Driving in Germany
Germany is one of the top manufacturers of cars in the world and the Autobahn network is famed across the globe for its stretches without a speed limit. This in addition to the high density and general good state of road infrastructure make driving in Germany a fun though somewhat expensive proposition. Inside of cities, however the picture changes and no city with half a million inhabitants or more is really fun to drive in. Many smaller cities and old towns are also pedestrianized.
Car rental and carpools
All German airports offer car hire services and most of the main hire firms operate at desk locations
Car hire and pool cars are also available in most cities, and one-way rentals (within Germany) are generally permitted with the larger chains without an additional fee. When renting a car, be aware that most cars in Germany have manual gearbox (stick-shift), so you might want to ask for a car with an automatic gearbox if you are used to that type. Drivers with an endorsement in their licence that restricts them to driving automatic transmission vehicles will not be allowed to rent a manual-transmission car. Automatic transmission cars have a (mostly undeserved) bad reputation in Germany and the locals usually avoid them. If you rent an electric car, the whole issue becomes a moot point, obviously.
Most car rentals prohibit having their cars taken to eastern European countries, including Poland and the Czech Republic. If you plan to visit these countries as well, you might choose to rent your car there, as those limitations do not apply the other way round.
Another great way to get around without your own car is using one of the popular carpool services. You can arrange many connections over their respective websites if you speak some German or have a friend that can help you out. Making contact is free of charge and getting a lift is often the cheapest way to get around. The two most popular hosts are Mitfahrgelegenheit and Mitfahrzentrale, for second one you have to pay an extra charge. If you have your own car, taking other people is also a great way of saving money and protecting the environment. Another very good site is found here which compares different means of transportation. Blablacar is also a popular option.
All foreign licences are accepted for up to six months (or 12 months for a temporary stay only), but a translation may be necessary. If you want to continue driving after this period, you must obtain a German licence. These rules do not apply to driving licences issued in EU member states. Traffic offences are almost always fined and severe offences will lead to "points" being registered for your licence. Too many points will lead to your driving licence being confiscated. As this system can not be applied to foreign licences, fines for severe offences are often significantly higher for foreign drivers to make up for the lack of long-term control. Some severe infractions carry a driving ban (usually a couple of months) in addition to a fine and points. As the central registry that keeps track of the "points" is located in Flensburg, people say they have "Punkte in Flensburg".
- Traffic Lights: Traffic lights are split for different directions, especially on large intersections: For one or more directions, an additional set of lights in the form of arrows regulates traffic in that direction. The non-arrowed light is for all other directions and traffic going straight ahead.
Turning right on red is not permitted except when a small green right arrow is affixed to the traffic light, right next to the red light. Then, you may turn right carefully, but you must still stop to make sure that there is no traffic or pedestrians approaching.
In many areas traffic lights are not hung over the intersection but placed at the corners. Do not creep into the intersection or you will not be able to see the lights change. A thick white stripe at intersections with traffic lights indicates where to stop. Many intersections use "self-regulating" traffic lights. The inductive sensor device used to determine if there's a car waiting is often located in the road surface in front of the white stripe mentioned above. Be sure to stop right in front of the this white stripe or the sensor might not recognise you. Lights will still turn green but you will have to wait quite a while longer.
Yellow lights are short in duration (2–3 sec.) and are also used prior to the light turning green (the sequence is green, amber, red, red-and-amber, same as in the UK). If the yellow light is flashing this means the traffic light either is defective or switched off (for example late at night or during weekends), and you then have to observe traffic signs or, if absent, the "right before left" rule. Driving through the lights at red carries a fine (up to €200) – and will not be anticipated by any other road users. Keep in mind that pedestrians - especially in cities - do jaywalk from time to time. This is especially common at tram (streetcar) or bus stops, where people race across the street to not miss their ride.
