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Each time I cross the border from Czech Republic into Germany I note how the two highways are extremely similar - the asphalt looks the same, roadside barriers are present on both sides, the road width is matching, etc. However in Czech Republic we're only allowed to drive 130 km/h while in Germany you can drive as fast as your car is able to.

How is this difference explained? Is there a key technology that makes German roads far safer than every other highway in the world? Perhaps German drivers are better than everyone else when it comes to high speed? Or is it simply a matter of regulation and deregulation that has absolutely no connection to the physical realities of the road system?

I'm asking this because I always push my car to the limit on the Autobahn, so it is crucial to understand what makes such high speed driving possible.

closed as off-topic by Fattie, CGCampbell, David Richerby, Giorgio, Dmitry Grigoryev Jul 26 '17 at 6:10

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    Compared to the US for example, "Rechtsfahrgebot" has a lot to do with it. Question is protected, so I cannot make that an answer though. – nvoigt Jul 24 '17 at 14:04
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    IIRC you can still get pulled over on the Autobahn for driving at "unsafe speeds" (e.g. 200km/h in a heavy rain) -- there's just no fixed speed limit. I don't live in nor have traveled in Germany though, so I'd advise researching this more :) – Doktor J Jul 24 '17 at 15:20
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    @nvoigt Drivers are obligated to drive on the right-hand side of multi-lane highways in the U.S., too. The exact details of the requirement vary a bit from state to state, but almost every state has some sort of law making it illegal to block traffic by driving continuously in the left lane. How well that's actually enforced and followed, however, is another matter. We unfortunately seem to have a contingent of people who (incorrectly) believe they have a right to drive in the left lane as long as they want if they're driving at the speed limit. – reirab Jul 24 '17 at 18:49
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    @reirab - I've never seen or heard of this being enforced regardless of the law of the state. much to my disappointment. – KevinDTimm Jul 24 '17 at 20:11
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    @NotThatGuy If I squint really hard it looks like a Mathematics question... – user23030 Jul 25 '17 at 2:26
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TL;DR: It’s religious cultural.

A considerable portion of Germans consider the absence of a general speed limit a fundamental freedom and will strongly argue against any suggestions to abolish it. If a politician or political party were to suggest a general autobahn speed limit, they would lose a considerable number of votes – which is why it does not happen. I have experienced that even with very reasonable people (including university professors and legal professionals), it can be impossible to have a reasonable discussion about this topic. Note that this also applies to much higher limits than 130 km/h. As an example, see the discussion on this answer.

This has often been compared to US weapon laws and bullfighting in Spain. If you speak German, this article in a prominent German online newspaper seconds my assessment. The answers to this question also contain a few documents sharing this assessment.

Of course it should be noted that the quality of German highways allows for the laws to be like this without a considerable number of accidents or deaths, and speed limits on highways do exist when the quality of the road or other circumstances would make no speed limit even less advisable.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – JoErNanO Jul 24 '17 at 14:38
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    IMHO it is important to note that the linked "article" is a commentary. – Zulan Jul 24 '17 at 17:23
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    Note that this also applies to much higher limits than 130 km/h Even 1225km/h? What about 1079252850 km/h? – user23030 Jul 25 '17 at 2:28
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    @Michael Yes, most Germans would oppose a speed limit of 500 on Autobahns. The reason why they oppose it was because they know that once the law is there, a change of the number is not that hard any more. The politicians did it with the law against drunk driving, changing the number from 1.6 to .8 to .5 and they are already trying to go down to .3. Germans have a word for that, "Salamitaktik". If you cut off thinnest slices, one at a time, the salami never noticeably loses length, but in the end, it is still completely eaten. – Alexander Jul 25 '17 at 11:46
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    @Alexander I guess it's what English people call a "slippery slope". I.e., yes, sometimes that may be a problem, but it tends to steer the debate away from what is actually at hand towards something completely hypothetical. – Nobody Jul 25 '17 at 14:32
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German autobahns are not exceptionally safe

In fact, German Autobahns have mid-level safety compared to other countries, well behind countries such as the UK. The Czech Republic has particularly unsafe roads by EU standards so you are perhaps better off in Germany but your presumption that German roads are exceptionally safe is unsupported. Thus the unrestricted nature of some of Germany's autobahns is down to history and politics not technology and safety.

I'd also note that actual travel speeds on Germany's autobahns are not as extreme as you suggest.

