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The Autobahn (German: Autobahn, plural Autobahnen) is the federal controlled-access highway system in Germany. The official German term is Bundesautobahn (plural Bundesautobahnen, abbreviated BAB), which translates as "federal motorway". The system started to be constructed and started in 1925-26 under the Weimar Government and began to be highly developed by the Nazi regime under Adolf Hitler.
German autobahns have no federally mandated speed limit,—although limits are posted (and enforced) in areas that are urbanized, substandard, accident-prone, or under construction. In case of bad weather, speed limits come into play and are frequently enforced. On speed-unrestricted stretches, an advisory speed limit (Richtgeschwindigkeit) of 130 kilometres per hour (81 mph) applies. In 2008, an estimated 52% of the autobahn network had only the recommended speed limit; 15% had temporary speed limits due to weather or traffic conditions and 33% had permanent speed limits. The 16 Federal German States have the authority to set speed limits for any or all autobahnen they control; in 2008 Germany's smallest State, the paired City-State of Bremen & Bremerhaven, imposed a 120 kilometres per hour (75 mph) limit on its last 11 kilometres (6.8 mi) of speed-unlimited autobahn. In 2011, the Socialist-Green Party ruling coalition of Baden-Württemberg decided against imposing a similar 120 kilometres per hour (75 mph) limit on its 675 kilometres (419 mi) of speed-unlimited roads, supporting instead a Federal speed limit. In 2014, the ruling coalition of Saxony confirmed its rejection of a general speed limit on autobahns, instead advocating dynamic traffic controls where appropriate.
Germany's autobahn network has a total length of about 12,845 kilometres (7,982 mi) in 2012, which ranks it among the most dense and longest systems in the world. Longer systems can be found e. g. in China (97,355 km), the United States (75,932 km) Canada (38,000) and Spain (16,204 km).
Only federally built controlled-access highways with certain construction standards including at least two lanes per direction are called "Bundesautobahn". They have their own, white-on-blue signs and numbering system. In the 1930s when construction began on the system, the official name was Reichsautobahn. Various other controlled-access highways exist on the federal (Bundesstraße), state (Landesstraße), district and municipal level but are not part of the Autobahn network and are officially referred to as "Kraftfahrstraße" (with rare exceptions, like A 995 Munich-Giesing–Brunntal). These highways are considered "autobahnähnlich" (autobahn similar) and are sometimes colloquially called "Gelbe Autobahn" (yellow autobahn) because most of them are Bundesstraßen (federal highways) with yellow signs. Some controlled-access highways are classified as "Bundesautobahn" in spite of not meeting the autobahn construction standard (for example the A 62 near Pirmasens).
Similar to high-speed motorways 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 motor vehicles with a top speed of more than 60 km/h (37 mph). All exits are to the right. The earliest motorways were flanked by shoulders about 60 centimetres (24 in) in width, constructed of varying materials; right-hand shoulders on many autobahns were later retrofitted to 120 centimetres (47 in) in width when it was realized cars needed the additional space to pull off the autobahn safely. In the postwar years, a thicker asphaltic concrete cross-section with full paved hard shoulders came into general use. The top design speed was approximately 160 km/h (99 mph) in flat country but lower design speeds were used in hilly or mountainous terrain. A flat-country autobahn that was constructed to meet standards during the Nazi period, could support the speed of up to 150 km/h (93 mph) on curves.
The current autobahn numbering system in use in Germany was introduced in 1974. All autobahns are named by using the capital letter A, which simply stands for "Autobahn" followed by a blank and a number (for example A 8). The main autobahns going all across Germany have a single digit number. Shorter autobahns that are of regional importance (e.g. connecting two major cities or regions within Germany) have a double digit number (e.g. A 24, connecting Berlin and Hamburg). The system is as follows:
There are also some very short autobahns built just for local traffic (e.g. ring roads or the A 555 from Cologne to Bonn) that usually have three digits for numbering. The first digit used is similar to the system above, depending on the region. East-west routes are always even-numbered, north-south routes are always odd-numbered.
