Germany Travel Guide

Myths of the Autobahn: What’s Really Going on With Germany’s Famous Highway?

PHOTO: Michael von Aichberger

And now, everything you never wanted to know about Germany’s superhighway.

To somebody used to America’s driving culture, which frequently resembles Mad Max but in slow-motion, the German autobahn might appear to be a nightmare dimension populated entirely by drag-racing goblins. That’s only partly true–the goblins have as much of a right to the road as anybody else, and they’re very responsible drivers. The highway system was started in the 1930s, and it reached its potential as a seminal Kraftwerk album in 1974. There’s a number of myths and half-truths about the autobahn, so we’re doing some investigating.

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The Autobahn Has No Speed Limit

Despite the autobahn’s reputation as an 8,705-mile no-holds-barred racetrack in which consequences don’t exist and any utterance of the words “speed limit” is punishable by three hours of Rammstein, as much as one-third of the autobahn has speed limits. This is due to a number of factors, like construction, noise reduction in heavily populated areas of the country, particularly perilous sections of road, and other conditions. There’s also a recommended speed limit of 80 mph, but it might as well have quotation marks around it, as well as a dancing salsa lady emoji.

Adolf Hitler Is Responsible for the Autobahn

I need you to understand that, even aside from the genocide and the war crimes, Adolf Hitler was an unbelievable scrub who only ever latched onto other people’s ideas and claimed them as his own once it became clear that none of his subordinates could call him on it. Plans for the construction of the autobahn began in the 1920s, and the first section of road (between Cologne and Bonn) was begun in 1929 – fully four years before Hitler was elected Chancellor in 1933.

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It’s just a highway. A really long highway.

 The Autobahn Is Nightmarishly Dangerous

You would think that a highway where everybody is driving 100 miles per hour would have the highest rate of death of any highway in the world, but as it happens, it’s a relatively safe place in which to scream Icarus-like into a blazing inferno of white-hot speed. It’s certainly above the rest of Europe when it comes to auto fatality statistics (about 10% higher on average than any other European nation), but rural road deaths in Germany make up five times the death statistics of highway fatalities. (The biggest outlier in Europe’s auto fatality rate is Switzerland, which usually hangs out somewhere near the 0% mark. Nobody likes a showoff.) Oddly, the largest wreck in the history of the autobahn was a 259-car pileup in 2009, which, although it looks like the car crash scene from The Blues Brothers, did not result in any fatalities–just dozens of injuries.

The Entire Autobahn Is One Perfectly Straight, Smooth Road

Not actually true! I would have believed this at once without any evidence whatsoever because my brain would just mutter “Oh, those efficient Germans,” but this is unfortunately just not the case, as Germany itself is not one long, straight line punctuating France and Poland. It curves through hills and forests, just like any highway, and it is woefully, tragically not just an 8,705 mile-long launchpad for tragedy. It’s just a highway. A really long highway. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the autobahn is as smooth as butter the whole way across because 1.) Germans actually invest money in their infrastructure, and 2.) if you hit a pothole while going 150 mph, you will die at least fifteen deaths. Possibly more.

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You Can Ride Your Bicycle on the Autobahn

Good lord, no. No. A thousand times, no. With your one wild and precious life, you’re going to pedal your little bike down one of the final levels of F-Zero? Will you attach a basket to the front of it, too, you complete maniac? If you absolutely must ride your bicycle on an autobahn, good news: A few years ago, Germany began construction on its first “bike autobahn” between Duisburg and Hamm, and the whole thing is eventually intended to span about 62 miles. The actual name of the path is the radschnellweg, which is just outstanding. I feel like you have to do stretches before saying “radschnellweg.”