An expat survival guide to driving a car in Germany
Driving a car in Germany can be extremely satisfying - fun even. Indeed, virtually no other place in the world has motorways with no speed limit (except maybe the Isle of Man, I am told). In Germany, famously, the motorway is known as the Autobahn, an invention that is often erroneously credited to an infamous Austrian bloke, who went by the first name of Adolf, but that’s beside the point.
Driving in a German city is a whole different kettle of fish. Depending on where you live, some cities can be really chaotic and particularly difficult to navigate in a car, but we’ll get to that in a bit. If you got your driving licence in any country other than Germany, you need to be aware of the different driving rules here, or rather the difference in their interpretation. Let’s take a look at some of the more unusual German driving quirks.
Honking the horn
It still drives me insane every time a car honks at me, particularly at a traffic light. The thing you need to understand is that Germans are used to people honking at them, and they will do the same unto others. There are several reasons Germans turn to honking their horns. Below I’ve listed some of the most common ones:
- If someone waits one nanosecond too long after the light has turned green.
- If another car has just barged in front of them, from another lane.
- If a car on the left won’t let them into their lane.
- If a pedestrian runs across the road.
- If someone is driving at 49km/h in a 50 zone.
Blocking the inside lane
This one applies to cities in particular. Be it delivery vans, trucks, postal vans, or even normal cars, nobody will so much as blink an eye if a car suddenly decides to stop, put its hazard lights on, and do whatever they like at the side of the road.
Germany is a very green country, and the German government has made a great push to make their cities cycle-friendly. This primarily involves reconfiguring city infrastructure to make space for bike lanes on roads. Granted, this is fabulous for cyclists, and for the environment; however, for drivers, it adds another hazard they need to look out for, particularly when turning right into a sidestreet. Quite recently, some cities have even banished cars from their city centres, in a bid to go completely car-free.
The thing to remember is that, on German motorways, speed is king. In other words, the one who drives the fastest has the right of way. Many drivers take this as a welcoming carte blanche, and you will inevitably see German cars whizzing past you at phenomenal speeds. But to many others, this can be quite an ordeal, particularly when someone is sitting right on your proverbial butt, wanting to pass.
The thing to remember is that the yield rule applies to the middle lane too, so if somebody is driving faster than you in the middle lane, you are expected to yield into the outer lane. Remember, hogging the middle lane is frowned upon by Germans, and you will most likely feel their sentiment by seeing the front bumper of their car up close in your rear-view mirror.
Turning left at junctions
Probably the most confusing and frightening experience that you’ll have as a driver in Germany is turning left at a junction. To understand why, you’ll need to first get a bit of background information on Germany. Whereas the Anglo Saxons solved the junction problem with roundabouts, the Germans were relatively late to incorporate this concept into their traffic system.
What you’ll more commonly find is the so-called square box - basically, an intersection involving people travelling in four different directions. To turn left, a car must proceed to the middle of the junction, turn left slightly, and then wait for a gap in the oncoming traffic that allows them to turn into the adjacent road. The thing that makes many drivers a little uncomfortable: anyone in the oncoming traffic who wants to turn left will basically do the same as you, effectively stopping head-to-head with your car.
Driving in cities
If you want to put your driving skills to the ultimate test, then Berlin is the place to be. No other city in Germany is so chaotic and unpredictable as the capital. As a driver, you need to be constantly vigilant and aware of everything happening around you. This includes roadworks, traffic lights, changing lanes, turning left at road junctions, pedestrians, suicide cyclists, and, as if that isn’t enough, you also need to look out for BMW drivers.
Get driving like a German
Despite crazy speeds on Autobahns, Germans take their road safety very seriously, enjoying some of the lowest accident rates in Europe. You might think the drivers are rude and impatient for honking at you, but that’s just a German thing.
In reality, drivers tend to be very courteous, always letting you into the main lane, and patiently waiting for you while you’re trying to parallel park on a busy street. They follow the rules to the letter of the law - hardly surprising - and they expect the same of you, or else they will blow their German horn at you. Have a nice drive.