Similar to such freeways in other countries, autobahns have multiple lanes of traffic in each direction, separated by a central barrier with grade-separated junctions and access restricted to certain types of mechanically-propelled vehicles only.
Autobahns were first conceived, planned and built on a limited scale in Germany during the Weimar Republic era in the 1920s, but apart from the AVUS in Berlin, construction was slow, and most projected sections did not progress much beyond the planning stage due to economic problems and a lack of political support. One project was the private initiative HaFraBa which planned a "car only road" (the name Autobahn was created in 1929) crossing Germany from Hamburg in the North via central Frankfurt am Main to Basel in Switzerland.
Just days after the 1933 Nazi takeover, Hitler enthusiastically embraced an ambitious Autobahn construction project and appointed Fritz Todt the Inspector General of German Road Construction. Soon over 100,000 worked at the construction sites all over Germany in Organisation Todt. As well as providing employment and improved infrastructure, necessary for economic recovery efforts, the project was also a great success for propaganda purposes. Another aim of the Autobahn project was to strengthen centralized rule and national unity.
The Autobahns formed the first limited access high-speed road network in the world, with the first section from Frankfurt am Main to Darmstadt opening in 1935.
This straight section was used for high speed record attempts by the Grand Prix racing teams of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union until the fatal accident of the popular German race driver Bernd Rosemeyer in early 1938. During World War II autobahns where even used as auxiliary airports, with aircraft either being stashed in numerous tunnels or camouflaged in nearby woods.
After the War, numerous sections of the autobahn where in bad shape, being severally damaged by heavy allied bombings. While most autobahns were soon repaired in West Germany, the Soviet controlled East German and Polish government neglected them and many were left in ruin. During the 1950s West German government restarted the construction program and had continuously invested in new sections and improvements of older ones. During the 1980s a goal was set in West Germany to provide autobahn access within 10 km of every household, but with the German reunification, most of the construction and funds shifted from west to the neglected east.
Today, Germany's autobahn network has a total length of about 11,980 km (as of January 1, 2003), second only to the United States' Interstate system. Some sections are modern, 3 lanes wide plus emergency lane. Yet, other sections remain similar to the original state, with two lanes, no emergency lane, short ramps etc.
The German autobahns are famous for being some of the only public roads in the world without blanket speed limits for cars and motorcycles, though traffic on them is usually heavy enough to restrict speeds to little above the typical motorway speeds found elsewhere. However, speed limits do apply at junctions and other danger points, like sections under construction or in need of repair. Some limits were imposed to reduce pollution and noise. Limits can also be put into place temporarily through dynamic traffic guidance systems that display the according traffic signs.
It is important to remember that in places without a general limit, the overtaking is not limited either. So everyone who is speeding at will has to beware of trucks running side by side at roughly 80 km/h (50 mph). In theory, trucks are not allowed to overtake others if they don't drive 20 km/h (12 mph) faster than the truck on the right lane, but truck driver are under pressure to arrive in time. Police doesn't enforce this for economic and political reasons, as many trucks are from foreign countries. Basically, apart from on Sundays, the right lane of german Autobahn are crowded with trucks, and too often, they pull out to overtake.
Modern cars easily reach well over 200 km/h (125mph), and most large car manufacturers follow a gentlemen's agreement by artificially limiting the top speed of their cars to 250 km/h (155mph) for safety reasons (inexperienced drivers and risk of tire failure especially when underinflated).
Yet, these limiters can easily be removed, so speeds over 300 km/h (185mph) are not uncommon nowadays.
Autobahns in Austria and Switzerland have normal speed limits.
Notable German traffic laws pertaining to Autobahns
- Autobahns may only be used by powered vehicles that have a design maximum speed exceeding 60 km/h
- The right lane must be used when it's free (Rechtsfahrgebot)
- Overtaking on the right is forbidden (except in traffic jams with caution)
- General speed limits:
- 60 km/h for:
- buses carrying standing passengers
- motorcycles pulling trailers
- 80 km/h for:
- vehicles with maximum allowed weight exceeding 3.5 t (except passenger cars)
- passenger cars and trucks with trailers
- 100 km/h for:
- passenger cars pulling trailers certified for 100 km/h
- buses certified for 100 km/h not pulling trailers
- A guidance speed of 130 km/h is in effect; this speed is no binding limit but being involved in an accident at higher speeds can lead to being assigned part of the fault due to "increased operating danger"
Autobahn is also the name of an album and a song by Kraftwerk. See Autobahn (album).