Home : Driving : The Autobahn


Autobahn photoThe Autobahn is the pinnacle of the German driving experience, perhaps the ultimate in driving altogether. Virtually all of the world's serious drivers have heard of it and longed to take their shot at conquering it. German cars are known for their precise engineering and craftsmanship; the Autobahn completes the driving equation.

Some people are disappointed the first time they drive on the Autobahn. They come with visions of a twenty-lane superhighway where cars are barely a blur as they whiz by. In reality, the Autobahn looks like the average freeway, and despite rumors to the contrary, not everyone is traveling at the speed of sound. And the stories of unlimited speed are only half correct-- many sections of Autobahn do have speed limits.

Still, the Autobahn offers a transcendental driving experience. The roads are in extremely excellent condition, except in some areas of the east where the government is still trying to undo 40 years of Communist "maintenance". Amenities are numerous, and drivers are well-trained and cooperative. It's life in the fast lane on the Autobahn, and everyone's on the same page.

If you're just looking for practical information about driving on the Autobahn, you may want to skip down to the Regulations section and read everything below it. The next two sections are geared more toward road aficionados, although the Design section may be of some interest to tourists.


Map of current Autobahn networkWhat is widely regarded as the world's first motorway was built in Berlin between 1913 and 1921. The 19 km long AVUS, in southwestern Berlin, was an experimental highway that was (and occasionally still is) used for racing. It featured two 8 meter lanes separated by a 9 meter wide median. Italy built several expressways in the 1920s and Germany followed with its first "auto-only roads" opening in 1929 between Düsseldorf and Opladen and in 1932 between Cologne and Bonn. More routes were planned in the early '30s and Adolf Hitler, seeing the propaganda benefits of a high-speed road system (as well as the immediate military and employment value) started a program to build two north-south and east-west links. The first of these Reichsautobahnen opened on May 19th,1935 between Frankfurt and Darmstadt. At the end of World War II, the Autobahn network totalled 2,128 km. Construction on new sections finally started again in 1953, with 144 km added between 1953 and 1958, bringing the total to 2,272 km. Starting in 1959, the Federal Republic began Autobahn expansion in ernest by embarking on a series of 4-year plans that expanded the Bundesautobahnen system to 3,076 km by 1964. Major additions continued during the next two decades and the system reached 4,110 km in 1970; 5,258 km in 1973; 6,207 km in 1976; 7,029 km in 1979; and 8,080 km in 1984. A new series of 5-year plans, with the goal of putting an Autobahn entrance within 10 km of any point in Germany, had expanded the net to over 8,800 km by 1990. The reunification of Germany in 1990, however, put those plans on hold as the federal government focused on absorbing and upgrading the Autobahns it inherited from East Germany. The incorporation of those East German Autobahns put the total Autobahn network at almost 11,000 km in 1992. Additions to the unified network increased the total to 11,712 km in 2001. This makes the Autobahn network the world's second largest superhighway system.

(Right: Map of current Autobahn network. For a larger map, see the WWW links at the bottom of this page.)

Early Autobahns were rather crude by today's standards. The first Autobahns, like their Italian counterparts, featured limited-access and grade-separated crossings, but no medians. The first Reichsautobahnen did have narrow medians, but no shoulders, and ramps and waysides had cobblestone surfaces. When Germany was reunified in 1989, the Autobahns of East Germany were in virtually the same condition as they were in 1945 with the aforementioned features as well as inadequate signing, infrequent (and often non-functional) emergency telephones located in the center median, and service areas consisting of a dilapidated roadhouse next to a wayside. New West German Autobahns had for many years featured 3.75 meter wide lanes, shoulders, landscaped medians with crash barriers, frequent roadside emergency telephones, and ample, well-adorned service areas. Since reunification, the German government has expedited upgrading of the old East German Autobahns in a series of "German Unity Transport Projects." To date, over 370 km of Autobahn have been upgraded and 70 km of new Autobahn have been built. Nearly 500 km of new routes or upgrades to existing Autobahns are under construction.