The north-south autobahns are generally numbered using odd numbers from west to east; that is to say, the more easterly roads are given higher numbers. Similarly, the east-west routes are numbered using even numbers from north (lower numbers) to south (higher numbers).
The idea for the construction of the autobahn was first conceived in the mid 1920s during the days of the Weimar Republic, but the 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" crossing Germany from Hamburg in the North via central Frankfurt am Main to Basel in Switzerland. Parts of the HaFraBa were completed in the late 1930s and early 1940s, but construction eventually was halted by World War II. The first road of this kind was completed in 1932 between Cologne and Bonn and opened by Konrad Adenauer (Lord Mayor of Cologne and future Chancellor of West Germany) on 6 August 1932. Today, that road is the Bundesautobahn 555. This road was not yet called Autobahn, but instead was known as a Kraftfahrstraße ("motor vehicle road").
Just days after the 1933 Nazi takeover, Adolf Hitler enthusiastically embraced an ambitious autobahn construction project, appointing Fritz Todt, the Inspector General of German Road Construction, to lead it. By 1936, 130,000 workers were directly employed in construction, as well as an additional 270,000 in the supply chain for construction equipment, steel, concrete, signage, maintenance equipment, etc. In rural areas, new camps to house the workers were built near construction sites. The job creation program aspect was not especially important because full employment was almost reached by 1936. The autobahns were not primarily intended as major infrastructure improvement of special value to the military as often stated. Their military value was limited as all major military transports in Germany were done by train to save fuel. The propaganda ministry turned the construction of the autobahns into a major media event that attracted international attention.
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 a fatal accident involving popular German race driver Bernd Rosemeyer in early 1938. The world record of 432 km/h (268 mph) set by Rudolf Caracciola on this stretch just prior to the accident remains one of the highest speeds ever achieved on a public motorway.
Development of the overall length (at the end of):
|Length in km||108||1,086||2,010||3,046||3,300||3,736||2,128||2,187||2,551||3,204||4,110||5,742||7,292||8,198||8,822||11,143||11,515||12,174||12,813|
During World War II, the median strips of some autobahns were paved over to allow their conversion into auxiliary airstrips. Aircraft were either stashed in numerous tunnels or camouflaged in nearby woods. However, for the most part during the war, the autobahns were not militarily significant. Motor vehicles, such as trucks, could not carry goods or troops as quickly or in as much bulk and in the same numbers as trains could, and the autobahns could not be used by tanks as their weight and caterpillar tracks damaged the road surface. The general shortage of petrol in Germany during much of the war, as well as the low number of trucks and motor vehicles needed for direct support of military operations, further decreased the autobahn's significance. As a result, most military and economic freight was carried by rail. After the war, numerous sections of the autobahns were in bad shape, severely damaged by heavy Allied bombing and military demolition. Furthermore, thousands of kilometres of autobahns remained unfinished, their construction brought to a halt by 1943 due to the increasing demands of the war effort.
In West Germany (GFR), most existing autobahns were repaired soon after the war. During the 1950s, the West German government restarted the construction program. It invested in new sections and in improvements to older ones. Finishing the incomplete sections took longer, with some stretches opened to traffic by the 1980s. Some sections cut by the Iron Curtain in 1945 were only completed after German reunification in 1990. Others were never completed, as more advantageous routes were found. Some of these incomplete sections to this very day stretch across the landscape forming a unique type of modern ruin, often easily visible on satellite photographs.
The autobahns of East Germany (GDR) were neglected in comparison to those in West Germany after 1945. East German autobahns were used primarily for GDR military traffic and for state-owned farming or manufacturing vehicles. The speed limit on the GDR autobahns was 100 km/h; however, lower speed limits were frequently encountered due to poor or quickly changing road conditions. The speed limits on the GDR autobahns were rigorously enforced by the Volkspolizei, whose patrol cars were frequently found hiding under camouflage tarpaulins waiting for speeders.
