Now this might come as a surprise, but I now prefer driving on English motorways than German Autobahns. “Driving” is a key word here – being stuck in a traffic jam is awful in both places and I have spent many frustrating evenings crawling over the M62 cursing the motorway. But as long as the traffic is moving it’s nicer in England. The main reason is that the lane discipline is much better. People pull out to overtake and then pull back in. Because of the speed limits, the difference in speed is not so great which makes the whole thing a little more relaxing. In Germany if you are in a hurry, you will want to push on and be doing 200 km/h in the outside lane. The trouble is people also want to overtake middle-lane trucks or slowcoaches in that outside lane and might be doing 120 km/h. Then the following happens – the guy doing 120 km/h doesn’t want to pull in because he sees a truck up ahead and doesn’t want to get snookered behind it as the 200 km/h brigade prevent him from pulling out. It’s much easier to stay out in the outside lane than pull back in and then have all the stress of pulling out with a car closing quickly on you. The frustrated speedy driver just wants the other guy to get out of the way so he can get on the accelerator, so he also sticks in the outside lane. German traffic laws are quite strict on the issue of “drängeln” – flashing your lights, beeping your horn and driving aggressively to get the driver ahead out of the way. You are not allowed to flash lights or beep the horn, you have a keep a sensible distance which really means all you can do is set your indicator and hope the chap in front notices. Which he usually doesn’t, and if he does he is going to hold on to that outside lane anyway because there is a truck to pass somewhere on the horizon.
All this means that driving in traffic on a German Autobahn is a stressful occupation. I tend to be one of the drivers wanting to go more quickly (but not as bad as I was) so I spend a lot of time sitting in the outside lane wondering why nobody is moving out of my way. Eventually, they do get out of the way – usually just when we enter a restricted speed area and I can no longer overtake anyway. That’s another strange phenomenon. A large proportion of the German Autobahn network has speed limits. In busy areas and around cities or on hilly sections there is often a speed limit which varies between 80 and 120 km/h. For example, from my house as we head towards the Allgäu the first 20 km are all with a 120 km/h speed limit. Quite often, as we get to the end of this section I will look forward to getting on the gas and speeding away but as soon as we hit the no speed limit section everything slows down in the outside lane. This is because all the fast drivers suddenly realise they can pull out and get going but all the “just a fraction faster than the middle lane” drivers realise this too. So everyone pulls out together – which causes all sorts of late braking and misunderstanding – hence slowing the whole lot down. The way that German drivers occupy and vigorously defend their spot in the outside lane is reminiscent of the famous “towel on the sunbed” holiday behaviour. I was here first, so this is my spot. Truck drivers over in the slow lane (now moving slightly faster than the overtaking lane) must look at us with disdain.
As if that were not bad enough, we have roadworks all over the place! I have written before that over the past five years a huge amount of investment has flowed into Autobahn repairs and improvements in West Germany (they were rather neglected after Germany united and built decent roads in the East). This is a good thing in the long term for motorists but it is certainly holding us up at the moment. The one area where German health and safety regulations are more silly than England is road work speed limits. As soon as a post has to be painted on the hard shoulder, there will be a team out with cones and flashing lights and 60 km/h speed limits. I know that in England there are no shortage of disruptive roadworks on the motorways, but at least you only have to slow down a bit.
I hope that Germany refrains from introducing speed limits on the Autobahns because there are some areas where you can really get the hammer down for a little while. Especially if you are travelling outside peak times. The A7 down to the Allgäu mountains is my favourite bit. I take a right turn at Ulm and know that it is only 100km down to the Alps. The first 50 are a bit dreary but from Kempten onwards there is no speed limit and the road sweeps up and down gentle rises and around bends. There is a drawn-out uphill right hand curve which you can race up as fast as you like and when you reach the top the whole Alpine panorama is spread before you. I should probably make a youtube film of going around that bend at 200 plus and then being rewarded by the green slopes and pale crags of the Alps and call it “the ultimate German moment”. Mind you, having just battled for two hours in the normal Autobahn traffic you really need that moment to reset your brain to a level whereby it is safe to socialise with other humans.