day.  A brochure with maps and charts showing the network of service areas and the facilities available at each can be obtained at any service area and is also available on the web (see links below).

Autobahn
          service area

Autobahn service area

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

Sign 361 Sign 376 Sign 377 Sign 375
Fuel Restaurant Snack bar Hotel

Service
          area approach sign
Service area approach sign
The white sign at the bottom indicates the distance to the next service area

Smaller parking areas, many equipped with restrooms (WC), are even more abundant along the Autobahn.  These are marked with signs like the one below.

Parking
          area approach sign

Approach sign for parking area w/ WC

The past couple of 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 (Autohof).  These generally offer facilities comparable to the service areas, but usually at considerably lower prices.  Most are now marked by special signs on the Autobahn like the one below.

Truck stop
          exit sign

Autohof announcement sign


Signs & 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 standard both in form and placement. 

Overhead signs are being used increasingly more frequently.  These signs generally take on the forms shown in the various pictures below.  Note that the route number shields are typically located at the bottom of the signs rather than at the top like in the US.  Drivers should also be aware that unlike 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 another Autobahn route 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-Degerloch" or "HH-Zentrum"); these correspond to the official license plate registration city abbreviations and indicate an exit for a district or other destination in that city.  So "S-Degerloch" would be the exit for "Stuttgart-Degerloch" while "HH-Zentrum" denotes "Hamburg-Zentrum", or downtown Hamburg.

Overhead signs

Advance guide signs for Autobahn crossing
 

Overhead signs

Typical overhead advance guide sign for exit
 

Overhead signs

Exit signs at Autobahn crossing

Overhead
                  butterfly signs

Overhead "butterfly" exit signs

Autobahns bear a one, two, or three digit number with an "A" prefix (e.g. A 8); however, the "A" is not shown on signs.  The one and two digit numbers indicate mainline routes; three digit routes are spurs.  Route numbers are assigned by region (e.g. the area around Munich is region 9, so most Autobahns in that area start with 9) and even-numbered routes generally run east-west while odd-numbered routes north-south.  Route numbers for spurs and connectors usually start with the parent number 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 markers are an oblong white and blue hexagon:

Sign 405

Here are the main signs you will encounter:

Sign 330 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
Sign 448 Initial interchange approach sign
  • Placed 1000 meters before exits; 2000 meters before Autobahn crossings
  • Shows the interchange number and name
  • The symbol indicates the type of interchange:
Autobahn exit
Exit
  Autobahn junction
Crossing
Sign 449 Advance interchange directional sign
  • Placed 500 meters before exits; 1000 meters and 500 meters before Autobahn crossings
  • Shows a schematic of the interchange and gives additional destinations and route numbers
Signs 450 - 452 Interchange countdown markers
  • Placed 300 meters (3 stripes), 200 meters (2 stripes), and 100 meters (1 stripe) before the exit
  • Interchange number appears atop the 300 meter marker
Sign 332 Exit sign
  • Located at exit point
  • Occasionally placed in the median
  • When placed overhead, may be repeated several times above the exit lane
Sign 333 Exit sign
  • Marks the exit ramp
Sign 406 Interchange number
  • Shown on the initial interchange approach sign and on the first interchange countdown marker
  • Interchanges are numbered sequentially
Sign 460 Provisional detour
  • Marks a pre-posted detour route for use in the event that the Autobahn must be closed
  • Follow the same-numbered route to return to the next Autobahn entrance
  • Can also be used to bypass Autobahn congestion
  • Odd numbers go in one direction, even numbers in the opposite direction
Sign 466 Provisional detour schematic
  • Used to direct Autobahn traffic to the next sequential provisional detour route when traffic cannot return to the Autobahn at the next entrance
Sign 467 Alternate route
  • Indicates a recommended alternate route on the Autobahn system for specific vehicles or destinations in order to avoid congestion
  • Type of vehicle or destination will be shown in conjunction with this sign
Sign 453 Distance Sign
  • 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
Sign 334 End of Autobahn Sign
  • Located on exit ramps from the Autobahn and indicates the end of Autobahn traffic regulations
  • Also used to warn when the Autobahn mainline ends ahead (terminus)
 