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    The "safety" Wikipedia section you link to rates "safety" as # of deaths / veh.km. While this certainly is a good measure in general, it seems quite misleading to me in the context of the question. (Because the question seemed to aim at technological measures / quality of the construction.) – Martin Ba Jul 24 '17 at 7:21
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    @MartinBa: But the answer is that the question is misguided. There is no technological or safety reason that German Autobahns are safer (to me, compared to UK motorways they feel noticeably inferior) and, in fact, this is borne out in safety figures where they do not perform exceptionally well. – Jack Aidley Jul 24 '17 at 9:10
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    It's unclear how the fatality rates on roads other than motorways in the Czech republic bear on construction standards of motorways in Germany. This answer references some useful data, but it is doing a poor job of drawing conclusions from it. – Jirka Hanika Jul 24 '17 at 11:15
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    @MartinBa - Deaths occurring is the right starting point for questioning whether there is something uniquely effective about German autobahns, or the driving circumstances in Germany, and/or whether speed limits are necessary. The cited rates are neither so low nor so high as to imply any conclusion; now that we know that, it makes sense to investigate specific factors. – ToolmakerSteve Jul 24 '17 at 12:24
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    @JackAidley - One could equally conclude from the statistics that German autobahns are not exceptionally dangerous; the lack of a fixed speed limit (on some stretches of Autobahn) is not causing a horrendous death rate. Whether that would hold true in other countries is an interesting question [though admittedly not the question being asked]. – ToolmakerSteve Jul 24 '17 at 12:34
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A few things might contribute to make it possible:

  • There are speed limits, a lot of them. There are speed limits around cities, before interchanges, in areas with a lot of traffic or many curves, etc. Increasingly, you will see road sections with dynamic speed limits being turned on or off depending on the conditions. So even in Germany there is an awareness that speeding can be dangerous, people do not speed to the same extent everywhere.
  • You're still responsible for your speed. There are no special safety features, no broader curves or anything like that. If anything, Germany has been underinvesting in its infrastructure and road surface tends to be worse than in neighbouring countries. But drivers are aware that some cars will be very very fast, which might alleviate the danger if you compare it to illegal speeding in other places.

But the key is that nobody knows what the effect on safety is and there are many reasons to think it does have a negative effect overall. All you can say is that it's not dramatically worse to the point that Germany would be much more dangerous than other European countries.

Historically, the number of deaths on the road (appropriately normalised) tended to be lower than in other countries, which specialists explained mostly through the higher traffic density (more cars on the road means more traffic jams and therefore less deadly accidents). Now, it's in the middle of the pack, not much more dangerous than other European countries and certainly safer than, say, North Africa, but not especially safe either.

The thing is that it's a game of numbers, cars don't break down when you pass 140 km/h in another country and in fact you can find many countries in the world with worse road infrastructure and lax rules (or strict rules that aren't enforced). So everything is “possible”, it will just make road slightly safer or slightly more dangerous.

And, ultimately, the issue is highly politicised and, AFAIK, no separate statistics are available on non-limited stretches of motorway (which would be necessary to make a head-to-head comparison or try to model the effect of speed limits).

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    “people do not speed everywhere” – Uh, I believe you are too optimistic here. People do speed absolutely everywhere (and sometimes they make the news because that has led to a serious accident). Still, good answer (+1). – chirlu Jul 23 '17 at 13:00
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    I have to second @chirlu’s assessment: The vast majority of German motorists drives about 30 % above the speed limit – Wrzlprmft Jul 23 '17 at 13:43
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    And a minority is driving much faster. The only way to have a speed limit actually obeyed is to install a speed camera and plant a number of signs making drivers aware of the camera. This will work for a few hundred meters before and a few meters behind the camera. – chirlu Jul 23 '17 at 14:02
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    @chirlu: I'm not a huge fan of them, but average speed cameras can address that particular issue, of drivers slowing only as they pass the camera. Of course I have no idea whether or not they'd be legal in Germany: their courts may or may not accept the Mean Value Theorem ;-) Or, more seriously, the data protection ramifications. – Steve Jessop Jul 23 '17 at 16:11
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    @Steve Jessop: It’s indeed data protection laws that have stopped some currently planned tests with average speed cameras (called “Section Control” in German :-)). But single-point speed cameras work really well for, e.g., dangerous curves. – chirlu Jul 23 '17 at 21:49
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There are in fact some key features distinctive in Germany aside from having the cultural attitude:

  • No garbage cans on the street. Cars must regularly be checked every two years by either the TÜV or the Dekra. Cars which do not pass may not be driven on the road.

  • More demanding environment Germany has a very high car density and in contrast to the typical US checkerboard design the streets in cities are built like a maze, there are one-ways, crossings with five/sive intersections, small alleys, confusing arrangements and in some cities you have also a tram moving on the road together with the cars.

  • Fahrschule: Getting the driving license is relatively expensive (1500€) and quite demanding. The training is given by certified driving instructors inside special cars which allow the instructor to brake the car if he/she sees dangerous behavior.

