The German Autobahn: Living in the Fast Lane


  1. Introduction
  2. History
  3. Structure
  4. Regulations
  5. Impact on Germany
  6. Conclusion

Living in the fast lane. This popular saying might as well be the motto of Germany's Autobahn. Since this speed limit-free road system first opened in 1929, Germans have been reaching their destinations in relatively little time. In order for such a road system to exist, certain detail and importance must be placed on its history, structure, regulations, and impact on Germany.


The Autobahn has been constructed over several decades, and thus has a history all its own. The first section of the Autobahn was opened in 1929 between Dusseldorf and Opladen. Three years later, construction was completed on a section between Cologne and Bonn. In the 1930s, under the influence of Adolf Hitler, a program to build the Reischsautobahnen, which are north-south and east-west links, was implemented. Hitler believed such a road system would bring about both immediate military value and employment opportunity. By the time World War II ended, a total of 2,100 kilometers of the Autobahn had been successfully completed. As Germany continued to grow, though, so did the Autobahn. The Federal Republic expanded the system to almost 3,400 kilometers through a series of three four-year plans beginning in 1959. By 1986, its total distance had reached close to 8,200 kilometers. As of 1990, the Autobahn was comprised of over 11,000 kilometers of roads. As a result, the Autobahn is considered the world's second largest superhighway system behind the United States.


The Autobahn's structure was designed to allow an unimpeded, high-speed traffic flow. In order for this vision to become a reality, certain design features were implemented. For example, the number of lanes per direction on any stretch of the Autobahn is two, three, or even four lanes separated by a median with double-sided guardrails. Since cars travel at such great speeds, long acceleration and deceleration lanes were added to the on- and off-ramps. The curved areas are purposely gentle and well banked, with blinders added for safety so they do not get distracted. These blinders, which are installed on top of the median, prevent drivers from looking at oncoming traffic or scenery on the side of the road. Most hilly sections have been considerably leveled to only small grades. To prevent the road from freezing at anytime, the concrete is freeze-resistant and the surface is bituminous.

The pavement markings of the Autobahn are relatively easy to understand and follow. The left and right edges of the road, along with the inside of the shoulder, are marked with solid white lines. Long, thin broken white lines separate traffic lanes. The acceleration and deceleration lanes are apparent due to short, thick broken white lines. Most importantly, yellow lines are used in construction zones. As a result, these take precedence over all regulatory white markings.

Just as important as the road itself, the signs of the Autobahn serve as its road map. For the most part, the signage is quite standard both in form and placement. It is important to note that a new sign system is currently being implemented. As a result, there might be some discrepancies as the old signs are being overhauled. Directions are not given in terms of the cardinal directions, but rather according to the upcoming destination cities. The route numbers are either one, two, or three digit numbers. Those routes with one or two digits are main routes. Three digit routes, which are spurs or short connectors, start with the parent number and add one or two additional numbers. Those routes running east-west are generally even-numbered, while those going north-south tend to be odd-numbered. In the metropolitan areas, overhead signs are gaining in popularity. Within the last decade, electronic signs have been installed along some stretches of the Autobahn to improve traffic control.

The Autobahn has many other features, including over 700 24-hour service areas. These service areas offer gasoline stations, restroom facilities, convenience stores, and telephones. More complex service areas might also include: ATMs, playgrounds, full-service restaurants, and hotels. There are also smaller parking areas, which are even more common along the road system. Service facilities, which only have gasoline stations and fast-food restaurants, and truck stops are both growing in numbers.

In case of an emergency situation, emergency telephones are located every two kilometers on the side of the road. Simply lifting the cover, or pushing the button on newer models, will automatically connect a motorist to a dispatcher. Depending on the situation, he or she will send the appropriate help. If a driver only had a breakdown, the Yellow Angels (who belong to German auto clubs) will be sent to assist the motorist. If any kind of accident occurs, police, fire services, ambulances, and emergency doctors, along with a medical evaluation helicopter, will quickly come to the rescue.

Maintenance and construction are important in maintaining the condition of the structure. Overall, the roads are in excellent condition. Due to 40 years of neglect, though, roads in eastern Germany are still being improved through the Germany Unity Transport Projects. In order to ensure the roads' quality, each meter of the system is periodically checked. If any sort of defect is found, such as a crack, the whole section of the road is replaced. As a result, construction zones are quite common and widespread. Occasionally, a rather large segment of the Autobahn may have to be closed. In such cases, predesignated detour routes are immediately put into effect. Signs, service areas, etc. are also well maintained.


Besides gaining an understanding of the Autobahn's structure, knowledge of its regulations is also important. The most significant of these involves the speed limit. For the most part, no speed limit is enforced on about 40% of the motorway. The government, though, recommends a limit of 130 kilometers per hour. At times, it is necessary to enforce some limits. In fact, speed limits ranging from 90 kilometers per hour to 120 kilometers per hour are actually quite common. Such restrictions can be found along urban areas, dangerously curved sections, or segments with very heavy traffic. Other sections have enforced speed restrictions only during wet weather or night hours. Also, the speed limit in construction zones can be as low as 60 kilometers per hour. Since road conditions, traffic, and weather vary, electronic signs that can alter the speed limit have been installed along some sections of the Autobahn. Surprisingly, the accident and death rates on the Autobahn are relatively low. Crashes along the Autobahn account for only 10% of Germany's national traffic fatalities. Actually, the fatality rate on the United States interstate system is higher than that on the German Autobahn.

Certain legal regulations must be enforced along the Autobahn in order to ensure the safety of the drivers and their passengers. First of all, seat belts are mandatory for anyone who is riding in a car. All children who are under the age of 13 are not allowed to sit in the front seat if the car has a back seat. Also, those cars at the rear of a traffic jam need to turn on their hazardous blinkers to warn approaching traffic. There are also very serious drunk driving consequences, which include huge fines and loss of a driver's license.

Impact on Germany

The German Autobahn serves as the crossroads of the majority of European travel. As a result, it increases the country's tourism. With this expansion, there is a growth in Germany's overall economy. Not only do the revenues from such tourist sites as hotels, restaurants, and attractions along the road system increase; but the positions needed to operate these facilities are filled by local Germans. Also, the amount of imports and exports moving in and out of the country has risen due to the Autobahn. Another impact, which is more obvious, is that Germans can now travel throughout the country in a fraction of the time. The Autobahn has also helped Germany become more modernized. In turn, it is becoming more of a contender with the industrialized countries of the world.

Not surprisingly, the German word "Autobahn" means "high-speed motorway." This road system is one of a kind. Through a glimpse of its history, structure, regulations, and impact on Germany, it is obvious that the Autobahn will continue to successfully serve Germans into the next century.



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Submitted by Melissa Wiley on October 28, 1999.