Typical section of Autobahn
(Above: Typical section of Autobahn.)

The general rule for design is to provide for unimpeded, high-speed traffic flow. Unimproved eastern segments aside, most Autobahns feature the following design elements:

In addition, Autobahns also feature the following amenities:

Maintenance is superb. Crews inspect every meter of the system periodically, and when a fissure or other defect is found, the entire road section is replaced. Signs, barriers, and other features are also well maintained.

Urban Autobahns: Generally speaking, the mainline Autobahn routes avoid the metropolitan cores. Instead, spur routes provide Autobahn access into and within the cities. These spurs are usually built as "Urban Autobahns" (Stadtautobahnen). Design features of Urban Autobahns include six or eight lane elevated or depressed roadways with frequent and more closely-spaced diamond-style interchanges. The standard rural signage standards are suspended in favor of more appropriate closely-spaced overhead signs. There are sometimes no emergency phones or roadside reflector posts. Tunnels and overpasses are more frequent and nighttime illumination is often provided. Medians are usually just double-sided guardrail or concrete barrier.


To safely facilitate heavy, high-speed traffic, special laws apply when driving on the Autobahn:

There are no tolls to use the Autobahn. It is one of the few free superhighway systems in Europe. There was some talk a few years ago of charging an annual fee (like Switzerland), but that hasn't materialized.

Driving customs:

Autobahn cross section


Despite the widespread belief of complete freedom from speed limits, and a lobbying effort that has the same power and deep pockets that the American gun lobby has, some speed regulations can be found on the Autobahns. Many sections, particularly those with dangerous curves, in urban areas, or with unusually constant heavy traffic, may feature speed limits ranging from 80 to 120 km/h (50-75 mph). In construction zones, the limit may be as low as 60 km/h (37 mph). Also, some sections now feature nighttime and wet-weather speed restrictions, and trucks are always regulated (see table below). Still, much of the Autobahn is unlimited, but there is a recommended limit of 130 km/h (81 mph). This recommendation is generally seen for what it is-- an attempt by the government to cover itself without having to upset millions of Porsche and BMW owners/voters. However, if you exceed the recommended limit and are involved in an accident, you could be responsible for some of the damage costs even if you are not at fault.

(These are maximum "default" limits. Posted signs override these limits.)

130 km/h recommended

Car w/trailerTruck
BusTruck with trailer

80 km/h*

(* Some vehicles may be exempted from this. A decal resembling a speed limit sign displayed on the back of a vehicle indicates that it is exempt from the general limit and may travel the speed indicated on the label, generally 100 km/h for vehicles up to 7.5t, and 80 km/h for vehicles over 7.5t.)

Many sections of Autobahn now feature dynamic speed limits which are adjusted to respond to traffic, weather, and road conditions. These speed limits and conditions are indicated using electronic signs. See my electronic signs page for a detailed description of these systems.

A movement by the environmentalist Green party to enact a national speed limit has not made great strides. The Greens claim that the high speeds contribute to air pollution which has caused widespread Waldsterben, or forest destruction. Some Autobahns in forest areas have seen new limits imposed, but a national limit remains unlikely. During the coalition government negotiations in 1998 between the new Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrat party and the Greens, one of the final points to be resolved was the Greens' desire for a nationwide 100 km/h speed limit on the Autobahns. In the end, however, a compromise was struck whereby energy taxes would be raised and local governments could reduce speed limits on city streets, but no national Autobahn speed limit would be implemented.

A national speed limit of 100 km/h (60 mph) was enacted in November 1973 during the energy crisis. It was repealed less than four months later.

Despite the general high speeds, the accident and death rate on the Autobahn is relatively low. Autobahn crashes account for only 10% of national traffic fatalities and, in fact, the fatality rate is lower on the Autobahn than on US Interstates.