    • You need to make a visual test which shows that you can see clearly and distinctively even at night
    • You need to make a first aid course (not if you already made one or if you are a paramedic)
    • The theoretical course are at least 14 hours a 90 min. The final test consists of choosing 30 questions, each correct answer give a point, 20 points means a pass. Trying to learn the questions by heart is senseless because there are currently 522 questions for the basic stuff, the extended stuff has 993 questions.

    • Every trainee must absolve Sonderfahrten (special trips) which are at least 1 night trip (3 hours), 1 overland trip (4 hours) and 1 autobahn (5 hours).

    • The practical test itself is one official tester together with your driving instructor. The car is now unmarked. As long as no instructions are given you are driving straight. The tester may not send you into a wrong direction, but that is all. If the straight road is forbidden (one-way in wrong direction) and you try to drive, fail. If you approach a railway without looking out, fail.

    • Driving trucks is even harder, there are more restrictions and more tests.

  • Verkehrsfunk: We have continous radio traffic every 30min or so which warns of traffic congestions, people or game on the autobahn, Geisterfahrer (wrong-way driver) and so on.

  • Flensburg point system and the MPU. Every recorded traffic violation not only causes problems every time (fine, loss of license or even trial), the violations gain you points and once a threshold is reached, you must go to the infamous MPU (idiot test). This means a doctor examines your health and a psychologist talks with you and tries to find out if you have insight in your behavior and if your behavior will remain stable in a positive way. Many, many people do not pass this test.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – JoErNanO Jul 25 '17 at 15:23
17

In addition to the cultural aspects, there is a technical reason for autobahns being safer to drive on. The construction techniques used mean the surface is extremely consistent, with very few bumps, and a design that removes standing water. Additionally, the lanes are wider than those in many other countries with a wide shoulder - when I have driven in the Czech Republic I notice the difference at the edge of the road surface - it is not as consistent as on autobahns.

A couple of specifics:

The autobahn is 27 inches thick, or 686 millimeters thick. The life span is 40 years, compared to 20 years for the United States freeway system that is 11 inches thick.

and

The freeze-resistant concrete helps keep the road smooth. German crews routinely inspect the road network with high tech scanning equipment. When a defect is found, the entire road section is replaced.

(from allkmc.com)

I'd still put the emphasis on culture, but these technical advantages also help.

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    I remember driving (as a passenger) on concrete slabs on a German Autobahn that gave the impression of being so old that they had been constructed by Mr. Hitler himself. – gerrit Jul 24 '17 at 13:28
  • Don't know about the US or Czech Republic but German motorways do not feel especially well built or well maintained compared to France, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands… – Relaxed Jul 24 '17 at 20:56
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    @gerrit That is entirely possible. The last piece of old Reichsautobahn on the A11 east of Berlin, constructed in 1936, was not replaced until 2016 (eighty years later), although admittedly by that point it was in such poor condition that driving in excess of 100 km/h was not advisable. If I recall correctly, one could still encounter various other stretches of 1930's Reichsautobahn well into the 1980s. – njuffa Jul 25 '17 at 4:47
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Driving culture

I feel much more safe driving 170-180 on the German Autobahn than driving 120-130 on equivalent highways in other countries, especially in the East. The main reason is that the Germans keep their distance between the cars.

What I very often see in other countries, and much less often in Germany:

  • tailgating but not overtaking
  • joining a lane between two cars which were already too close to each other
  • closing up behind the car in the front, and suddenly overtaking it in the last second
  • overtaking in the right lane
  • switching multiple lanes with one single motion.
  • choosing a lane seemingly at random, regardless of speed or other drivers.
  • cutting left curves through the lane to their left

Although probably not the main or official reason for having no speed limit, it surely contributes to not having more accidents than average, despite higher average speeds than in other countries.

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    In which area are you usually driving? I observe a choice of these behaviors (except the last one) on every longer Autobahn ride. In particular point 2 is almost standard in dense traffic. No chance to keep the recommended safety distance, somebody will use this gap to switch lanes. – Matthias Jul 24 '17 at 7:25
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    "on every longer Autobahn ride" - have you tried other countries, especially starting from Hungary, and from there to the East and South? There you don't need a longer ride to see it, because everyone is doing it. – vsz Jul 24 '17 at 7:57
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    Everything VSZ says is correct. Sure, in Germany you see a few people doing these bad things - - - tourists. – Fattie Jul 24 '17 at 11:34
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    In my experience, compared to Austria where I drive most of the time, people drive far worse in Germany in general. A few minutes on the German Autobahn and I usually see many people driving slow on the left lane(s), tailgating, cutting in front of me... Of course it is even worse in other places, but to say Germany is especially good in this regard is a bit of a overstatement. – Josef Jul 24 '17 at 12:51
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    @Darkwing Maybe "aggressive" would have been the better word. But anyway, the use of light signals you describe is super-flu (and not in line with the StVO). The friendliest thing that someone who approaches from behind can do is simply slow down and keep a distance (in metres) of half the speed (in km/h), i.e. usually 50-70 m. The people that do the light signal thing, often combined with setting the left indicator, usually come much closer. – Matthias Jul 24 '17 at 19:07
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One thing I haven't seen mentioned yet is that the sections of the Autobahn with no speed limit have well-spaced interchanges (both on and off), compared to the roads in other countries. A common example I hear is that the Autobahn may have segments of 20 or 30 KM without any interchanges, while other European countries have 6 or 7 on that stretch of land. While I can't give a concrete example of this due to unfamiliarity with the Autobahn, an article at http://www.auguszt.de/english/VZ/autobahn.html gives an example of the distance between interchanges sometimes exceeding 30 km. Meanwhile, the 26 km of the E-19 from Antwerp to Zaventem Airport (arbitrary choice based on personal knowledge) has about 10 interchanges depending on what you count as an interchange. Fewer interchanges means less merging traffic, means fewer dangerous manoeuvres, means the speed can be higher for the same risk.