- Mobile phones: Using your mobile phone while driving is forbidden, unless you use a hands-free set. This includes using the mobile phone while stopped at a traffic light, etc. It does not matter if you use the phone for making a call or just reading the clock: If you pick it up, you are violating the rule. This also means that using a navigation software on a smartphone is not allowed, unless the phone is mounted in the car. The police are quite strict about this. To legally use a mobile phone in a car the engine has to be switched off or the car has to be in a permanently parked position, e.g. just stopping at the side of the road will still lead to a fine.
- Cyclists and road markings: Normal road markings are white. Yellow road markings invalidate any existing white markings, observe the yellow markings. Watch out for cyclists on sidewalk lanes, sometimes they are allowed to use the "wrong direction" lane (though many drive in "wrong direction" even if they are not allowed to do so). If a road crosses a bicycle lane (Radweg) it might have a red or blue color where it interjects with the bicycle lane or other special markings. Then, cyclists have right of way. If in doubt or there are no markings, its still a good idea to give right of way.
- Pedestrian crossings: Stopping at "Zebrastreifen" (literally "zebra stripes") is mandatory when there are people waiting to cross the street and German drivers virtually always stop. Accordingly, many pedestrians will not wait for the car to stop before they use the pedestrian crossing. Not stopping can be charged with a €80 fine and four points.
- Traffic Police: The police will show blinking signs reading "Polizei Halt" (police, stop) or "Bitte folgen" (please follow) if they want to stop you. An audible "yelp-signal" is currently being introduced. Stay calm and friendly, and hand over the driving license and car papers (if you rent a car, you will have a copy of the rental contract) when you are asked to. In most cases, that is all that happens, and if you respect traffic signs and speed limits, it is very unlikely that you get stopped at all. Take notice that the police car will usually stop you by passing your car and then slowing you down to a halt on the emergency lane or even on the sidewalk. However when a police car is behind you on a crowded street with oncoming traffic, flashing blue lights without sirens may prompt you to pull over as well. Particularly on the Autobahn, the police are less visible than in other countries, because they often patrol in civil cars.
The police may routine check vehicle drivers for alcohol; controls will be especially heavy at national holidays or close to mass events where people may consume alcohol. It's illegal to drive with a blood alcohol content of more than 0.05% (0.5‰ (permille)). Even below that limit, you may face severe fines if you seem unfit to drive. The limit is zero for people under 21 and those who have held their license for less than two years. If your license was recently renewed, it might be a good idea, if possible, to have a copy of your previous license.
If you are involved in an accident, immediately stop where it happened (except if you're on a Autobahn or some other multilane road). Carefully get out of the car and check for injured people and damage on the cars.
If there is only minor damage, immediately move your vehicle to the roadside so that you don't block the road. It is a good idea to take some pictures of the scene before moving the cars. Be aware that Germans are really crazy about their cars and accidents. That's mainly because they're shocked and think preserving the scene for the police might "help" in some way. It's not unusual that they will block an entire 4-lane crossroad during rush hours just because you slightly touched their bumper. Don't bother. Check the situation and tell them they have to clear the road (refer to the traffic regulations §34.2) – and maybe remind them of the fine for blocking the traffic.
If there is only minor material damage you are only obligated to exchange names, addresses and insurance information. It is always a good idea to write down a report, stating all involved cars, drivers, witnesses and how the accident happened. Have it signed by all parties. It is neither necessary nor mandatory to call the police. Some people will want to call the police and expect you to wait for them but you do not have to. If you are driving a rental car, the car rental may want you to call the police and file a report; just ask when picking up the car.
In case of heavy damage or injuries (or one of the passengers complaining about headache) then it gets difficult. Injuries from car accidents often cause trauma with huge costs for medical treatment and the insurances will look very closely how the accident happened (and who is to blame). In this case do not move anything, secure the crash site and try to help injured people. Then call 112 for rescue service and state: Where, what, how many casualties, which injuries - then wait for further instructions. Even if nobody is hurt but there is a lot of damage (with parts lying around, especially oil leaking), call 110 for police. They will come, regulate the traffic and will call someone to clean up the road.
