I felt confident that the Germans would have cars that didn't break down 33% of the time so we decided to pick up a vehicle in Stuttgart (see picture).
|We asked for a big hood ornament, but it wouldn't fit.|
It turns out that driving in Germany is not as easy as it looks. Driving in Germany requires the reflexes and skill of a Formula One driver. On the Autobahn, some cars are moving at speeds in excess of 260 km/h (160 mph) and others (usually a Ford Festiva towing a trailer) are going 80 km/h. Staying out of the way of the fast cars and avoiding rear-ending the slow cars can be challenging. Motorcycles like to hide in your blind spot until they zip between the cars at a high rate of speed. There is little room for error because most of the time there are guardrails rather than breakdown lanes inches from the side of your car. In the ancient towns and villages, the roads get narrower and things get more interesting. Street signs are often difficult to find and Germans seem to like to change the name of streets multiple times. The numbering system in German villages seems to be haphazard. It is easy to make a wrong turn. When that happens, you may find yourself having to back up in the dark along a very narrow street with stones sticking out of the walls in odd places. (To add to the challenge we've blocked the view out of the back window with suitcases.)
|It would require pages to explain what this combination of signs means.|
Although parking signs can be confusing, deciphering German highway signs while moving at a high rate of speed is often impossible. It turns out that the Germans are a little bit obsessive compulsive about signs. I have never seen such a bewildering array of road signs. They seem to enjoy changing the speed limit every 500 meters, and burying critical information in a forest of signs. I am sure that the motto of the German highway department is to never use one sign when there are 50 unused signs in storage. To make things more challenging, on the highways, German road signs are usually partially obstructed by a long line of semi-trailer trucks in the right lane. As a result, we are often puzzled about the speed limit and why some cars are speeding past us while other cars seem to be observing a 100 km/h speed limit.
Many of you are probably reading this and smugly thinking that you fully understand international signs. For all of you smug sign experts, I am presenting the following test. All you have to do is to correctly explain the meaning of all of the signs below and I will gladly bow to you. To make the test more realistic, I've tried to make the graphics as small as possible and include a whole bunch of signs together. For maximum realism, print out the signs, put all of the printed signs on the same telephone pole and drive by the pole at 150 km/h with a black Porsche overtaking you at 250 kph and a line of semi-trailer trucks in the right lane partially blocking the signs.
1 - I refer to this as the "no-no" sign, but it actually means "end of parking restrictions indicated by previous signs" but default no-parking rules on highways still apply.
2 - End of no parking zone. This basically means the same thing as the previous sign.
3 - This sign actually makes sense. It means "dead end road, except for pedestrians and bicycles." Because the meaning of the sign is obvious, they like to hide this sign behind bushes or trees.
4 - This is an "end of priority road sign." Does that clarify things for you? It means that although you probably didn't know it, you had been driving on a road that had priority over intersecting roads so you didn't have to yield to people entering from the right. Now you do have to yield to cars entering from the right ... most of the time.
5 - You have the priority right of way at the next intersection only. (Pray that the people coming into the intersection from the other direction know that they are supposed to yield.) Often, the people on the crossroad don't seem to realize that you have the priority, particularly people entering from the right.
6 - The next intersection is uncontrolled (no signals or signs). Call your insurance agent and raise your policy limits.
7 - This sign is common on mountain roads and in small towns with narrow streets. We encountered this sign when going through the one-lane gate of a medieval city. It tells you to expect two-way traffic even though the road doesn't look wide enough for one car. You should yield to oncoming traffic. When seeing this sign, it is often best to sound your horn before proceeding because traffic coming from the opposite direction is usually proceeding at a high rate of speed (knowing that they have the right of way) and they will not be visible until the last moment.
8 - End of 60 km/h speed limit. Usually, they don't bother posting a sign with the new speed limit so default speed limits apply. Unfortunately, we are often uncertain about which default speed limit applies. It is our understanding that the default speed limit on sections of the Autobahn that have speed limits is 130 km/h, but that the default limit on highways in urban areas may be 100 km/h. The default speed limit on rural two-lane roads seems to be 80 km/h and the default speed limit in towns is generally 50 km/h. At least this is what a tour guide told us.
9 - Recommended speed of 100 km/h assuming good weather, and no traffic. Recommended speed signs seem to be used on sections of the Autobahn that have no speed limit. In our experience this means that 50% of the vehicles will now attempt to reach their terminal velocity and that other vehicles will cower in the right hand lane driving the recommended speed. Exceeding the recommended speed means that you may be liable for any accident even if it is not your fault. If you try to drive at a speed between 100 km/h and 260 km/h you will find yourself accelerating hard to get into the left lane and then braking hard when you return to the right lane in order to get out of the way of high speed Porsches and BMWs.
10 - End of minimum speed of 80 km/h. Although it would be very helpful to have a minimum speed to reduce the disparity in speeds, the concept of minimum speeds seems to be ignored by tiny cars pulling huge caravans (travel trailers) that struggle to make it to the top of every hill.
11 - End of all restrictions, except that all of the default restrictions apply (default speed limits, etc.). If you don't know the default speed limits for different types of roads, too bad, you will just have to guess because this is the one time that the Germans won't post a sign. I expect that traffic tickets are already beginning to pile up in our mailbox from the automatic speed cameras that seem to be everywhere.
12 - This sign seems to indicate that cars are allowed on this road, but it has the opposite meaning. It means that motor vehicles are prohibited, except for motorcycles and mopeds. Why is there not a slash through the drawing of a car? That would seem more logical. I can't explain it except that the sign with a car with a slash through it was already used (see #16).
13 - Traffic restriction zone for air pollution. Depending on the location, you have to have either a green, red or yellow sticker to enter the area. We have a green sticker which I think allows us to go anywhere. I hope that is true because we had no idea what the sign meant when we passed it.
14 - End of zone where traffic calming rules apply. What are the traffic calming rules? I don't know.
15 - Vehicle turnout ahead. This looks like it might be a good place to stop and figure out where you are on a map. However, unlike the U.S., you can only stop in the event of an emergency or a breakdown. Of course, if your vehicle breaks down, you probably won't be able to make it to a pull out because they are very rare. On the rest of the highway, a breakdown lane is usually non-existent.
16 - When we first saw this sign we though it meant that cars were not allowed on the road, and we looked for a place to get off the road. However, it actually means "end of expressway."
17 - What do you do when you approach an intersection with a green light and a stop sign next to each other, and a traffic camera watching to see if you know what to do? The guys monitoring the traffic cameras probably had big laugh when they saw me enter the intersection. I tried to satisfy both signs by stopping quickly and then continuing. I now know that when the light is operating, the light takes priority over the sign, but when the traffic light is turned off, the sign controls.
Ist alles klar?
If you understand German road signs you are now ready for Austria. Same deal except that the hills are much bigger and the roads have more curves. Next week, we take on the challenge of driving in Italy. Stay tuned.
Postscript Italy: Same signs but as far as we can determine the signs have no meaning whatsoever to Italian drivers. In addition, the lane markers seem to be merely advisory. In fact, it seems to be a sign of a skilled driver to insert your car between two other cars that happen to be driving down the middle of the indicated lanes of traffic. It also appears that somebody must be giving out awards to encourage people to park creatively. Cars parked by foreigners stand out because on a one-way street they are generally the only cars parked facing in the direction of traffic.