Let’s start with the speed limit. There isn’t one, so in that sense all the nonsense you’ve heard about no speed limits on the Autobahn is technically true. However. Because there is no actual speed limit as such individual stretches of road need to be administered individually so the German roads are littered with speed limit signs. On some stretches the speed changes dramatically every 50 meters, which kind of sucks when you’re driving a stick shift. Moreover, at least for the highways I’ve been on between Munich and Stuttgart, stretches where you can actually go as fast as you want are few and far between, not to mention relatively short. And if you are at all a cautious driver it’s best not to be in the far left lane on those stretches because there will immediately be a silver Porsche or black Mercedes about 5 miles behind you blinking its lights and within 3 seconds it will be right on your tail without slowing down at all so you better get over.
Another weird rule is ‘right before left.’ We have that same rule in the US, you say – what’s so weird about it? What’s weird is that it means something completely different here. It means that when you’re driving along minding your own business and someone pulls recklessly out of a little side street to the right they have right of way. My husband and I argue about this one because I think it’s the most insane rule that ever existed whereas he’s been cleverly brainwashed since high school to think it makes sense. Deep down inside I think the Germans also realize that it’s a crazy rule because they came up with the idea of ‘main highway’ where cars coming from the right don’t have right of way. So when you’re driving you look to see if your stretch of road has a ‘main highway’ sign, which looks like a yellow diamond, and you hope that someone remembered to put up yield signs on the intersecting streets. All in all, this wacky dynamic right of way concept makes it even harder than having a consistently bad rule because you’re never sure if you have right of way or not. (To be fair: Ralf claims that he always knows.)
Much like the German language (more about this at another time), the German rules of the road are based on a few rules that make no sense at all and a bunch of exceptions that would make sense if they were rules instead of exceptions. Because there are so many exceptions (like how fast you can go, whether you have right of way, etc.), there need to be a lot of traffic signs, lights and signals to make drivers aware of the exceptions. This in turn necessitates a hierarchy of road signals so that if you are on a street that has a light and several signs that conflict with each other – I am not joking - you know what to do. Generally speaking lights take precedence over signs and red trumps other colors. Sign precedence is determined by shape and color, and sometimes the actual text of the sign will explain when the rule applies. This text tends to be pretty small, which may be one reason virtually all Germans wear glasses.