Saturday, March 30, 2013

Chapter 17: On German Roads

I received my German driver's license about a week ago, and Lawna is still working on hers. She has been busy working, and I have had more time devote to such things. We also received our car from the states this week. I helped Lawna get ready for her test today, and she should finish up in the next few days, and I managed to get the car ready for German inspection, which is more demanding than what we have in Texas. It didn't pass at first. I had to remove window tinting, which, although it is pretty much standard for hot, sunny Texas, is illegal in German. So, it has been a car and driver week. Which leads me to my topic: driving in Germany.

When  Americans think about driving in Germany, they often think about speeding along the famous autobahn, one of Hitler's few enduring projects which became a model for our own U.S. interstate highway system. I'll get back to the autobahn in a minute, but one of the common denominators I have observed about German traffic structure is a marvelous ability to keep things moving. In the United States, we are urged to drive safely. In Germany, one is urged to drive confidently. Safety is supposed to be a given, but really importantly, you need to be good at driving. As a consequence, their driving test is really challenging. The fail rate among Americans stationed here was around 80 percent for a long time. Then the military made the test available online and required a 100 percent passing score, but with unlimited and unproctored attempts available to the test taker. Basically, it is now an interactive tutorial rather than an exam.

It's still hard to pass! Germans are serious about driving. They demand driving expertise and the ability to keep traffic moving!

One thing that immediately struck me once I began driving here was how few stop signs and traffic lights there are. Sure, they exist, and you had better heed them, but, more often, you encounter traffic circles, or "roundabouts." We have some of these in South Texas, mostly at upscale shopping areas that try to look European. In Texas, roundabouts are a shopping outlet fashion statement. They play little significance in Texas traffic control. In Germany, however, and probably most of Europe, circles keep intersections flowing. The red light bottle necks that drivers have to suffer through on hot, South Texas days seldom occur in Germany. Sure, they have traffic jams, sometimes pretty spectacular ones; but roundabouts keeps such delays to a minimum. The same structure informs access ramps on and off the autobahn. Instead of straight ramps, access ascends in circles, sometimes accommodating several incoming streams of cars at once. All of this going in circles can be disorienting at first, especially through forested areas where you can't really see where you are headed. You just have to trust the signs, because you are simply speeding round through groves of tall trees somewhere! One feels like a dizzy spinning top. In time, though, the marvelous logic and efficiency of the system becomes clear, so that Germany is pretty easy to get around in by car, albeit fueled with expensive gas.

For the most part, Germans are good, courteous drivers. In my observation, German drivers have been pretty good about following speed limits. I admit that most of my driving has been in semi-rural areas, and the metropolises (metropoli?) may be more frightening. Kaiserslautern and Heidelberg have been OK. The fastest driving I've seen has usually been American military guys in muscle cars, which few Germans own. Which leads us to the autobahn. First of all, most of the autobahn does have a speed limit: 130 km per hour (about 80 mph), and in the stretches where there is no limit, the freedom to speed only applies to the passing lane, which is supposed to be used for passing. Cars do go very fast in that lane, but if they are not passing another car, they can get a ticket. Obviously, some people are trying to pass everyone, so that they never slow down. Just be careful when you decide to pass someone so that you are not mowed down trying to get into the inner lane. They do appear pretty fast! If you are a slow driver, there is also a place for you. The slow lane is usually quite slow, mostly held up by older trucks and cars. Until I felt more confident on the autobahn, I was spending a lot of my time there. Our rental car wasn't the swiftest of steeds and felt like it would break apart at  less than 100 kph, so for a time I hung out with the hay trucks. The autobahn seldom grows to more than three lanes per side and keeps Germany moving at a good clip. It provides emergency turn offs and a narrow soft shoulder, but few rest stops, and I have yet to see a scenic turn-off with a rest area for pictures. A few times I have wanted to stop for pictures, but felt obliged by traffic to move along. Maybe they have more scenic opportunities in the Alps.

American drivers also need to get used to narrower streets. Most streets and roads in Germany are only two lanes, each going opposite directions. Cities and towns in Europe are often hundreds and even thousands of years old. The roads still look like it. In villages that cling to hillsides, some of the roads are remarkably steep for cars, originally intended, I'm sure, for surefooted horses and mules. I haven't even been to the Alps yet. I'm sure some of those roads must be insanely steep and perilous. But even around here, a gentler hilly area, upgrades can be steep and the village streets be very narrow. Most streets have sidewalks with low curbs. People park their cars half on the street and half on the sidewalk, and this is perfectly legal. On our residential street, Talstrasse, cars are parked along both sides of the street, and one must take turns with oncoming cars to pass. In our neighborhood in San Antonio, all of those parked cars would have been towed or booted, or some angry neighbor would have taken a dime to them, but in Germany it is usual. We take it in stride and coexist in closer traffic quarters. Unlike in the U.S. where roads tend to expand to accommodate greater volumes of traffic, which keep growing exponentially as lanes are added; in Germany, traffic must accommodate to the restricted, comparatively static infrastructure of the roads. If you don't like it, walk or take the bus. Many do without complaining. Germany has many options for transportation, even in the rural areas.

Germans drive on the right side of the road, like Americans. I think it is the Brits who are lefties in Europe. If you travel from France to England through the Chunnel, you don't get to actually drive down there. That is probably good. I'm not sure how they would manage the driving direction switch otherwise. We haven't gotten that far yet. It will have to be for a future chapter!

Germany has to manage drivers in a very different environment than what we find in the U.S., and it is handled efficiently and expertly. Yes, it takes some adjusting, and I don't know how Lawna and I could have made it without a GPS device, but the system works, and there is a lot to see along the way. We still haven't used the train system, but when we do, I promise I'll report on it. For now, I'm still driving, and once Lawna completes her exam, so will she. I'm really itching to get my hands on my bike when it arrives. There is a whole world around us geared for that form of transportation, both in the country and the city.
Narrow Talstrasse
Roundabout just outside Spesbach

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