The last four kilometers of remaining original Reichsautobahn, a section of A 11 northeast of Berlin near Gartz built in 1936, is scheduled for replacement around 2015. Roadway condition is described as "deplorable"; the 25-metre-long concrete slabs, too long for proper expansion, are cracking under the weight of the traffic as well as the weather.
The first autobahn in Austria was the West Autobahn from Wals near Salzburg to Vienna. Building started by command of Adolf Hitler shortly after the Anschluss in 1938. It extended the Reichsautobahn 26 from Munich (the present-day A8), however only 16.8 km (10.4 mi) including the branch-off of the planned Tauern Autobahn was opened to the public on 13 September 1941. Construction works discontinued the next year and were not resumed until 1955.
There are sections of the former German Reichsautobahn system in the former eastern territories of Germany, i.e. East Prussia, Farther Pomerania and Silesia; these territories became parts of Poland and the Soviet Union with the implementation of the Oder–Neisse line after World War II. Parts of the planned autobahn from Berlin to Königsberg (the Berlinka) were completed as far as Stettin (Szczecin) on 27 September 1936. After the war, they were incorporated as the A6 autostrada of the Polish motorway network. A single-vehicle section of the Berlinka east of the former "Polish Corridor" and the Free City of Danzig opened in 1938; today it forms the Polish S22 expressway from Elbląg (Elbing) to the border with the Russian Kaliningrad Oblast, where it is continued by the R516 regional road. Also on 27 September 1936, a section from Breslau (Wrocław) to Liegnitz (Legnica) in Silesia was inaugurated, which today is part of the Polish A4 autostrada, followed by the (single vehicle) Reichsautobahn 9 from Bunzlau (Bolesławiec) to Sagan (Żagań) the next year, today part of the Polish A18 autostrada.
After the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, plans for a motorway connecting Breslau with Vienna via Brno (Brünn) in the "Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia" were carried out from 1939 until construction works discontinued in 1942. A section of the former Strecke 88 near Brno is today part of the R52 expressway of the Czech Republic.
As of 2013[update] Germany's autobahn network has a total length of about 12,845 km. From 2009 Germany has embarked on a massive widening and rehabilitation project, expanding the lane count of many of its major arterial routes, such as the A5 in the southwest and A8 going east-west.
Most sections of Germany's autobahns are modern, containing two or three, sometimes four lanes in addition to an emergency lane (hard shoulder). A few other sections remain in an old state, with two lanes, no emergency lane, and short slip-roads and ramps. Such a combination of the two types of autobahn can be seen on the A 9 autobahn (Munich–Berlin). Heading out from Munich, the autobahn starts off as modern, with four lanes in each direction plus emergency lane. In contrast, parts of the autobahn have only two lanes and no emergency lanes (only rare emergency bays with an emergency telephone post) such as in Thuringia, which was formerly part of East Germany, or most parts of the A 40 in West Germany.
About 16,000 emergency telephones are distributed in regular intervals all along the autobahn network, with triangular stickers on the armco barriers pointing the way to the nearest one. Despite the increasing use of mobile phones, there are still some 700 calls made each day on average.
For breaks during longer journeys, parking sites, rest areas and truck stops are distributed over the complete Autobahn network. Parking on the autobahn is prohibited in the strictest terms outside these designated areas. There is a distinction between "managed" and "unmanaged" rest areas. (German: "bewirtschaftet" / "unbewirtschaftet").
Unmanaged rest areas are basically only parking spaces, sometimes with toilets. They form a part of the German highway system; the plots of land are federal property. Autobahn exits leading to such parking areas are marked 200 metres in advance with a blue sign with the white letter "P". They are found every few kilometres.
A managed rest area (German: "Autobahnraststätte" or "Raststätte" for short) usually also includes a filling station, lavatories, toilets and baby changes. Many rest areas also have restaurants, shops, public telephones, internet access and a playground. Some have hotels. Mandated every 50 km or so, rest areas are usually open all night.
