Saturday, October 4, 2014

Driving in Germany 7: The End

I admit defeat. I'm throwing up the sponge, as Huck Finn would say. I'm done. Thank God for public transportation in Germany.

Photo credit:
M and I went to Esslingen yesterday so that we could walk from his mother's place to the Grabkapelle Rotenberg. I drove there in the morning, and although M seemed even more nervous this time than in the previous two times I drove long distance (and by "long distance" I mean longer than 10 minutes but less than an hour), it went mostly fine.

We had a really nice walk, sat with his mom afterwards and chatting about all kinds of things, and then went for dinner down in Esslingen at a restaurant we like very much. It was a nice day off (national holiday), and I'm really glad we spent the day that way.

The mistake I made was choosing to drive home after nightfall.

Again I didn't do well with shifting gears (I've probably been doing that wrong since I started driving stick-shift in 1998), choosing a speed, and rounding curves, but I didn't hit anything or anyone, so I guess that's a point for me. I and the drivers around me avoided accidents during that hour, but when we stopped for gas seven miles from home, I handed over the keys and sat sobbing in the passenger seat while M filled up and paid. What a shitty way to end a really nice day.

So what's the big deal about driving over here?

Speed 1

I already earned one speeding ticket for driving 78 km/h in a 70 zone (which is less than 5 miles over the speed limit, folks), so I try to stick to the posted speed limit to avoid another one. This means I have angry fuming Germans behind me much of the time.

Speed 2

Unless there is a posted speed limit on the Autobahn (100 or 120 km/h, slower in construction zones), if I'm not driving at the very least 120 (75 mph), I pretty much have to stay in the right-most lane. This meant, last night, that I kept getting stuck behind cars going even slower than I wanted to go. Honestly, at one point the car in front of me was going 70 km/h (43.5 mph). Ironically, I think that's too slow to be safe on the Autobahn!

Since I am too terrified to merge into the middle lane to pass if I see any cars or headlights in my rearview mirror since they are usually coming at between 120 and 220 km/h, I was stuck for quite a while, and frequently.

Speed 3

There should be no problem with me going 100-120 km/h as long as I stay in the right lane of the Autobahn. But when there is a guy in front of me going even slower and I want to pass him, I need to steel my nerves long enough to briefly move into the middle lane where the average speed seems to be 120-180 km/h regardless of the speed limit. I don't even need to mention the left-most lane, but just for kicks and grins, drivers with the balls to drive there are going 160-240 km/h (99-160 mph) unless there's a traffic jam. I guess they're a little slower in the sections where there are speed limits, but drivers willing to go only 10-20 km/h over the speed limit must stay out of that lane. It is for passing and reckless speeds only.

In the U.S. - or at least in Wisconsin - drivers on the freeways in all lanes are driving roughly the same speed. The limit is 65 mph, and drivers tend to stick between 65 and 75 mph. [That's 104-120 km/h. Huh - look at that! My comfort zone...] Imagine, though, Wisconsin drivers, a car passing you at 220 km/h (137 mph) or even just 180 km/h (112 mph). Knowing this happens every few moments on the Autobahn, I'm hesitant, to say the least, to venture into any lane to my left for any reason. And passing on the right is illegal in Germany.

Merging Traffic

It is impossible for me to trust other drivers on the road, and this becomes the most obvious when one or two lanes of traffic appear on my right and need to merge into my lane. I do realize that my inability to trust others leads to me actually being a menace on the Autobahn. Drivers' only hope of survival is when everyone acts predictably. If cars are merging into my lane at  100-120 km/h (62-75 mph), I need to keep a constant speed, not brake, not accelerate, and let them figure out how to get in front of or behind me. I can't move into the middle or left lane because I'm not willing to go fast enough. In Wisconsin I would get the hell out of their way, and it is normally easy to do so - I just merge left (which is not dangerous because no one coming up behind me is driving 112 mph) and keep going. Here I have cars in two lanes to my left going much faster than I'm going, cars in one or two lanes merging from the right going about my speed because they've just come around a curve but are now accelerating, and I feel like I'm about to be squished like a worm on the street during the running of the bulls in Pamplona.

The fact that this was going on in the dark with blinding headlights all around made it all the worse, of course. I think I will be better off taking my chances with the drunks and shady characters on the night trains than with other drivers on the Autobahn.

Lack of shoulders

In Wisconsin most city streets are wide enough for at least three cars to drive abreast and most roads and all freeways have shoulders. In case of emergency, accident, or panic, one can just get off the road and out of the way. I guess there's not enough space in Germany for roads to also have shoulders. They have thick wooden stakes and ditches instead. Sometimes it's a curb or a stone wall even on a country road. But no shoulder. A shoulder is comforting. A shoulder next to the road says, "Look, you should stay off me, but I'm here if you get into trouble." A German road just says, "Oh, you're in trouble? I don't care, and you are screwed!"