 
Diagram exit
                      sign Diagram exit
                      sign

Examples of diagram signs for complex interchanges

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

  • Solid white line: Marks the left edge of the road or, on the right side, marks the inside of the shoulder or the right edge of the road.  Also used sometimes between traffic lanes to indicate that changing lanes is not allowed.
  • Long, thin broken white lines: Separate traffic lanes.
  • Short, thick broken white lines: Separate a deceleration (exit) lane or acceleration (entrance) lane from the main traffic lanes.
  • V-diagonal markings: Mark the restricted area at an exit gore.
  • Yellow markings: Used in construction zones and supersede all regular white markings.

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

Autobahn
          road markings

Typical lane markings
 

Dynamic signs
During the past couple of decades, German traffic engineers have developed sophisticated traffic control systems to manage traffic along many Autobahns and urban expressways.  These automated systems consist of surveillance cameras, speed monitors, and special electronic variable message signs, as well as equipment to detect and automatically warn of fog, rain, and ice.  The primary intent of these systems is to gradually and systematically reduce the speed of traffic approaching or driving through areas with congestion, construction, or hazardous weather conditions.  Studies have shown that these systems have reduced accidents by as much as 30% within three years of being installed.  The first such system was tested in the early '80s on the A8/A81 near Stuttgart and has since been expanded to over 1,300 km of Autobahn, especially those subject to frequent congestion or dangerous weather conditions, as well as in and approaching tunnels.  These systems have also been installed on several non-Autobahn urban expressways, and the government is spending €40 million a year to continue their expansion.

Autobahn electronic signs

Autobahn electronic signs showing 100 km/h speed limit and construction ahead

While you will find some electronic signs that just show plain text messages (similar to those in use in the US), most of the systems in use display facsimiles of official traffic signs.  These allow authorities to use the standard pictogram signs to warn of downstream conditions or to implement dynamic regulations.  A common use is the temporary implementation or reduction of speed limits to respond to traffic, road, or weather conditions.  Occasionally, these speed limits are set per lane.  It is important to obey the speed limits indicated by these signs 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 indeed 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).  The signs can also indicate lane closures using the standard international lane control symbols.  Below are examples of these electronic signs.

Electronic sign 101 Electronic Sign 124 Electronic sign 123 Electronic sign 114 Electronic sign 113
Danger
 
Congestion Road work Slippery road Watch for ice or snow

Electronic 80km/h sign Electronic sign 277 Electronic Sign 278 Electronic Sign 281 Electronic Sign 282
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

Green arrow down Yellow slant arrow leftYellow slant arrow right Red X
Lane open Lane closed ahead
Merge in the direction indicated
Lane closed
You may not drive in this lane

In addition to the symbols above, the following word messages are used, usually in conjunction with the "danger" sign:

  • UNFALL (accident)

  • NEBEL (fog)

  • STAU (congestion)

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

Autobahn
          electronic signs

Electronic signs showing left lane closed ahead and 100km speed limit in open lanes

When different speed limits are shown on a single gantry, the limit shown applies to the lane under the sign.  In the example below, the speed limit in the left lane would be 120 km/h, 100 km/h in the center lane, and 80 km/h in the right lane.

Gray gantryElectronic 120km/h
                    signGray
                    gantryElectronic sign 123Gray gantryElectronic 100km/h
                    signGray
                    gantryElectronic sign 123Gray gantryElectronic 80km/h
                    signGray
                    gantry

Over 1,700 km of Autobahn are part of dynamic alternate route systems.  These systems employ changeable guide signs which, when activated, display recommended alternate route guidance to help drivers avoid congestion.  Some 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.  In other 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 orange "alternate route" arrow symbol are used.  The arrow points in the recommended direction to follow along with the destination city, route number, or vehicle types (e.g. trucks) that the suggested alternate route applies to.  For instance, in the picture below, traffic headed to Deggendorf and the Munich airport is being advised to exit in 1200 meters and follow the A99 and A92.  Once you are on one of these alternate routes, continue to follow 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". 

