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Driving in Germany

For all of you that are planning your BMW European Delivery vacation, here are some driving rules and regulations in Germany. Most of the rules …

For all of you that are planning your BMW European Delivery vacation, here are some driving rules and regulations in Germany. Most of the rules are very different from the ones we have here in the US, so please read it and get familiar with the European driving style.

The minimum age of a driver is 17 years. Children must be at least 12 years of age to sit in the front seat (unless the seat is equipped with a child restraint). Children under 12 years of age and seated in the rear of the vehicle must be in a child seat if such a seat is fitted. The use of seat belts is compulsory for front- and rear-seat passengers. The legal blood alcohol limit is 50 mg.

Speed limits are as follows: 50 kph (30 mph) in built-up areas, 30 kph (18 mph) in built-up areas when you see painted on the road white triangles pointing at you or when you see the new 30-Zone sign, 100 kph (62 mph) or 130 kph (81 mph) outside built-up areas, a recommended 130 kph (81 mph) on the autobahnen (there being no speed limit on most stretches of the autobahnen; though on the more congested, urban, or curvy stretches limits 90 kph to 120 kph (54 to 72 mph) are to be expected, and the limit may reach as low as 60 kph (36 mph) in construction zones), and 80 kph (50 mph) for cars with caravans or trailers traveling outside built-up areas or on expressways.

