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Everything you need to know about the German Autobahn

Published May 23, 2018last updated May 17, 2023

Germany is famous the world over for its Autobahn — also known as "the highway without speed limits." But that's not the case everywhere. Here are some tips for navigating it.

highway in landscape highway in landscape in summer and a few cars highway in landscape
Image: Imago/STPP

As people hit the streets for summer fun, we take a renewed look at German roads.

Germany has its beer and sausages, its sauerkraut, its Christmas markets, and all the other things that people abroad call to mind when they think about the country. And, of course, there is the Autobahn. Adventurous, speed-craving tourists think they can rent a car, jump in and drive without speed limits across the national highway network. What a way to travel!

And they can do that — sometimes. After all, Germany is the only European nation to not have a general speed limit.

However, there is a speed limit of 130 kilometers per hour (81 mph) across about 30% of the Autobahn network, according to ADAC, Germany's national automobile association — and that is usually in some of the busiest places. Further restrictions apply near construction sites, dangerous stretches with curves, and in and around cities.

On the unrestricted segments, there is a speed blanket "recommendation" of 130 kilometers per hour.

This cartoon by Miguel Fernandenz for DW Euromaxx shows two old men sitting on electric carts, with one asking the other if his is a German make because it goes faster.
Germany is also known for its fast carsImage: DW

Speed limits are a touchy issue

Why there are no limits on the other 70% of highways has in the past had to do with the power of the German automobile industry's lobby, said Thomas Harloff, in an article in Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung.

After all, the country is known for its fast, extremely well-engineered cars — a reputation that is a major selling point. Allowing those cars to fly across German highways without restriction "justifies their right to exist" in the first place, noted Harloff.

While times are changing, speed restrictions on the Autobahn remain a touchy issue among Germans. ADAC posted on its website in February 2023 — quoting a survey from 2022 — that a slight majority of its own members is in favor of a general speed limit: 52% in favor, as to 44% opposed.

This cartoon by Miguel Fernandenz for DW Euromaxx a terrified passenger, with the driver asking him if its his first time on the Autobahn.
Addicted to speed: bracing yourself on the AutobahnImage: DW

Those in favor say, among other things, that driving would be more relaxed on highways. More importantly, they say that reduced speeds could result in fewer fatal accidents.

ADAC contests that notion, saying that 60% of all fatal accidents occur not on the Autobahn, but on rural roads, where the maximum speed limit is 100 km/h (62 mph) tops, and is often even 70 km/h (44 mph).

But there is also reason to restrict speed limits from an environmental point of view, with climate activists saying that reduced speeds would help curb CO2 emissions.

Plans for expansion

German Transport Minister Volker Wissing is hammering out a plan that would speed up the expansion of the Autobahn network, and that would include over 140 Autobahn projects across the country, 66 of those in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state.

The plan, however, has been extremely contentious among political parties and various German states. The Green Party wants solar panels installed along new Autobahn lines, and the draft also foresees better bike paths along routes.

Meanwhile, in the past few weeks, climate activists from the Last Generation group have been staging protests in the German capital Berlin, even gluing themselves to roads to block traffic.

The group is calling for the establishment of a citizen's assembly to tackle climate change. They say it should discuss "how the use of fossil fuels can be ended in a socially just manner by 2030." 

The group's other demands include a speed limit on motorways and an even lower-cost flat-rate tickets for public transport.

Dispelling myths

So, we can dispel the myth that there are absolutely no speed limits on German freeways — and while we're at it, we can dispel another commonly held notion: that Adolf Hitler initiated the construction of the Autobahn.

Konrad Adenauer, mayor of Cologne and subsequent West German chancellor, officially opened the first Autobahn section in August 1932. The Nazis didn't come to power until the following year. However, they did co-opt the Autobahn project, with Hitler accelerating the construction of the so-called "Third Reich" Autobahn. Click here for more on the topic.

Meanwhile, if you're planning to travel to Germany just to put the pedal to the metal, view the picture gallery in this article for some tips. After all, you need nerves of steel to maneuver the Autobahn and still stay safe!

You'll find more Meet the Germans on YouTubeand www.dw.com/MeetTheGermans as well as fresh content on Instagram .

This is an updated article from one written in May 2018.

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier

The legendary German Autobahn

DW Editor and reporter Louisa Schaefer smiling into the camera.
Louisa Schaefer Culture editor and reporter based in Cologne/Bonn, originally from the US
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