Typical weekend and holiday Autobahn trafficBecause of Germany's location in central Europe, traffic on the Autobahn is generally heavy. In 1997, motorists logged a staggering 189.7 billion kilometers on the Autobahn, averaging 46,700 vehicles per day on any given segment. This amounts to 30% of all traffic in Germany. As a result, traffic jams occur frequently on the Autobahn, especially on Fridays, Sundays, and holidays, and anytime after an accident or during bad weather or construction. Regional traffic reports (called a variety of names including Verkehrsmeldungen, Verkehrsdienst,Verkehrsfunk, and Stauschau) are excellent and are provided on most radio stations. Germany is divided into traffic reporting regions (Verkehrsrundfunkbereichen); signs Sign 368 along the road indicate the local radio stations carrying the traffic reports for the region you are in. You will need to have a working knowledge of German to understand them, though. In addition to radio traffic reports, many sections of Autobahn have electronic signs to warn of downstream congestion and to reduce the speed of traffic as it approaches the jam. (See the electronic signs page for more details.) On sections without electronic signs, the police do an excellent job of warning of unexpected jams via large "STAU" ("traffic jam") signs mounted on police cars parked along the shoulder or on banners draped from overpasses.

(Right: Typical weekend and holiday Autobahn traffic.)

Recently, in an attempt to help improve traffic flow, traffic is now being permitted to use the emergency shoulder as a traffic lane during congested periods along some sections of Autobahn. Lane control signals or other signs indicate when this is permissible.

(A couple of notes about traffic reports: Sometimes the "traffic report" may include information that has nothing to do with traffic such as emergency alerts, police bulletins, etc. Also, if you have a German rental car with a cassette or CD player, don't be surprised if your tape or disc is interrupted by reports of a Stau somewhere. German radio tuners continue to monitor the last-selected radio station even when a tape or CD is being played. Radio stations broadcast a special tone at the start of traffic reports and when the tuner detects this tone, it switches the audio from the tape or CD to the radio so that you can hear the information. Traffic reports use several terms to describe varying levels of congestion: "Stau" usually means a heavy-duty traffic jam where you might get to know the people in the cars around you; "stockender Verkehr" indicates stacking or slow-and-go type traffic; and "zähfliesender Verkehr" denotes sluggish or slow but steady traffic.)


Autobahn construction areaBecause of the stringent and constant maintenance of the Autobahns, construction zones are frequent and widespread. Larger construction projects often feature a traffic shift-- the lanes for one direction of traffic are shifted to the opposite side of the median so that one side of the Autobahn can be worked on in its entirety. Such situations are well-marked with Sign 501-11signs and speed limits are usually reduced greatly in these areas. In this configuration, the lanes are narrow and opposing traffic is sometimes separated only by short reflector posts!

(Left: Autobahn construction area. Note the yellow road markings. These supercede all regular markings in work zones.)

In the event that a segment of Autobahn must be closed due to an accident or other emergency, pre-posted detours are ready to guide traffic around the closure. When you exit the Autobahn, start following the Sign 460-10 signs. Each exit has a numbered detour route that will take you to the next entrance. If that entrance is also closed, follow the next sequential detour number to reach the next entrance after that (odd numbers head in one direction, even numbers in the opposite direction.) You can also use these detours as an optional route to bypass congestion.


Autobahn service areaThe Autobahn has an extensive system of service areas (Rasthof, Raststätte) generally spaced between 40 and 60 kilometers apart. At minimum, these are usually feature a gas station (Tankstelle), snack bar, convenience store, telephones, and restrooms. Many also feature cafeterias or full-service restaurants, bakeries, hotels, showers, playgrounds, conference rooms, ATMs, and chapels. There are over 700 service areas in operation. All service areas are open 24 hours a day. A brochure with maps and charts showing the location and services available at each service area nationwide is available. There's also an online version of the brochure on the World Wide Web (see WWW links below.)

(Right: Autobahn service area.)