Trucks and buses are usually limited to 80 kph or 100 kph on expressways; so if the high speeds are not for you, you can slide in with the big boys and go with their slower flow. When the visibility is below 50 metres, speeds are limited to 50 kph. Often numbers are painted on lanes to indicate speed limits; especially true when safety demands a rather sudden slowdown.
Automatic cameras are used extensively to catch violators. These may be permanently rigged or in unmarked police cars parked on the shoulder. The ticket will be posted a few days later to the address on the registration. Rental companies will forward such tickets to the offending client. Don’t expect the photo to accompany the ticket: police stopped including these a few years ago after the photos in several cases exposed spousal infidelities. You’ll have to go to the station to see the photo.
Where there are speed limits, exceeding these carries large fines as do going through a red light or passing on the right (illegal!). You will lose your licence immediately for one month if upon your first offense of the 50 mg blood alcohol limit the breathalyzer shows you are above the 80mg level. On second and third offences the loss period increases to three months. All offences listed above have points associated, from one to four, depending on the severity of the offence. Your accumulaiton of points is filed and when it reaches a certain number, your licence is revoked, or you may be forced to attend driving classes.
Roads in the former West Germany epitomize good civil engineering and maintenance, the Autobahnen being the exemplars. You’ll have more luck spotting a zit on a supermodel than a pothole in a German road. And the response to emergencies and snow and such is planned, concerted, practiced and remarkably expeditious. Meanwhile the roads in the former East are methodically and quickly being brought up to Western standards but some remain considerably antiquated.
In 1928 the first Autobahn – also the first official expressway in Europe – was opened between Cologne and Bonn. But early Autobahnen left a lot to be desired. Narrow medians separated narrow lanes having no shoulders, and cobblestones paved the ramps and reststops. (By the way, this describes quite accurately the East German Autobahnen upon reunification is 1989.) Today an Autobahn is characterized by lanes 3.5 to 4 metres wide, a landscaped median some 4 metres wide, roomy shoulders, grades no greater than 4 percent, a minimal frequency of interchanges, freeze-resistant surface, reflector posts every 50 metres, emergency telephones every 2 km, fences and tunnels to keep wildlife off the road, video surveillance and electronic signs to sense and give advanced warning of traffic and road conditions, pre-planned pre-posted and well-signed detour routes to handle road closures, frequent reststops (marked with the international Parking sign; though don’t expect a toilet unless you see “WC” as well) and over 700 24-hour service areas every 40 to 60 km or so. As an Autobahn spurs into a metropolitan area it becomes a Stadtautobahn, characterized six to eight lanes, frequent diamond exits, overhead signs giving info specific to the city, and a lack of reflector posts and emergency telephones. The safety features have succeeded in that only 6 percent or so of the nations traffic fatalities occur on the Autobahnen.
Pedestrians, bicycles, mopeds and any vehicle with a max speed rating less than 60 kph (36 mph) are prohibited from traveling on the Autobahn. Highbeam headlights are a no-no. In case of traffic jams, drivers must position so as to create between the left-most lane and its neighbor a lane for emergency vehicles. It’s illegal to stop on shoulders and ramps and it’s illegal to run out of fuel. If your vehicle breaks down or collides with another you must if possible report this immediately to the Autobahn Administration via a roadside emergency telephone. Specially designed and posted detours are in place for every stretch of the Autobahn so as to expeditiously handle road closure. The detours are broken up into sequentially numbered segments (odd numbers indicating one direction, even numbers in the other) which terminate at each Autobahn entrance. Carry on until you find an entrance open. These detours also provide a great way to get around congestion.
While the Autobahnen were built for safety and speed, they were also designed to conform aesthetically to the landscape, like a garden path. But if you use the left lane of the Autobahn don’t consider spending any leisurely time there; you’ll need to be going over 170 kph to extend your stay beyond the most utilitarian window, and even then tailgaiting is the rule. If you’re the one doing the tailgaiting, don’t even think about passing on the right, as that is highly illegal on all German raods. There’s somewhat of a pecking order amongst svelte cars, in which VWs cede to Audis, which cede to BMWs, which cede to Mercedes, which cede to the kings of the road, Porsches. Ironically, though, slow-downs occur frequently, due to construction, wheather, accident or simple congestion. Major traffic jams are quite common on Fridays, Sundays and holidays (Feiertage). The autobahnen leading to and from Berlin, especially on the A2 between Hannover ad Berlin, are notorious for this. And bad queues involving two-hour waits commonly occur on the A12 leading to and from Poland at the Frankfurt am Oder border crossing. So generally beware of the extremes!
Apart from her famous autobahnen Germany boasts some eighty theme highways. The most heralded is the 300-km (180-mile) Romantic Road (Romantischestra?e) which runs through the the propinquity of Bavarian villages between Wurzburg and F??en. Others include the Fairy Tale Road (M?rchenstra?e) between Frankfurt and Hannover, and the Castle Road (Schlo?stra?e) between Heidelberg and N?rnburg. These routes are well marked, with info available at each town along the way.
If, by the way, you want to drive a challenging sanctioned course where the highest reasonable speeds are dependent more than elsewhere on physics, try the N?rburgring (website www.nuerburgring.de), a motor-racing track coursing through undulating, wooded countryside near Eifel, situated between Bonn and Trier, very near the renowned Mosel River valley. The track takes its name from the N?rburg ruin which lies inside the 20 km-long (12 mile) old nothern loop. A new loop, completed in 1984, now hosts the prestigious road races. Despite its relatively short 4.5 km (2.8 miles) length the new course includes 14 corners and varies in altitude by as much as 56 metres. Apart from competitions and practice sessions, the loops are open for public use. A lap costs ?15. But I doubt your insurance will cover this fling. And know that you’ll be sharing the course with every other Franz, Udo and Wolfgang willing to fork over the small sum and say to hell with insurance coverage. Accidents are said to be common. Call the ADAC (see below) to get an objective assessment. Apply at the track’s Information Bureau B258; little advance notice is necesssary. The onsite Rennsportmuseum (Motor Racing Museum) may justify a visit even if you don’t take to the course. A similar experience can be had at the Hockenheim Ring southwest of Heidelberg.
Germans assume their motoring cohorts understand and will follow religiously the rules of the road. The rigourous process of earning a driving licence greatly contributes to the general motoring competence. (Though, having earned one, a driver never has to renew.) And a veritable verdure of signals and signs direct this competence. Germans thus drive very precisely if not artfully, which means the incidence of what an American, for instance, would remark as a close call is very high. In fact brinksmanship best describes the ruling spirit on German roads. That this spirit coexists with surprisingly low numbers of motoring casualities is testament to the success of the system.
The instructions of police override those of traffic signals, which override signs, and all of these override the default right-side priority. Furthermore the default goes into effect only where two roads of equal status meet; otherwise traffic on the road of higher status gets the nod. Most traffic signals in Germany are turned off at night. A flashing yellow traffic signal or a traffic signal with no lights operating indicate that the sign(s) posted next to the rightmost signal, or in the absence of such sign(s) the priority-road or default right-side priority rules, are in effect. Note: Where the default right-side rule is in effect, it is quite tacitly and blatantly assumed. And sometimes this runs rather counter to a North American’s intuition. Take the case of an uncontrolled “T” intersection of two equal roads. You might think traffic on the through street of the “T” would have priority. But, no, traffic on the right must be yielded to. (Left-turning vehicles, however, should always give way in this situation.) Moreover the proliferation of roadsigns is jarring increasingly on the evolving German sensibility and in turn there is a movement afoot to decrease signage, especially where it encroaches on the aesthetic appeal of a neighbourhood. Thus increasingly the onus is on the individual driver to know his priority or lack thereof.
When traffic is badly congested all the rules mentioned in this paragraph go out the window and the “zipper” rule (Rei?verschlu?) comes in to play. As the name suggests, vehicles are expected to take turns proceeding from each direction or lane.
Pedestrians have strict priority when crossing the white-banded crosswalks, one of only two circumstances in which they seem to get any respect from motorists. It becomes truly humorous to witness bad-boy Mercedes and such coming to cat-like stops to allow passage of the otherwise damned pedestrian animal. It’s a game of sorts, most often punctuated by the driver’s audacious gearing-up to continue his intimate relationship with the motoring envelope. Most residential areas, however, are designated traffic calming zones (Verkehrsberuhigungenzone), indicated by the square blue sign depicting an adult and child with ball in the street. In these zones pedestrians may use the entire street. Children, for instance, are allowed to play in the street.
Trams always have priority, but otherwise you can drive on their tracks and basically treat them like cars – they’ll stop if they have to. Buses have priority when leaving stops.
Right turns at a red light are only possible where there’s a green arrow simultaneously pointing right (more common in the eastern states), and then only after you’ve come to a complete stop and checked the traffic.
Left turns signaled by a green arrow are protected when the signal is on the left side of the intersection; otherwise the arrow indicates a permitted left turn that nonetheless must yield. On three- and five-lane two-way streets the centre lane is for left turns only.
In built-up areas horns should only be used in cases of immediate and extreme danger. Outside built-up areas you can use the horn to indicate you intend to pass. At night you must flash your headlights to warn of your intention to pass. It is illegal to use the centre lane of a three- or five-lane two-way street to pass.

