Since getting my driver’s license, I’ve had many questions! Now, I’ve only had it for a short time, and have only driven to some familiar places, but I thought I would write a post about my experiences thus far, as well as some others’ that have been driving here for a longer time than I have. Please keep in mind, there are many places you can find with a simple Google search that can tell you much more detail about German driving laws, and acquiring a driver’s license.
I should mention that there’s absolutely no need to be impressed. I simply took a driver’s test online that I studied a couple of days for, paid $20, and I was good to go. But, if I were a German citizen, it wouldn’t have been nearly so easy.
German’s take driving pretty seriously. A majority of the time, they follow the rule of the road. Fine’s can be expensive and there is no hesitation in revoking your hard-earned license. And if you took the time (yes, take the time) to get your license in the first place, I think you’d do anything to hang on to it… including following the rules.
Obtaining a führerschein is accomplished over many hours, years, and euros. Learning to drive begins around 16 1/2 and you receive a preliminary license at 17. I think of the preliminary license as a learner’s permit. Your official driver’s license isn’t awarded until 18, and you will remain on a probationary period for 2 years after that. In short, Fahrschule consists of around 30 hours of driving practice with an instructor (not your parent!) and about 20 theory lessons. One must take an eye exam and pay approximately 2,000 euros! They must also have first aid training. I’d follow the damn rules too!
When I printed off the driving study guide, I was completely intimidated by it’s length. I carried around this stack of papers saying I’d read it tomorrow, but I didn’t read it until I’d arrived and was in quarantine. I was met with seemingly hundreds of traffic signs, the right before left rule, and km/hr instead of mph.
I had to learn priority roads (which are completely logical and needed when driving through curvy little villages), and the ways of driving on the autobahn (oh, yes. I’ve driven on the infamous autobahn). It was all so intimidating, until I actually did it with a lovely stand-in instructor for my own little fahrshule (thanks, Trish!). People actually enter and exit traffic circles the correct way. Slow drivers (and mac trucks) stay in the right lane so as not to impede the flow of traffic. And then people use the left lanes to pass only… unless you’re driving impossibly fast… trust me, I stayed out of their way in the old right hand lane.
It all seems so strange and difficult at first, but once you’ve driven through a couple of little villages, down the impossibly fast lanes of the autobahn, and around a couple of traffic circles, it begins to make sense and becomes second nature.
The Doctrine of Confidence
German traffic law is base on the premise of the Doctrine of Confidence. What this means is that the driver must be aware of both other drivers and pedestrians at all times; being able to predict and react confidently to other drivers as well as pedestrians on or near the road. A driver must be able to “conduct themselves so that no person is endangered, injured, impeded, or unreasonably inconvenienced when the inconvenience could have been avoided under the given circumstances. Drivers are responsible for considering and anticipating the movements of pedestrians, particularly children, the elderly, and those who are physically impaired” (quoted from the USAEUR manual). It is your responsibility as the driver to follow traffic signs, anticipate the child running into the street, adapting to driving in certain weather conditions, driving a functional vehicle, and making sure your car has enough gas (you can be fined for running out of gas, especially if it inconveniences other drivers).
Right before left.
This rule completely baffled me at first. It seems simple: yield to the driver on your right. However, let me set the scene: there’s a four-way stop. Who goes first? The person to right? That all depends. Who has the priority road? Is there a streetcar involved? What about a horse drawn cart? A cyclist? On the whole, if no other factors are involved, someone would simply take the lead, the others giving up their right-of-way. The right before left rule could then ensue. The test I took had all sorts of scenarios for this… and I still failed today at a crossroads without stop or yield signs (major facepalm!). Moral of the story: always yield to the person on your right!
I can hear your groan. But hear me out: when a traffic circle is driven through correctly, it’s really not that bad and holds purpose. Personally, I like them better than a crossroads with no signs. And these little (and big!) rings are everywhere.
Entering a traffic circle, you typically yield to the traffic within the circle. You do not signal going in… it’s obvious that you’re turning into the circle. But if you don’t signal before you exit, you’re going to piss a bunch of people off. And I don’t mean enter the circle and then ride around it, exiting on the last spoke, with your turn signal on. You signal right before you exit. This alerts the drivers waiting to enter the circle that they can either enter the circle, or wait. One must remain alert and think quick to keep traffic moving safely and efficiently.
The Parking Disc.
There are many times while parking in Germany that there isn’t a payable parking meter or lot. Instead, there will be a square blue sign with a white “P”, and underneath, a smaller white sign that indicates how long you may park in that spot. In order to park in these areas, a parkscheibe must be placed in the windshield of the car indicating the time of your arrival. The parking attendant inspecting the parking disc will know if you’ve overstayed your welcome by this little disc. Upon our arrival, we were given one as they truly are widely used and handy to keep in your car.
During our visit in 2019, I rather enjoyed the almost seamless way in which the traffic moved on narrow roads with cars parked along it. At times, it seems like people just park all over the place: on sidewalks (many areas, this is truly permitted), in the street… in our neighborhood, there’s a tractor parked that takes up half of the already narrow street. But in true German efficiency, there is an unwritten rule/method in which the traffic moves around these cars in a safe, and polite way.
In 2019, while driving through a village, April stopped behind a parked car. With the turn signal indicating we’d be continuing around the parked vehicle, she allowed the oncoming cars to pass unhindered. When the road was clear, she drove on. Had the car been parked on the opposite side of the road, the traffic traveling on that side would have done the same: stop behind the parked car, clearing the road for the oncoming traffic to proceed. This system prevents traffic jams of drivers attempting to force their way before the other driver. It’s a simple, efficient method… so much so, that I’ve noticed it in stores with shopping carts as well.
Yet, despite its simplicity and efficiency, it can also be a bit draining as one has to remain incredibly alert in order to anticipate, or see that oncoming traffic around sharp turns (like where that parked tractor is) or around larger vehicles.
I thought I’d end with one of the more popular aspects of driving in Germany: The Autobahn. While there are many truths in what Americans believe about this fast paced system of roads, there are also many myths. One of the biggest myths, I believe, is that there isn’t a speed limit. Much of the road system has a speed limit, and the speed cameras to catch you going over the limit. But where there isn’t a posted limit, there is a suggested limit of 130kph, which translates to about 78mph (still higher than most US highways). If you are in an accident and going over the suggested limit, you will be held liable whether it’s your fault or not. Further, there is also a minimum speed limit: 60kph (37mph). There is also a speed limit for tractor trailers.
Driving on the autobahn can be somewhat intimidating at first. I was absolutely blown away when I first travelled on the autobahn with April in 2019. The rear-view mirror would be clear of anyone behind us… and then moments later a vehicle would fly passed us. But now, it seems like old hat. Just stay out of the way, pass only when necessary, and remain alert.
Driving in Germany has taken a lot of patience, practice, and learning. However, I feel that it’s made me a better, and safer driver. I don’t have the fear I first did, which gives us a farther range to roam on weekend excursions.
Have you ever driven in another country? What were your experiences like? Comment below!