Both kinds of rest areas are directly on the autobahn, with their own exits, and the service roads connecting them to the rest of the road network are closed to general traffic. The autobahn must not be left at rest areas.
Truck stops (German "Autohof", plural "Autohöfe") are far rarer. Located at general exits, usually at a small distance from the autobahn, they have no ramps of their own.
Rest areas and truck stops are marked several times, starting several kilometres in advance, and with larger signs that often include icons announcing what kinds of facilities travellers can expect.
Germany's autobahns are famous for being among the few public roads in the world without blanket speed limits for cars and motorbikes. As such, they are important German cultural identifiers, "... often mentioned in hushed, reverential tones by motoring enthusiasts and looked at with a mix of awe and terror by outsiders."
Certain limits are imposed on some classes of vehicles:
|60 km/h (37 mph)|
|80 km/h (50 mph)|
|100 km/h (62 mph)|
Additionally, speed limits are posted at most on- and off-ramps and interchanges and other danger points like sections under construction or in need of repair.
Where no general limit is required, the advisory speed limit is 130 km/h, referred to in German as the Richtgeschwindigkeit. The advisory speed is not enforceable, however, being involved in an accident driving at higher speeds can lead to the driver being deemed at least partially responsible due to "increased operating danger" (Erhöhte Betriebsgefahr).
The Federal Highway Research Institute (Bundesanstalt für Straßenwesen) solicited information about speed regulations on autobahns from the sixteen States and reported the following, comparing the years 2006 and 2008:
|Autobahn Carriageway-Km||24,735 km||25,240 km||+505 km|
|Advisory Limit Only||69.2%||65.5%||-580 km|
|Variable Limit (with Advisory Maximum)||4.2%||4.1%||-5 km|
|Permanent or Conditional Speed Limit||26.7%||30.4%||+1,090 km|
Except at construction sites, the general speed limits, where they apply, are usually between 100 km/h and 130 km/h; construction sites usually have a speed limit of 80 km/h but the limit may be as low as 60 km/h or, in very rare cases, 40 km/h. Certain stretches have lower speed limits during wet weather. Some areas have a speed limit of 120 km/h in order to reduce noise pollution during overnight hours (usually 10pm – 6am) or because of increased traffic during daytime (6am – 8pm).
Some limits were imposed to reduce pollution and noise. Limits can also be temporarily put into place through dynamic traffic guidance systems that display the according message. More than half of the total length of the German autobahn network has no speed limit, about one third has a permanent limit, and the remaining parts have a temporary or conditional limit.
Some cars with very powerful engines can reach speeds of well over 300 km/h (190 mph). Major German car manufacturers, except Porsche, follow a gentlemen's agreement by electronically limiting the top speeds of their cars – with the exception of some top of the range models or engines – to 250 km/h (155 mph). These limiters can be deactivated, so speeds up to 300 km/h (190 mph) might arise on the German autobahn, but due to other traffic, such speeds are generally not attainable. Most unlimited sections of the autobahn are located outside densely populated areas.
Vehicles with a top speed less than 60 km/h (such as quads, low-end microcars, and agricultural/construction equipment) and motorcycles or scooters with low engine capacity regardless of top speed (mainly applicable to mopeds which are typically limited to 25 or 45 km/h anyway), are not allowed to use the autobahn. To comply with this limit, several heavy-duty trucks in Germany (e.g. mobile cranes, tank transporters etc.) have a maximum design speed of 62 km/h (39 mph) (usually denoted by a round black-on-white sign with "62" on it), along with flashing orange beacons to warn approaching cars that it is traveling slowly. There is no general minimum speed but drivers are not allowed to drive at an unnecessarily low speed as this would lead to significant traffic disturbance and an increased collision risk.