Oftentimes mirrors posted above the streetside let you see around sharp curves and corners. Trams can be passed along either side on one-way streets; but on two-way streets they should be passed on the right only. Never pass a tram when passengers are boarding or disembarking it. Outside built-up areas you cannot pass a school bus which has stopped and has its red lights flashing.
It is illegal to drive with your parking lights only, but you must use your low beams during bad weather. Motorcyclists must drive with headlights on at all times.
It’s serious business to publicly humiliate a person in Germany. If it’s proven that you gave a certain other driver the finger (Stinkefinger), you are subject to a ?1125 fine! Tapping your forehead or passing your hand in front of your eyes is considered just as insulting! And a gesture of thumb and index finger circled together may be the worst, drawing as it does in Germany a simile with the least visible bodily orifice. (Though in France and Italy this gesture signifies excellence. Go figure.) Call an officer or any uniformed state official an idiot (Idioten) and kiss ?1535 goodbye. There’s an official list of such offensive words and phrases and corresponding fines. And, hey, smartass, the English equivalents are not exempt.
Card-operated public phones are prolific but coin-operated versions are quite rare. Consider buying a phonecard to use in case you want to make hotel reservations from the road or in case of emergency. They are sold in post offices, among other places.
It’s illegal to wash a vehicle on a public street; this must be done on private property.
On a recent trip to Berlin I found driving there particulary easy – rather wide, well organized and signed streets and avenues and not much traffic. The other cities seem a bit more tricky but not daunting.

Parking

Don’t let your relationship to Germany be mediated by concrete or asphalt constantly. Germans are still essentially forest peoples. Inasmuch as each city sports a stadtwald or city forest, it is perhaps closer to the truth to say rather that each forest boasts a city. Germans are proud of their forests and their forest heritage and as such roughly 40 percent of the country is said to be forested. Extensive networks of foot-, bicycle- and equestrian paths are maintained in most of these forests. So go to the forest, recalling Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood and so on. What you’ll discover is the heart of Germany.
You are considered parked if you leave your vehicle or if you stop for more than three minutes, unless you are loading or unloading cargo or passengers. Parking is prohibited within 5 metres of a pedestrian crossing or an intersection or a built-up-area level railroad crossing, within 10 metres of a traffic light or stop sign or yield sign if you might obstruct the view of the signal or sign, within 15 metres of a bus or tram stop, within 50 metres of a level railroad crossing outside a built-up area, and along a priority road outside a built-up area. No parking zones along streets (for instance, near bus stops) are indicated by a zig-zag white line painted on the street. You must leave a least 3 metres betwen your vehicle and the middle of the street or the nearest lane divider. You may not park or stop in a traffic lane if there is a shoulder or parking lane. Vehicles over 2.8 tonnes cannot park on the sidewalk. Parking discs (Parkscheibe) are required in Blue Zones or Blaue Zones. You can buy these discs at fuel stations, tourist information centres and tobacconists.

