NMA E-Newsletter #275: Driving in Germany—A View from the Windshield

Editor’s Note: In last week’s newsletter a member provided helpful insights about driving overseas. This week, NMA board member Eric Berg shares observations about driving in Germany. He makes important points regarding driver training requirements in Germany compared with those in the United States. The Germans take their driving training seriously, which pays off in lower fatality rates, even on the famously fast Autobahn system. Eric points out that German police target driver behavior that obstructs smooth traffic flow, rather than fixate on speed.

Perhaps it is time for mandatory enhanced U.S. driver training programs that focus on core driving skills. The other half of the “fahrvergnügen” equation is to implement enlightened enforcement practices that promote efficient traffic flow, not restrict it.

I lived four years in Germany and with the exception of Turkey, I have visited the other countries mentioned in last week’s newsletter. That newsletter got me thinking about the skill of German drivers and how their rigorous training prepares them for a lifetime of safe driving.

Driving school (Fahrschule) in Germany costs between $2,000 and $3,000; it wasn’t taught in the high schools. As a result, motorists were much better educated, and they valued their driver license (Führerschein) more than U.S. drivers do.

German highways seemed to have fewer regulatory road signs because everyone knew the rules of the road. Many intersections were unsigned because all drivers knew who had the right of way: Right before left (rechts vor links) and the priority road concept (Vorfahrtstraßen) meant that fewer signs had to be posted. Go here or here for more rules of the road.

You never passed on the right. After I returned to the United States, it took several months before I could bring myself to pass on the right.

The first time I passed the German police (Polizei) at 100+ mph, I instinctively slowed, only to have my doors blown off by the faster drivers behind. The cop never even looked at me, or the faster drivers. He was intent on the side-by-side drivers slowing the two right-most lanes ahead of both of us.

In Germany, if you became impatient with a slow driver in the left lane, you simply turned on your left blinker, and usually the slow driver would awaken and move right. If that didn’t work, flashing your lights did work. Sometimes a Mercedes or Porsche would begin flashing its headlights a quarter mile behind a slower driving because the closing speed was so significant. Most shocking of all is when you were driving as fast as you dare in the rain, and a motorcycles passed you!

Fog lights were to be used only when there was fog or when wet roads kicked up blinding spray. The only time the police took notice of me on die Autobahn was when I had my rear fog lights turned on inappropriately. The police pulled in directly behind me and flashed his own forward facing fog lights until I turned mine off, and then he left to go about other business. Never mind that we both were travelling 110 mph. Speed wasn’t the issue.

Germans spend about a third of their time scrutinizing their mirrors. When following a vehicle, you actually make eye contact in the rearview mirror. At intersections, you know the other driver saw you because you made eye contact.

All of my observations are based on the 1987-1991 time period. When I arrived, the Cold War was still as cold as ever. I departed after East and West Germany were reunited. The transition period was chaotic on the roadways, especially on die Autobahn. Thousands of Trabants, Time Magazine’s worst car of all time (“the car that gave Communism a bad name.”), and Wartburgs, with only seven moving parts: three pistons, three connecting rods and one crankshaft, were unleashed upon die Autobahn, driven by amateur drivers and leaving behind smoke screens. Those East German drivers made even American drivers look good by comparison.

In addition, the advent of the European Union, which happened after I returned to the United States, has change the driving landscape completely.

Fahrschule was mandatory for German citizens, but I was exempt due to my status with the U.S. military. As an active duty officer, I only had to pass a written test of knowledge of the rules of the road, without a driver test or even the first aid class.

To learn more about the history of driving instruction in Germany, go here. I particularly like this paragraph:

The success of driving instruction in Germany can be seen particularly in the declining number of fatal accidents – despite a continued increase in traffic volume. The German driving schools do not claim the sole credit for this positive development, but they have undoubtedly played a significant role in bringing it about.

Nothing is said about speed limits. They attribute improved safety to improved drivers.

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