Daily reports of accidents and deaths

There is no day that passes without reports in our little local newspaper about serious accidents resulting in life-threatening injuries or deaths - except Sundays and holidays, when we don't get a newspaper. Quite often the accidents occur during an Überholmanöver (one car passing another). It's safe to assume the driver doing the passing was just too impatient and passed when it was unsafe to do so.  This is likely to happen near me, since as I already said, I try to stick close to the speed limit to avoid additional tickets - but more because I'm still working very hard at even knowing what the speed limit is on any given stretch of road.

Update: the day I published this blog post, this happened in northwestern Germany. The details are too grim for me to want to translate it, so the picture will have to do for readers who don't understand German. Yes, one of the things you see in that picture is half a car.

If I were able to embrace reckless speeds, not get nervous about frustrated and angry tailgaters, and trust other drivers, perhaps this whole "driving in Germany" thing would work, especially if Dori the fish were sitting beside me singing, "Just keep driving, just keeping driving, that's what we do...we drive, drive". But I am not a confident driver (here - I have no issues driving in the U.S.!) and it is therefore dangerous for me to be on German roads. It is better for everyone if I just stay within five miles of our house and take the train or a bus everywhere else.

So....yeah. I have heard many Americans - especially the teenagers in my German classes - say that driving in Germany with no speed limit sounds SO COOL!!  "OMG, what fun!! That would be SOOO  AWESOME!!!"  I think it can only be fun if one is ignorant of the dangers, has a death wish, or just doesn't care about living or dying. It's not fun driving on the Autobahn. It's hard work and takes every ounce of concentration you have.

People who are afraid of horses don't ride. People who are afraid of heights don't climb ladders or church steeples. People who are afraid of water don't swim. So I don't see any reason why someone who is terrified of driving in Germany should drive in Germany. The trains and buses here are fabulous. It's perhaps a little more expensive than driving, but it's a lot cheaper than a fender-bender, which M tells me would likely cost several thousand Euros because of our fancy park-assist feature in the front and back bumpers. It's likely enough that will happen eventually since there is no way for me to avoid driving to the grocery store and the schools where I volunteer. But throwing myself into a situation that is dangerous for not only M's car and me but everyone else on the road as well (i.e. me driving more than five miles from home) just seems foolhardy to me.

Am I being rational? Probably not. How many of your fears are rational?

In case I have any German readers, I'd like to make one plea. In the future when you are driving around and find yourself behind someone who is not driving exactly as you would like him or her to drive (not fast enough, too hesitant, not wanting to overtake another vehicle, etc.), please be careful and patient. It may very well be that the driver is terrified already of the dangers on German roads, and you riding her tailpipe or gesturing wildly, gunning your engine and swerving recklessly around her will only make the situation worse. I have never heard of a driving situation improving because one of the drivers lost his mind with impatience and frustration.

I'll end with a picture of a puppy, because puppies make everything better.


  1. Anonymous5/10/14 13:35

    Holy moly! I feel your pain. I absolutely loved driving in the States. I've had my driver's license for 14 years and before I left the U.S., I was still as excited to get behind the wheel as I was when I was 16. Driving somehow made me feel empowered, and just yesterday on my way home from a stressful drive to the store I thought, "I hate this. I hate this so much. Driving in Germany makes me so uncomfortable and I miss the joy I used to feel when I drove." And the worst part is that I didn't even get on the Autobahn. There was just a lot of traffic and it seems like every time I drive I do something stupid and almost cause an accident. I mean, thank God for the fact that German drivers really do seem to pay more attention than American drivers because if not for that, I think I would have caused at least 3 accidents in the 3 months I've been driving here. I keep hoping it'll get better, but I'm really scared it won't and I'll always be frightened to drive. I can't tell you how sad that makes me.

    1. It's somewhat comforting knowing I'm not alone with this fear and dread. I never cared about driving - it was just a way to get where I needed to go and I never enjoyed it like you did (Is Eloise back in business??). I truly enjoy train travel so much more - I can doze off, read, write, eat a snack, people watch... I can't do any of that if I drive! And I don't get tension cramps in my knuckes, wrists, legs, and ankles on the train. Luckily I am totally comfortable driving to the local Bahnhof, though that even took a year.

  2. I've just moved to Switzerland/Germany (Border) from the UK and i'm absolutely shitting it to drive. I mean i've only been driving for 8 months in the UK as it is, ha ha ha. But to make matters worse... oh yes in England we drive on the other side of the road. Putting off this driving for as long as possible. Definitey agree with your public transport post! it's a life saver for me haha