In 2012, autobahns carried 31% of motorized road traffic while accounting for 11% of Germany's traffic deaths. The autobahn fatality rate of 1.7 deaths per billion-travel-kilometers compared favorably with the 5.1 rate on urban streets and 7.6 rate on rural roads.
The leading cause of autobahn accidents is "excessive speed": 6,587 so-called "speed related" crashes claimed the lives of 179 people, which represents almost half (46.3%) of 387 autobahn fatalities in 2012. However, "excessive speed" does not mean that a speed limit has been exceeded, but that police determined at least one party travelled too fast for existing road or weather conditions. On autobahns 22 people died per 1000 injury crashes; a lower rate than the 29 deaths per 1,000 injury accidents on conventional rural roads, which in turn is five times higher than the risk on urban roads – speeds are higher on rural roads and autobahns than urban roads, increasing the severity potential of a crash.
|Road Class||Injury Crashes||Fatalities||Injury Rate*||Fatality Rate*||Fatalities per 1000 Injury Crashes|
|International||Killed per 1 billion veh·km|
There are many differences between countries in their geography, economy, traffic growth, highway system size, degree of urbanization and motorization, etc.; all of which need to be taken into consideration when comparisons are made.
The United States also provides fatality rates by State. Selected U.S. states, primarily eastern ones, have fatality rates similar to European countries as tabularized next.
|International/Interstate||Killed per 1 billion veh·km|
|Country / US State||All roads||Motorways|
|US: New York||5.67||2.23|
|US: New Jersey||4.72||2.79|
|US: New Hampshire||6.07||3.00|
|US: North Dakota||7.88||3.50|
|US: Rhode Island||4.94||3.50|
|US: North Carolina||7.99||3.83|
|US: South Carolina||10.22||3.88|
The Federal government does not regularly measure or estimate travel speeds. One study reported in a transportation engineering journal offered historical perspective on the increase in travel speeds over a decade, as shown below.
|(for light vehicles)||1982||1987||1992|
|Average speed||112.3 km/h (70 mph)||117.2 km/h (73 mph)||120.4 km/h (75 mph)|
|85th percentile speed||139.2 km/h (86 mph)||145.1 km/h (90 mph)||148.2 km/h (92 mph)|
|Percentage exceeding 130 km/h||25.0%||31.3%||35.9%|
The Federal Environmental Office reported that, on an free-flowing section in 1992, the recorded average speed was 132 km/h (82 mph) with 51% of drivers exceeding the recommended speed.
In 2006, speeds were recorded using automated detection loops in the State of Brandenburg at two points: on a 6-lane section of A9 near Niemegk with a 130 km/h (81 mph) advisory speed limit; and on a 4-lane section of A10 bypassing Berlin near Groß Kreutz with a 120 km/h (75 mph) mandatory limit. The results are shown below:
|Average speed||Autobahn cross-section|
|Speed regulation||130 km/h advisory||120 km/h mandatory|
|Vehicle class||A9 (6 lanes)||A10 (4 lanes)|
|Automobiles||141.8 km/h (88 mph)||116.5 km/h (72 mph)|
|Trucks||88.2 km/h (55 mph)||88.0 km/h (55 mph)|
|Buses||97.7 km/h (61 mph)||94.4 km/h (59 mph)|
|All vehicles||131.9 km/h (82 mph)||110.1 km/h (68 mph)|
At peak times on the "free-flowing" section of A9, over 60% of road users exceeded the recommended 130 km/h (81 mph) maximum speed, more than 30% of motorists exceeded 150 km/h (93 mph), and more than 15% exceeded 170 km/h (106 mph)—in other words the so-called "85th percentile speed" was in excess of 170 km/h.
Responding to the 1973 oil crisis Germany, like other nations, imposed new or temporary speed restrictions; for example, 100 km/h (62 mph) on autobahns effective November 13, 1973. Automakers projected a 20% plunge in sales, which they attributed in part to the lowered speed limits. The 100 km/h limit championed by Transportation Minister Lauritz Lauritzen lasted 111 days, replaced by a 130 km/h (81 mph) recommended limit. By way of comparison, adjacent nations with unlimited speed autobahns, such as Austria and Switzerland, imposed permanent 130 km/h (81 mph) limits after the crisis.
