Realistic Speed Limits – German Style

My wife and I spent 10 days in Germany in May. We drove 2,090 kilometers or almost 1,300 miles on Autobahns, major and minor highways, minor rural roads through ancient villages, and local city streets. It is a GREAT place for motorists, in part because almost all the legal speed limits are both realistic and logical. This helps to produce smooth and safe traffic flows, and allows drivers to legally proceed at higher speeds whenever that is realistic, logical and safe.

The other great “secret” to safe and pleasurable driving in Germany, especially in places where there are MAJOR speed differences, is the excellent lane courtesy on multi lane highways. Drivers never block the leftmost lane(s), they “Do the Right Thing – Yield to Faster Traffic” AND they check their mirrors before pulling out to pass someone.

Many rural areas on the Autobahns are de-restricted with no legal limit. While you see an occasional car at 200+ kph (124+ mph), most of the faster cars (including yours truly) found speeds of 150 -170 kph (93 -106 mph) to be safe, comfortable and time efficient. I think the actual 85th percentile speeds were about 160 kph (99 mph) when traffic was free flowing with good conditions. Slower cars were mostly at 120 – 140 kph (75 – 87 mph). Drivers signal lane changes religiously, and passing on the right is not done. Drivers don’t block faster cars, they “Do the Right Thing – Yield to Faster Traffic” as we advise. This attitude lets everyone proceed at their own pace, courteously and without interference.

Autobahn areas with speed limits are almost always logical. Urban ones often have limits of 120 kph (75 mph) or 100 kph (62 mph) where those are logical speeds for the conditions. Some urban areas have variable limits, and the controls were usually appropriate. Construction zones are common and the lanes get VERY narrow. When beside a truck at a lane shift, your passenger could lower the window and almost touch the truck fender. Concentration is required and reduced limits almost always match the level of increased risk. It is also common to find restricted limits for short distances at major interchanges or areas where sight distances are reduced, but the de-restricted signs come up soon after. The “delays” are usually brief and logical.

Rural highways and most minor rural roads have default limits of 100 kph (62 mph), even when that speed is pretty brisk for the road. Drivers are expected to drive safely, regardless of the limit. Limits step down logically for towns and villages and the reduced limit areas are kept as short as needed. Suburban areas were often 80 kph (50 mph) or 70 kph (43 mph), city areas are default 50 kph (31 mph) and short zones of 30 kph (19 mph) are found where ancient village streets are narrow or sight distances are short. The limits and their progressions down and back up were almost always realistic.

Cars at any speed on three lane Autobahns move all the way back to the right lane when all lanes are open, so it is not a problem to simultaneously have a left lane car at over 170 kph, a center lane car at 150 kph and a right lane car at under 120 kph. And if the left lane car sees a very fast one coming from behind, it is not unusual for them to speed up their pass of the 150 kph car and pull back to the center lane sooner, to let the 200 kph car pass without delay. If all North American freeways operated as courteously, driving would be a lot more pleasant and safer for all of us.

There are speed cameras, but they are not located for revenue. Because the speed limits are realistic, it was unusual to find cars more than a few kph over the limits.

And we never saw a speed trap.

Jim Walker
Life Member of the NMA
Board Member and Executive Director of the NMA Foundation
Ann Arbor, MI

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4 Responses to “Realistic Speed Limits – German Style”

  1. Corey says:

    If we modeled our roads, traffic laws, and driver education after Germany, the NMA wouldn’t need to exist anymore.

    • James C. Walker says:

      German methods would go a long way toward solving a lot of our issues, that is for sure.

  2. Shane Turner says:

    Yeah, I would probably go around 170-190 km/hr(106-118mph) on the autobahn. I tend to run around the 90th to 95th percentile speed which is probably not too bad. I don’t think I would be able to control a vehicle at more than 120 mph. Some people go 150 mph or higher which I think is quite a bit too much but I guess if they can handle it more power to them.

  3. Shane C Turner says:

    There was a study done in 2006 on one part of the German Autobahn. On section of A9 the 70th percentile speed was 93 mph and the 85th percentile was 106 mph. You can find it on Wikipedia.