Signs announcing the approach of a service area include symbols indicating the services provided there. These symbols are shown below. (The unleaded fuel sign is now obsolete as all service stations now supply unleaded [Bleifrei] fuel, but you still might see it on older signs.)

Sign 361 Sign 361-51 Sign 376 Sign 377 Sign 375
Fuel Unleaded
Restaurant Snack bar Hotel
Service area approach sign
Service area approach sign. The white sign at the bottom
indicates the distance to the next service area.
  Service area exit sign
Service area exit. Notice the fuel brand name sign.
Parking area approach sign   Parking area approach sign Smaller parking areas, many equipped with restrooms (WC), are even more abundant along the Autobahn. These are marked with signs like those shown to the left.
The past decade has seen the proliferation of service facilities (mainly gas stations and fast-food restaurants) near Autobahn exit ramps. Especially increasing in popularity are truck stops (Autohof). These generally offer facilities comparable to the service areas. Most are now marked by special signs on the Autobahn like the one to the right. Truck stop exit sign

Overhead signsSignage on the Autobahn is excellent. All direction signs on the Autobahn as well as those giving directions to the Autobahn are white on blue. Signage before interchanges is standard both in form and placement. That said, it should be noted that the Autobahn sign system is currently in the process of being overhauled. As a result, you are likely to come across older signs and signs that have extra plates or sections added-on as a temporary measure until the sign can be completely replaced.

Overhead signs are being used increasingly more frequently. These signs generally take on the forms shown in the various pictures on this page. Note that the route number shields are typically located at the bottom of the signs rather than at the top like in the US. Drivers should also be aware that unlike the US, directions on the Autobahn (as well as other roads) are not given using the cardinal directions (North, South, East, West), but rather by destination cities. Know what the major cities are along your route before you start out.

(Left: Various overhead Autobahn guide signs.)

Autobahns bear 1, 2, or 3 digit numbers with an "A" prefix (i.e. A8). The "A" is not shown on signs. The 1 and 2 digit numbers indicate mainline routes; 3 digit number are spurs. Even-numbered routes generally run east-west and odd-numbered routes north-south. Route numbers for spurs and connectors usually start with the parent number followed by an additional digit or two to make three digits total (i.e. the A831 branches off of the A8; the A241 branches off of the A24.) Route markers are an oblong white and blue hexagon: Sign 405

Traffic control systems utilizing electronic signs have become widespread on the Autobahn system over the last decade. See the electronic signs page for more details.

Here are the main signs you will encounter:

Sign 330 Autobahn Entrance Sign
  • Marks entrance ramps to the Autobahn and indicates the start of Autobahn traffic regulations.
  • This symbol is also used on signs giving directions to the Autobahn.
Sign 448 Initial Interchange Approach Sign
  • Placed 1000 meters before exits; 2000 meters before Autobahn junctions.
  • Shows the exit/junction number and name of the interchange.
  • The symbol indicates the type of interchange:
Sign 449 Advance Interchange Directional Sign
  • Placed 500 meters before exits; 1000 meters and 500 meters before Autobahn junctions.
  • Shows a schematic of the interchange and gives additional destinations and route numbers.
Sign 406
Sign 450
Sign 451 Sign 452
Interchange Countdown Markers
  • Placed 300 meters (3 stripes), 200 meters (2 stripes), and 100 meters (1 stripe) before the exit.
  • Interchange number appears atop the 300 meter marker.
Sign 332 Exit Marker
  • Located at exit point. Occasionally placed in the median.
Sign 333 Exit Sign
  • Marks the exit ramp.
Sign 406 Interchange Number Sign
  • Shown on the Initial Interchange Approach Sign and on the first Interchange Countdown Marker.
  • Interchanges are numbered sequentially.
Sign 453 Distance Sign
  • Placed after every entrance.
  • Lists distances to major cities along the route.
  • Distances to other nearby major cities accessible from an intersecting
    Autobahn are listed at the bottom with the respective route number.
Sign 334 End of Autobahn Sign
  • Located on exit ramps from the Autobahn and indicates the end of Autobahn traffic regulations.
  • Also used to warn that the Autobahn ends ahead.


