This winter I got the opportunity to drive from Munich down to Kitzbuhel in Austria on the famous autobahn. I was very curious to see if the highway lived up to my insanely high expectations and surprisingly enough … It did! Whoa.

First off I never expected that the first time I will end up on the autobahn it will be in a huge diesel powered car (or should I call it a van? anyway, the thing was immense). I was thinking a smaller and faster vehicle but my dreams never included skiing luggage for four people and stupid rental personnel. Because of the huge differences between the mammoth I was driving and what I usually hit the roads with, I can’t make any realistic observations about the paving quality, but it seemed of no better or worse quality then its usual equivalent on Western highways. So then, why does the autobahn boast no speed limit (in Germany) and a lower accident rate than most other highways in the world while, for example, the US highway system has lower speed limits than the worst highways in Europe and a higher fatality rate than the autobahn (5.2 vs 3.8 according to this website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Road-traffic_safety#Motorway)? I will attempt a few answers.

First of all, the rules that insist on the lane to the left always being faster than the one to the right. Always. This means you can never pass another car on the right lane. Why is this so important? Mainly because it makes traffic a lot more fluid and also because it makes it very easy to switch to the right to get to an exit since the lane to the right is always slower (might not be obvious at first why this makes it easier, but think about it).
Second the fact that whenever there is an exit there’s an extra lane coming out for it. This is not always the case in the US, for example, (albeit it is most of the time) and it gives me a lot of headaches when I have to switch to the left lane just to keep going straight. I think that’s wrong.
Finally the electronic system which allows the highway control to set speed limits when necessary, warn drivers about traffic conditions and open extra lanes (or close them) if needed.

A study I read recently indicated that the fatality rate on the sections with no speed limit is no higher than the one on the sections with normal speed limits. I find this very interesting. On that note, Austria has a HIGHER fatality rate and LOWER speed limits; it’s the same type of highway (it’s also called the autobahn, built at the same time, by the same regime etc.). VERY interesting, I might say.
The only concern currently with the autobahn is… well…environmental. Running at 250km/h tends to burn a lot of fuel and release a lot of CO2. It might be the carbon that finally limits the speed in Germany. I certainly hope not.. I mean, c’mon the rightmost lane drives at about 150 kph (about 90mph), but the fatality rate is lower than many other places with smaller speed limits? That’s just awesome. Say what you may about what got the autobahn to be built (if you don’t know, look it up, it’s an interesting piece of history), but the result is quite impressive in today’s time of peace. Kudos to them.

A few words. I haven’t thoroughly referenced my data for this post, so feel free to contradict me if you have numbers from more reliable sources than Wikipedia. I really would like to know.
I also want to say that I am NOT advocating unreasonably high speeds. I actually believe most people drive faster than they should be allowed to and by this I am only referring to their own personal capabilities. Yes, the speed limit might be 55mph, but that doesn’t mean you as a driver are able to react and handle your car at that speed. Obviously nobody cares about that. That’s a whole different issue. And then there’s adapting your speed to the road. Even the best drivers can’t change that. More than one acquaintance of mine died in a car accident or motorcycle accident involving high speeds. I very well know the price you pay for pushing it over the limit. Not the legal limit, the REAL limit which is not written on any signs and is more important than the legal one.

The point of this is that I think it’s about time we realized that it’s not speed that causes fatal accidents, it’s something else. Something that makes highways generally safer, all over the world (because let’s face it, the fatality rates on these highways, even the highest ones are AMAZINGLY low compared to normal roads), and the German highway as an example of very safe. Indeed, over a certain speed, no security system can guarantee your safety. I don’t want to put it that way, but if you’re driving over 200kph and you mess up, chances are high you won’t be home for dinner, even in your brand new S-CLASS. But, how about we focus on you NOT messing up? Highways do an important thing: eliminate head-on collisions and crossroads. But what other details are there that we are overlooking?
In an overcrowded and overbusy world, where people need to get places fast, commute to work everyday, I think that these are very important aspects to have in mind. Many solutions are possible along these lines. Speed should not scare us. The autobahn proves that speed is not the issue here. There are other things. What are these? I don’t really know. The points I made above probably are mostly irrelevant also. But I sure do hope somebody is studying this, because otherwise, energy crisis or not, we are heading for a very “stuck in traffic” world and I don’t see many solutions coming up anytime soon.

PS: I should also mention driver etiquette. I was astonished to see cars STOP on the autobahn to allow a driver to BACK UP (no, that’s not a typo) because he had missed an exit. In contrast to that, I was headed back from Arlington to DC on Friday and was simply unable to get to an exit although the traffic was pretty much stuck from all the cars driving in for Inauguration Weekend. There was a constant stream of cars on the left side and none would as much as slow down to allow me to take the exit, although I was signaling and my intention was quite obvious. I tried for about 2 minutes and eventually just gave up and moved on, making a relatively large detour. And the US still has good driver manners, don’t even get me started on Romanian drivers. But what I saw in Austria/Germany was quite impressive.