In some urban areas a system has been introduced which allows only permit-bearing vehicles of local residents to park between 7 and 10 am and 4 and 7 pm. These Anwohnerparkzonen, however, were recently declared illegal by a federal court in Berlin. For now the signs warning of these zone remain. Although cities such as Frankfurt have simply instructed parking inspectors to stop issuing the ?15 violation tickets in regard to the old rule, others plan to continue enforcing these zones. And Cologne’s response has been to order 400 new parking metres for residential areas. Residents will be allowed to park free of charge, but visitors will have to pay.

Generally, parking is allowed only on the right, except along one-way streets, where both sides do service, and except where rails obstruct the right side. In the residential traffic calming zones described above parking is limited to marked spaces. Touch-parking (maneuvering a car into a parking space by nudging the cars front and back) is illegal. A sign showing an eagle in a green triangle indicates a wild-life reserve and signifies that parking is limited to designated lots. You can spend the night in a vehicle parked on the street, but only one night per parking spot. And you must use leave your parking lights on unless illuminated by an all-night street light. Street lights that do not stay on all night are marked with a white and red band around the post. Illegally parked vehicles may be wheel clamped; in which case the offender should call the police to resolve the situation.
The Parkleitsystem is a parking guidance system using a series of electric signs around the central area of a city. These blue-and-white signs indicate the occupancy of various nearby parking garages. Next to the name of the parking garage is either a number which shows the current number of free spots or the word besetzt (full). A very useful system indeed.

License
Generally foreign drivers licenses are valid for one year. Technically a German translation of the licence is required, but it’s not likely you’ll be asked for one. You can if necessary buy one from the German ADAC motoring club for some ?35. Alternatively you can buy an Internaional Driving Permit from your country’s national auto club for a lot less before you go abroad.
Tourists only need bring their good old domestic licence. However, if staying beyond a year and not an armed forces member, you may need to get a German licence (F?hrerschein). Prerequisites are a valid licence from your country and residence in Germany for more than six months but not more than three years. However, citizens of certain countries enjoy what’s known as Pruuml;fungsfreiheit, which means they are not subject ot either written or road tests to get their licences transferred. These countries include all EU member states, Andorra, the Channel Islands, Hungary, Iceland, Japan, South Korea, Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco, New Caledonia, Norway, French Polynesia, San Marino, Slovenia, and Switzerland — each outstanding, as everyone knows, for their ambiance of excellent drivers. (But even citizens of these so-favored nations will have to pay a fee of ?35 to transfer their licences if they are sticking around beyond the one-year limit.) Some US states do enjoy such full reciprocity. A local German driver’s licence office (Fuuml;hrerscheinstelle) can inform you of your particular responsibilities. In Frankfurt, this office is at Mainzerlandstrsse 321 and is open Monday and Wednesday from 7 am to 1 pm, Tuesday and Thursday from 9:30 am to 1 pm; tel. 069 212 42 334. There’s a special test called Pr?fung for new residents. It’s difficult. The first portion, administered at the local traffic office (Verkehrsamt), covers rules, signs, vocab and energy conservation. If you pass, you can move on to a driving school (Fahrschule) to take the hour-long on-the-road driving portion. Pass and your licence is good forever. Driving schools conduct preparatory courses. Go for the short rules and signs class for new residents rather than the full driving course, which very expensive and extensive. If a school doesn’t offer the special short course for new residents, find one that does.

Fuel

In general major credit cards are accepted. Stations, though, are not half as prolific as in the USA. And don’t expect to find any conveniently situated near airport rental locations. Leaded super petrol has an octane rating of 98. Unleaded petrol is called bleifrei normal or bleifrei super. Regular unleaded petrol has an octane rating of 91; the octane rating of super is 95 or 98. Diesel is, in fact, called diesel. LPG is called autogas.

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