Most of the accidents (something around 80–90%) happen in cities and on rural roads. In the rare case you have an emergency on a Autobahn (or some other multi-lane road with heavy or fast traffic), slow down without endangering the traffic around and stop on the emergency lane. First of all, before getting out of the car, watch out for the traffic. Each year a notable number people who are trying to help in an accident get again fatally hit by another car. Put on your reflective vest (all passengers), get out on the right side of the car (the side without traffic) and get behind the guardrail. Take the breakdown triangle (usually out of the trunk) and place it approximately 150–200 m (500–650 ft) behind the car on the roadside. Always walk behind the guardrail.
With the police involved there is also usually a fine to pay (approximately €25 if the accident was caused in "stationary" traffic: parking and can be up to €40 if the accident was caused in "moving" traffic), which must be paid either on the spot or at the nearest police station. The fine can be higher if there was an obstruction or hazard to other road users. Hitting and running, if caught, is punished with a heavy fine (the German police possess surprising efficiency when it comes to tracking down foreign cars caught breaking the traffic laws).
Despite all the bad things with having an accident, it is nothing you have to worry about financially because each car must have a liability insurance. If you caused the accident, the insurance will pay for all the damage you caused (not damage on your own car!) and the medical treatment. If another driver caused it, his/her insurance will cover your damage and medical treatment. The only thing you have to look for is damage you cause on your own car; this is only covered if you have a "Vollkasko" (CDW). It is always a good idea to take out such an insurance (unless you own a pretty cheap/old car). Usually there is a deductible of 250–1000 Euro, but that's it. The only thing you should never do (like in every other country) is driving under heavy influence of alcohol (defined as 0,11 % or 1,1 permille blood alcohol or more) or other drugs (don't forget some pharmaceuticals). Although fines are pretty high, in addition to it you will have to pay up to 5,000 Euro of the damage you caused (because of negligence) and CDW will not pay anything of your own damage.
Speed limits are the following in Germany (unless otherwise shown):
- 5 km/h on "Spielstraßen" (marked by a blue/white sign showing playing kids, pedestrians have priority)
- 30 km/h in most residential areas within cities (marked with a sign "30-Zone Wohngebiet", 20-Zone and 10-Zone also exist)
- 50 km/h inside towns and cities
- 100 km/h outside towns and cities (including "Kraftfahrstraßen" (marked by a sign showing a white car on a blue background))
- There is no constant general speed limit on the "Autobahn" or on "Kraftfahrstraßen" if there is any kind of barrier between two or more lanes of different direction. However, it is not an entirely unrestricted roadway as there are sections that are periodically or permanently assigned lower rates of speed. The recommended maximum speed on the Autobahn is 130 km/h, and if you drive on the Autobahn for your first time and are not yet used to the usual heavy traffic, you should not exceed that speed. In addition, if you are legally travelling in excess of 130 km/h and are involved in an accident, you can still be held liable for part or all of the damage regardless of fault on your part.
- If towing a trailer or operating a truck/bus/heavy vehicle, the maximum speed is 80 km/h, even on a road with a higher posted speed limit, unless the components are rated for a higher speed.
Speed cameras are common in Germany (the country has one of the highest speed camera concentrations in Europe) and are found mostly in towns and cities. Temporary road works on the motorway are usually a favourite for the police so obey the speed limit, which is clearly marked. Also be aware that all forms of radar jammers and radar detectors (including satellite navigation systems with a speed camera overlay) are illegal.
