15 September 2009

Before I drive the Mercedes...

Some Wikipedia information on the fabled German Autobahn system:


The word "Autobahn" simply means motorway, and could refer to any motorway in a German-speaking country. The German Autobahn system is specifically known as Bundesautobahnen (federal motorways). Its total network length is over 12,000 kilometers - surpassed only by the US interstates and the new Chinese expressway system, in a much smaller country.

The routes are numbered in a very logical fashion. The primary routes have single-digit numbers, the major regional routes double-digit, and the local spurs triple-digit. I'll most likely be driving on the A8, the southernmost main east-west route, as well as the A7, a major north-south route in western Bavaria.

The Autobahns are most famous for their lack of a speed limit. I should, however, expect a speed limit in urban areas and construction zones. Even in no-limit areas, there is a recommended limit of 130 km/h (81 mph), and I can expect an average cruising speed of 150 km/h (93 mph) - still wicked fast. My Mercedes has been ordered with a self-adjusting air suspension system, which will lower the car at the 150 km/h mark for improved stability and aerodynamics; I guess it's a feature I'll never get to use stateside. The best bets for no limits are in sparsely populated stretches, like the A8 and the A81, both of which I indeed expect to drive.

Finding a rest area shouldn't be too difficult. There should be one every 55 km or so. Beats California, where I can go over 150 miles easily without a rest stop in sight. The rest areas have meals and drinks - even alcohol, which of course I must stay away from.

I will have to make sure to understand the very strict regulations that keep those insane speeds safe. The article explains many of the regulations, and some paraphrased are:
  • No passing on the right, except in traffic jams.
  • Absolutely no tailgating. Minimum following distance in meters is half of my current speed in km/h. For example, if I do 120 km/h (75 mph), I must leave a 60-meter space in front. If my following distance is under 30% of minimum (18m in this case), I can expect to be fined and have my license confiscated on the spot.
  • It is okay to flash headlights to ask a slower driver in the fast lane to move over. But again, no tailgating as I do it. If I tailgate and flash headlights, that's an act of coercion, and subject to citation.
  • On the flip side, hogging the fast lane and impeding the smooth flow of traffic is just as illegal.
  • No stopping unless there is no option (accident or traffic jam). Running out of fuel is NOT a valid excuse, since it's completely preventable.
  • I must watch for any vehicle over 3.5 metric tons. Such vehicles are limited to 80 km/h.
  • Automated cameras exist on many stretches, to provide hard evidence of such offenses as tailgating that are otherwise extremely difficult to prove. However, Autobahnpolizei do patrol in person as well.
And of course, I must remember that all I have is a California driver's license, which says absolutely nothing about my actual ability to drive. It's exceedingly difficult to be licensed in Germany, and while drivers of many countries, including some US states, can easily exchange their driver's licenses for a German license without a driving test (of course, only if they're staying in Germany long-term or permanently), Californians don't have that perk due to the mediocrity of California drivers. I must know my limits and drive defensively. Given that I have a brand-new car to break in, I won't be a speed demon right away anyway.

Once I cross into Austria, to visit Salzburg and on my way to Venice, I'll have to deal with a few more regulations. Mercedes-Benz has advised me that I must have all-season tires whenever the temperature is below 7C, or I can be fined EUR 5,000; my car will have all-seasons, so this won't be an issue. I must also have an International Driving Permit, as well as a safety vest. Most importantly, tolls will be paid in the form of a windshield sticker. In other words, better be ready as I near the border.

Looking forward to a great drive. My drive in South Korea last year was one of the best things I ever did, and my British drive of 1998 was also a great one. This drive will top them both.