Autobahn
          alternate route signage

Changeable sign showing recommended alternate route


Emergencies

In the event of an accident, breakdown, or other emergency along the Autobahn, you are never more than a kilometer away from help.  Emergency telephones (Notrufsäule) are located at 2 km intervals along the sides of the road.  The direction to the nearest phone is indicated by small arrows atop the roadside reflector posts.  In long tunnels, emergency phones are located in refuge rooms every 100-200 meters.

Autobahn emergency phone

Autobahn emergency phone

Roadside post with arrow
                pointing to nearest emergency phone

Roadside post with arrow pointing
direction to nearest emergency phone

The emergency phone system was privatized a decade ago.  All calls go to a central call center in Hamburg.  In the event of an accident, dispatchers there will immediately connect the caller to the nearest police or emergency services office.  For breakdowns, the dispatcher will obtain the information necessary to send the appropriate service.  This may include the "Yellow Angels" of the ADAC or AvD auto club, a tow truck, or an insurance, dealership, or rental car repair service.  Roadside assistance is free, but you'll likely have to pay for parts.  If you need to be towed, there is no charge to remove the vehicle from the Autobahn, but you will have to pay for towing beyond that.  If you're driving a rental car, all services should be covered by the rental agency.  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.

There are now two varieties of emergency phones in use.  On the older phones, you will find a cover with a handle.  Lift the cover all the way and wait for a dispatcher to answer.  The newer phones don't have a cover; instead, they have an external speaker/microphone area with two buttons that you can press to connect you to the appropriate dispatcher.  There is a yellow button with a wrench symbol for reporting a breakdown and a red button with a red cross to report an accident.  Press the appropriate button and wait for a reply.  In most cases, the location of the phone is transmitted automatically when your call is connected.  If not, you will need to give the dispatcher the kilometer location of the phone as indicated on a label on the inside of the cover or near the speaker and your direction of travel.  For an accident, report the number of vehicles involved and any injuries.  For a breakdown, be prepared to report the vehicle's license number, make and model, color, and your auto club, insurance company, or rental agency.  An English-speaking dispatcher is usually available.

Man
          demonstrating use of an old-style emergency phone

Man demonstrating how to use an
old-style emergency phone

After calling, return to your vehicle or the accident scene and wait for help.  For breakdowns, someone will arrive shortly to assist you.  In the event of an accident, a cavalry of emergency aid will descend on you.  Police, fire service, ambulances, and emergency doctors all respond to Autobahn crashes.  A medical evacuation helicopter is also always on standby.

Alternatively, you can contact the emergency call center via mobile phone at 0800 6683 663.

Old-style emergency
                  phone

Old-style emergency phone

New-style emergency
                  phone

New-style emergency phone


Other sites of interest

The German Way (by Hyde Flippo)
http://www.german-way.com/autobahn.html
German Autobahn Page (by Henning Maruhn)
http://www.autobahn-online.de
Autobahn Atlas (by Patrick Scholl)
http://www.autobahnatlas-online.de/
Autobahn Police
http://www.autobahnpolizei.de
Autobahn service area guide
http://www.tank.rast.de
German Federal Transport Ministry
http://www.bmv.de/
German Federal Highway Research Institute
http://www.bast.de


This page and all its contents are Copyright 2010 by Brian Purcell

NOTICE
The information provided on this website is provided on an "as-is" basis without warranties of any kind either express or implied.  The author and his agents make no warranties or representations of any kind concerning any information contained in this website.  This website is provided only as general information.  The author expressly disclaims all liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based upon the information contained herein or with respect to any errors or omissions in such information.  All opinions expressed are strictly those of the author.  This site is not affiliated in any way with any official agency.