The following table gives an overview of the fines for speeding (the speeds below indicate the difference between the speed limit and the actual speed travelled after the 3 km/h allowance has been deducted)
Inside built-up areas
- up to 10 km/h €15
- 11–15 km/h €25
- 16–20 km/h €35
- 21–25 km/h €80 [1 point]
- 26–30 km/h €100 [3 points]
- 31–40 km/h €160 [3 points, 1 month driving ban]
- 41–50 km/h €200 [4 points, 1 month driving ban]
- 51–60 km/h €280 [4 points, 2 months driving ban]
- 61–70 km/h €480 [4 points, 3 months driving ban]
- over 70 km/h €680 [4 points, 3 months driving ban]
Outside built-up areas (such as motorway, country roads; also in road works)
- up to 10 km/h €10
- 11–15 km/h €20
- 16–20 km/h €30
- 21–25 km/h €70 [1 point]
- 26–30 km/h €80 [3 points]
- 31–40 km/h €120 [3 points]
- 41–50 km/h €160 [3 points, 1 month driving ban]
- 51–60 km/h €240 [4 points, 1 month driving ban]
- 61–70 km/h €440 [4 points, 2 months driving ban]
- over 70 km/h €600 [4 points, 3 months driving ban]
NB: There is an extra €23.50 for any fine over €40.
You have the right to appeal against any traffic violation, but this process is long, complicated and can cost a lot of money.
Only vehicles with a maximum speed of more than 60 km/h are allowed on the "Autobahn" or "Kraftfahrstraßen".
- Low emission zones: All cars driving into a low emission zone (Umweltzone) need a badge (Feinstaubplakette) indicating their pollution category. Badges come in three colors: green, yellow, and red. Signs marking the start of pollution-free zones—typically the central parts of a city—show the colors allowed into the zone. Entering without a badge costs you a fine if you are caught. If you rent a car, make sure it has a Feinstaubplakette. If you travel in your own car, get your badge for a small fee from:
- vehicle registration offices
- technical inspection organizations such as TÜV (you can request a badge online) or Dekra
- many car repair shops
- Studded tires are strictly forbidden throughout Germany, except a 15 km zone along the Austrian border and the short cut via B21 between the Austrian cities of Salzburg and Lofer.
Using the Autobahn
In 1974 Düsseldorf electronic-music pioneers Kraftwerk had a hit with "Autobahn", which brought both them and the roads the song was about to the attention of the world. For many listeners the line "fahr'n fahr'n fahr'n auf der Autobahn" might as well have been referring to "fun, fun, fun on the Autobhan", since they took the song as an invitation to come to Germany and drive the Autobahn into the idyllic landscape of the album cover. The near-total freedom from speed limits was a big part of the attraction, as well.
It still is. Design standards call for generally level surfaces and wide, gentle turns, the better to maximize speed, and maintenance is intensive and regular. On nice weekends you'll find a lot of locals and foreigners out on the Autobahn in their Porsches or BMWs, or other high-performance vehicles, driving them the way they were designed to be driven. If you want to join in, if this is one of things you came to Germany to do, keep the following in mind:
- German drivers tend to drive faster, more aggressively and competently than you might be used to, especially on the parts of the highway system without a speed limit.
- While most passenger vehicles have only a recommended speed limit of 130 km/h, some buses have a speed limit of 100 km/h, and most vehicles towing a trailer, along with buses in general and non-passenger vehicles with a gross weight of greater than 3.5 t, are limited only to 80 km/h. Some newer trailers have a speed limit of 100 km/h.
- Road signs on the Autobahn show possible destinations (mostly city names). They do not show the direction of the road (east/west), unlike in some other countries. However, every odd-numbered Autobahn will go north/south (e.g. A49), whereas the even-numbered ones go west/east. Furthermore, single digit Autobahn numbers indicate a very long Autobahn such as the A7 which goes from the border with Denmark all the way down to the Austrian border.
- You must use the right lane if free, even if everybody seems to prefer the left and middle lanes (where they exist). You may stay in the middle lane only if there are occasional slower vehicles on the right. Overtaking on the right is not allowed and will be dangerous since other drivers won't expect it. You must always pass vehicles on the left side, except in very slow moving traffic queues. Before overtaking, look carefully behind as there might be really fast cars or bikes coming. Keep in mind that you are expected to indicate your desire to switch lanes by using your indicators before you switch.