Diagram exit sign Diagram exit sign

(Above: Diagram signs are common in Germany and are especially
helpful in preparing motorists for complicated interchanges.)

  Overhead butterfly sign
(Above: "Butterfly" overhead signs used at interchanges and major exits.
Note the route numbers are located at the bottom of the sign.)


Pavement markings on the Autobahn are fairly obvious. You can see examples of several of these in the picture to the right and on other pictures on this page:
  • Solid white line- Marks the left edge of the road or, on the right side, marks the inside of the shoulder or the right edge of the road.
  • Long, thin broken white lines- Separate traffic lanes.
  • Short, thick broken white lines- Separate a deceleration (exit) lane or acceleration (entrance) lane from the main traffic lanes.
  • V-diagonal markings- Mark the restricted area at an exit gore.
  • Yellow markings- Used in construction zones and supercede all regular white markings.

See the road markings page for more details.

(Right: Autobahn lane markings.)

Autobahn road markings

Autobahn emergency telephoneIn the event of an emergency along the Autobahn, you are never more than a kilometer away from help. Emergency telephones (Notrufsäule) are located at 2 km intervals along the sides of the road. The direction to the nearest phone is indicated by small arrows atop the roadside reflector posts (see picture to the right.) In long tunnels, emergency phones are located in safe rooms every 100-200 meters. Reflector post with arrow

(Left: Autobahn emergency phone. Right: Roadside reflector post with arrow pointing to nearest emergency phone.)

The emergency phone system has recently been privatized. All calls now go to a central call center in Hamburg. In the event of an accident, dispatchers there will immediately connect the caller to the nearest police or emergency services office. For breakdowns, the dispatcher will obtain the information necessary to send the appropriate service. This may include the "Yellow Angels" of the ADAC or AvD auto club; a tow truck; or an insurance, dealership, or rental car repair service. Roadside assistance is free, but you'll likely have to pay for parts. If you need to be towed, there is no charge to remove the vehicle from the Autobahn, but you will have to pay for towing beyond that. (If you're driving a rental car, all services should be covered by the rental agency.)

There are now two varieties of emergency phones in use. They both look the same from the road but each operates differently. On the older phones, you will find a cover with a handle. Lift the cover all the way and wait for a dispatcher to answer. The newer phones don't have a cover; instead, they have an external speaker/microphone area with two buttons that you can press to connect you to the appropriate dispatcher. There is a yellow button with a wrench symbol for reporting a breakdown and a red button with a red cross to report an accident. Press the appropriate button and wait for a reply. In most cases, the location of the phone is transmitted automatically when your call is connected. If not, you will need to give the dispatcher the kilometer location of the phone as indicated on a label on the inside of the cover or near the speaker. For an accident, report the number of vehicles involved and any injuries. For a breakdown, be prepared to report the vehicle's license number, make and model, color, and your auto club, insurance company, or rental agency. Many dispatchers speak English. After calling, return to your vehicle or the accident scene and wait for help. For breakdowns, someone will arrive shortly to assist you. In the event of an accident, a cavalry of emergency aid will descend on you. Police, fire service, ambulances, and emergency doctors all respond to Autobahn crashes. A medical evacuation helicopter is also always on standby.

Old-style Autobahn emergency phone
(Above: Old-style emergency phone.)
  Man using Autobahn emergency phone
(Above: This man is demonstrating how to use
an old-style Autobahn emergency phone.)
  New-style Autobahn emergency phone
(Above: New-style emergency phone.)


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NOTICE: The information contained on this site is provided "as-is". Although I make reasonable efforts to keep it updated, I make no guarantee regarding accuracy and assume no responsibility for inconveniences or other issues arising from its use. All opinions expressed are strictly my own.