  • That does not seem especially relevant. Belgium and especially Flanders is very dense. You can easily find areas in Germany like that. Meanwhile, France, where any exit ramp requires toll booths and expensive equipment, has relatively few of them. That would not make Germany safer in any way. – Relaxed Jul 25 '17 at 12:18
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    @Relaxed And the areas in Germany which are as dense as Belgium and have many interchanges have a speed limit. Which proves my point exactly. Taking an example from France, the A8 autoroute has roughly 50 junctions and gas stations for a 200 KM stretch, or about 1 every 4 KM. The A6 autoroute has roughly 50 intersections for 450 KM, or 1 every 9 KM. That's nowhere near the 20 or 30 KM that Germany has. – Nzall Jul 25 '17 at 13:55
  • The comparison is still irrelevant, why even mention it then? But, again, I can easily think of a few stretches of motorway in France with 20 or 30km between two exits, handpicking special motorways means nothing. Even in Belgium, the E411 does not have nearly as many as the E19! But if you need a counter-example in Germany, here is one I happen to drive regularly: BAB 30, 36 exit ramps or interchanges for 131 km, most of which with no permanent speed limits. – Relaxed Jul 25 '17 at 15:21
  • And, regarding France, have a look at the A71, you will find one 41-km stretch of motorway with no exit. Bottom line: You can easily find examples of anything and Germany simply has a mix of densely populated areas and less densely populated areas like every other countries around it. Yet it's the only one without a general speed limit. So how does the distance between entry/exit ramps on some motorways explain anything? – Relaxed Jul 25 '17 at 15:24
  • @Relaxed - It sounds like your argument boils down to: If my neighbor's car also has a seatbelt, then my seatbelt doesn't make me safer than my neighbor. So what? Seatbelts are still a safety feature... – industry7 Jul 25 '17 at 20:37
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On a German Autobahn, you can drive as fast as you want provided that:

  • There is no specific speed limit posted; many accident-prone stretches have one.
  • You can do so safely considering the condition of the road, the weather, your vehicle, and other traffic; if there is somebody on the left lane of the Autobahn at a mere 150 kph it is your job to slow down.

Regarding safety, it certainly helps that German drivers are used to speeds in excess of 130 kph. If you haven't done it before, 200 kph is frightening. If you are on a three-lane-per-direction highway and the other guys in the leftmost lane are all doing 200 kph, you just go with the flow, and pass motorists who are doing 130 mph in the middle lane. Just watch out for those people who pull into your lane at a mere 150 kph ...

If you want to go 280 kph, there are a couple of stretches where it can be safely done, on a Sunday morning (few trucks) on a sunny summer day (dry and bright).

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    Having been a front seat passenger on German motorways on rainy days I can asure you that not all people restrict high speeds to empty roads and good weather. People on the rightmost lane were going around 100km/h, less when there were slower trucks, people in the left most lane did overtake us (about 120 km/h) in the middle lane with high speeds in weather with often heavy rain. Of course, it gets more 'fun' when one truck passes an other at 95km/h and the rest of the traffic gets pushed left because if it. – Willeke Jul 23 '17 at 12:49
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    I didn't find speeds well in excess of 200km/h all that frightening, however my colleague (and front seat passenger) apparently did. A good car with properly rated tires is quite stable. – Spehro Pefhany Jul 23 '17 at 12:58
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    @Willeke Sounds like the person you drove with wanted to show off. Just like in every country, there are people who take too much risk. – Luc Jul 24 '17 at 6:36
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    @Willeke There is a word and Wikipedia article for that: Elefantenrennen – gerrit Jul 24 '17 at 13:30
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    @gerrit, I thought that an Elefantenrennen is one truck at 102 kph overtaking another truck at 98 kph, or thereabouts. Two big vehicles, and they take an eternity to pass each other. – o.m. Jul 24 '17 at 16:05

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