- Autobahns have an emergency lane where you can stop only in case of a breakdown or other emergency; it's illegal and dangerous to stop there for any other reason. The emergency lane is a dangerous place: you should leave your vehicle and stay off the road until help arrives! For everything else, always use the frequent service areas. Running out of fuel on the Autobahn may also incur a fine if the police happen to notice you, as this is considered to be avoidable. If you have to stop you must set up your warning triangle behind (provided in rental cars).
- Arrows on the small posts along the Autobahn will guide you to the next orange emergency phone. These will automatically connect you free of charge with an call centre that directs police, ambulances or just a mechanic.
- In some areas, emergency tracks are used as extra lanes in times of heavy traffic. This is always announced by electronic signs.
- In most countries, if you were nearing a car that you would soon have to overtake, even if you had another car going much faster than you that you would block by moving to overtake, you would overtake first, forcing the faster car to lose a lot of momentum, because you had reached to obstacle car first. In Germany, however, since the faster car has more speed to lose if you go first, the polite and safe thing to do is to tap your brakes or indicate right to tell the fast car that you have seen him and are letting him pass the obstacle first. Of course, you must judge how fast the fast car is closing on you, the make of car, if its lights are on, and if it is already overtaking. Cars that could have passed both obstacles in seconds will not be impressed that you jump in front of them instead of waiting.
While congestion is a problem on some parts of the Autobahn network as well as inner cities year round the beginning of Summer holidays in Nordrhein Westfalen and Bayern and certain weekends in winter tend to be worse for congestion. If possible try to avoid the beginning (and for all two week holidays) the end of school vacation periods and especially the Saturday and Sunday of them. Some routes are particularly prone to congestion, most of which are the historically busy North South routes such as A9 (Munich-Nuremberg-Berlin) or A7 (Hamburg-Kassel-Füssen) or routes running through densely populated areas like Ruhr. Other congestion prone streets are those that cross the former German-German border where years of neglect and the sudden change of traffic movements after the opening of the border and reunification have left a dilapidated system crowded beyond capacity. However twenty five years of construction and relieving bottlenecks have done much to ease the worst congestion. That being said construction is still more likely to slow you down in the east than in the west.
Rush hour in major cities is a bad time to drive anywhere and with the excellent public transit that almost all German cities enjoy there is really no reason to do so, unless you particularly enjoy staring at the tail lights of the car in front of you for hours on end.
Gasoline prices are kept high by taxation. As of June 2014 prices float around €1.50 per litre for petrol (91 AKI, 95 RON), and around €1.40 per litre for diesel. If still available, regular petrol (87 AKI, 91 RON) and "super" is the same price in Germany. At petrol stations, you have the choice between Diesel, Super (91 AKI, 95 RON), Super E-10 (91 AKI, 95 RON, but with up to 10 % ethanol) and SuperPlus (98 RON) or Ultimate (100 RON). Regular or "Benzin" (87 AKI, 91 RON) is rarely offered any longer. All fuel is unleaded ("bleifrei") and if you have a car that needs leaded fuel you would have to add the lead by hand. Also, LPG (liquid petroleum gas) is available with few problems on highways. Here and there, you might find "Erdgas"; this is compressed natural gas (CNG) not gasoline. "Normal" gasoline contains 5% ethanol, but most car engines are said to have no problems handling that. In recent years "E10" (containing 10% Ethanol) has been introduced to reduce fossil dependency (with mixed results to say the least). While modern cars should not have any problem handling "E10", it should be specified somewhere in the documents pertaining to the car as otherwise you might be liable for any damages caused or allegedly caused by E10.
In Germany, you may first fill up your tank and pay afterwards (only if the petrol station is staffed, of course). Some stations will not release the fuel to pump unless you pay first or at least hand over a credit card in advance. Sometimes gas stations or small shops do not accept €500 or €200 banknotes, for fear of counterfeits.
Charging stations for electric cars are becoming more and more common in urban areas and in some places they don't charge anything in addition to the parking fee you'd pay anyways. While there are efforts to introduce similar charging stations throughout Europe, some are still not compatible with each other, so check ahead before trying to plug your car into the "wrong" station.