Since the mid-1980s, after environmental issues had gained importance and recognition among lawmakers, interest groups and the general public, there has been an ongoing debate on whether or not a general speed limit should be imposed for all autobahns. A car's fuel consumption increases with high speed, and fuel conservation is a key factor in reducing air pollution. Safety issues have been cited as well with regards to speed-related fatalities. Those opposed to a general speed limit maintain that such regulation is unnecessary because only two percent of the traffic in Germany runs on unlimited sections (the heavily used autobahn sections in metro areas do have a speed limit). Additionally, better fuel economy, even at high speeds, has been achieved in most modern cars. Moreover, international accident statistics demonstrate that limited access grade separated roads such as autobahns and motorways have much greater road traffic safety regardless of speed limit, suggesting that high speed alone isn't a deciding factor. The high-speed image projected by German car makers is an important marketing tool. Therefore, Germany's powerful car lobby, including a representative from the Volkswagen company, is vehemently opposed to the authorization of an autobahn speed limit.
In the discussion about such plans during his political term of office, the former Bundeskanzler Gerhard Schröder was against the introduction of a hard speed limit in the autobahn, which he justified by calling Germany an "Autofahrernation" (a nation of drivers) to point out the fact that a speed limit would not be regarded positively by the public. True enough, after various polls, it was made clear that the German public is to a large degree against a hard speed limit on the entire autobahn network.
Over twenty years after the beginning of this debate, there are no concrete plans by the German government concerning such a speed limit. In October 2007, at a party congress held by the Social Democratic Party of Germany, delegates narrowly approved a proposal to introduce a blanket speed limit of 130 km/h (81 mph) on all German autobahns. While this initiative is primarily a part of the SPD's general strategic outline for the future and, according to practices, not necessarily meant to affect immediate government policy, the proposal had stirred up a debate once again; Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel and leading cabinet members have expressed outspoken disapproval of such a measure.
On 1 January 2005, a new system came into effect for mandatory tolls (Mautpflicht) on heavy trucks (those weighing more than 12 t) while using the German autobahn system (LKW-Maut). The German government contracted with a private company, Toll Collect GmbH, to operate the toll collection system, which has involved the use of vehicle-mounted transponders and roadway-mounted sensors installed throughout Germany. The toll is calculated depending on the toll route, as well as based on the pollution class of the vehicle, its weight and the number of axles on the vehicles. Certain vehicles, such as emergency vehicles and buses, are exempt from the toll. An average user is charged €0.15 per kilometre, or about $0.31 per mile (Toll Collect, 2007).
Driving in Germany is regulated by the Highway Code (Straßenverkehrs-Ordnung, abbreviated StVO). Enforcement is handled by each State's Highway Patrol (Autobahnpolizei), sometimes using unmarked police cars and motorcycles and sometimes equipped with video cameras, thus allowing easier enforcement of laws such as tailgating. Notable laws include the following.
Need for Speed: ProStreet, Burnout 3: Takedown, Euro Truck Simulator 2 and Burnout Dominator use autobahn as one of their tracks. Burnout 3: Takedown named them as Alpine while Burnout Dominator divided them into two (Autobahn and Autobahn Loop). Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed also had a track that had the player drive across different sections of the autobahn. The entire game world of Crash Time: Autobahn Pursuit is set on the autobahn. On Gran Turismo 5, a trophy is awarded to those who have driven the same distance as the autobahn total length. In December 2010 video game developer Synetic GmbH and Conspiracy Entertainment released the title Alarm für Cobra 11 – Die Autobahnpolizei featuring real world racing and mission based gameplay it is taken from the popular German television series about a two-man team of Autobahnpolizei first set in Berlin then later in North Rhine-Westphalia.
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