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Wednesday, 31 May 2006 00:00

Life in the (really) fast lane

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By Michael Beadle

Welcome to the Autobahn: land of the speedy, home of the brave.

You have to be brave if you want to pass a car going a mere 80 miles an hour and not end up as the hood ornament on a BMW.

For those of us who aren’t INDY or NASCAR drivers, it doesn’t get much faster than Germany’s Autobahn, a series of highways (7,500 miles) where motorists can cruise at legal speeds of 120 miles per hour and more.

You don’t, as a rule, drive in the fast lane. You pass cars in the fast lane and get out of the way because somebody behind you is always driving faster.

In a country where sports cars are built for precision and speed — Munich being the home of BMW and Stuttgart being the home of Porsche and Mercedes Benz — the Germans have created a unique driving experience.

First, you’ll notice there are fewer distractions on the Autobahn — rarely (if ever) did I see a billboard advertisement, bumper sticker or vanity plate. Traffic signs are minimal and highway exits (Ausfahrts) are streamlined for convenience. Gas stations are directly off the highway — not up an exit ramp and over a quarter mile. There’s even a paid attendant who checks in on you when you use the gas station restroom. (We dubbed him the Scheissemeister.)

Now, don’t get the impression that the Autobahn is a reckless strip of asphalt rocketships. There are, in fact, speed limits in some places — 120 kilometers per hour (80 mph) and 180 kilometers per hour (125 mph). These signs are posted like regular speed limit signs, but when you drive out of these zones, instead of a sign that reads, “free speed for all,” there’s a sign with a line slanted across the speed limit number as if to say, “Don’t drive that slow.”

For those who want to test Germany’s traffic laws, there are strategically placed cameras on bridges that will take a photo of your car and its license plate. You’ll get a ticket mailed to you.

You’ll also pay a hefty fine for driving while impaired. (There are breathalyzer machines in some bars to test the level of alcohol in your system in case you’d be dumb enough to drink and drive.)

And there’s no stopping on the side of the road. You’ll be ticketed — even if you run out of gas, which is considered an inconvenience you could have avoided. However, if you happen to drive past a stranded motorist and do not stop to help, you can get a ticket for that too.

In case of an accident — and with cars racing at such high speeds, it’s doubtful you’d survive a wreck — the car’s tires often determine who’s at fault. If the tires were not set for the speed at the time of the crash, that car may well end up paying for the damages.

Naturally, just to learn all the particulars of German driving may take months — and so does getting your driver’s license in Germany.

Once you get your license, you may want to buy an energy efficient automobile. Gas prices start at $5-$6 a gallon. Instead of hefty SUV’s burning the pavement, the toy box Smart cars are a sporty alternative overseas. Not surprisingly, it’s much more affordable to get around on a public transit train, and bicycles aren’t just used for exercise.

But just for the sheer thrill, get thee to an Autobahn. Just watch out for that Porsche roaring into your rear-view. Images may be faster than they appear.

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