By Colin Case and Kim Felton
Our latest success has been obtaining German driving licenses. This used to be a "simple" process compared to the rig-a-ma-roll which we had to endure and which we have found to be relatively typical of bureaucracy here. You see, in April the laws changed (without warning, of course, to avoid a rush at the Landratsamt). They now require Americans (not all foreigners) to not only submit ridiculous amounts of paperwork, and copies of paperwork, to prove we have been driving for the last 18 years, but we must now complete driving lessons and take both written and practical driving tests!! This would not be so tough except that German driving standards are somewhat different than those is America. For instance, you must have a "loose neck". It is as if your eyes are never on the road in front of you, but rather constantly wandering between all three mirrors and over your shoulder. Thus your head is always loosely bobbing around. Just try this, every time you come to an intersection, even though you know there are no cyclists or pedestrians around, look in all the mirrors and over your shoulder every time. But whoa! You must do it in the precise order...rearview mirror, outside mirrors, blinker, then over the shoulder. Heaven forbid that you should signal before you glance in the mirror! That's 8 points off right there. Do it twice, or forget a step, and you fail the test!
The written test gave us a lot of laughs. To get the answers right, we had to think in a slightly "different" way. For instance, "There is an old lady walking along the side of the road. What should you do?" Answer: "Expect totally irrational behaviour by the old lady, cover your brake, and honk as you pass her to teach her a lesson." Or, "There is still some time left on the parking meter, what should you do?" Can you believe one of the answers given was that you could not park there until the meter had run out?!
Probably the most difficult/frustrating thing to get used to here (besides not being able to turn right on red), is a system called priority roads. You may be driving along a large, fast-moving, collector street, when a car appears from a small, teeny, tiny, driveway-sized street to your right. Because your road hasn't been marked in any particular way and the other car is on your right, the other car has right-of-way and cuts you off, nearly causing an accident. It's very hard to break that American thought process that the bigger, obviously main road doesn't have the right-of-way over intersecting side roads.
Kim's brothers can't wait to try out the autobahns. Guys have this thing about speed. They had better visit soon since many of the autobahns are being posted with speed limits. Not that it matters much. With generally only two lanes, all traffic travels in the right lane and people pass on the left (only the left, you can never pass a car on the right). Unfortunately, there is a lot of truck traffic on the autobahns and inevitably the trucks try to pass each other. So much of the time you are sitting on the tailpipe of a truck, breathing those diesel fumes, and cursing the fact that you can't go very fast. Personally, I [Kim] think the autobahn is too hyped up. Drivers here are very aggressive with people switching lanes back and forth so fast that it's hard to believe they don't frequently lose control of their vehicles. In fact, I witnessed an accident right in front of me where this was the case. People tail each other with barely two feet between them, at 100. 120, 140 mph. It's crazy. Then you have those (the majority) that never learned how to merge onto the autobahn. They stop (!) in the acceleration lane! Aaghhh!
One last word about driving here and I'll be through. Radar and cameras are set up EVERYWHERE...on the autobahns, residential roads, major streets. Arguing a speeding ticket is nearly impossible. Tickets come in the mail and they are paid. You may ask to be sent the picture (if you're willing to pay for it) to be sure that it was you they photographed, but most people don't bother. You're in luck if your spouse happens to be driving and they addressed the ticket to the wrong person. We know of a funny story. A German guy went by a camera and saw it flash. He swore he wasn't going faster than the 50 km/h speed limit so he circled around and went by again going exactly 50 km/h and the camera flashed again! So he circled around a second time and drove by slower than 50 km/h and the camera flashed again! A couple of weeks later he received three tickets in the mail...for not wearing a seatbelt!!!! Big brother is watching!
"German Driving Licenses" (March/April 1994, Case and Felton) begs for a rebuttal. The article is entertaining, but simply does not paint a true picture.
The article leads the reader to think that the American way is the only way. There is a good reason for the "loose neck," which requires drivers to constantly monitor the road as well as the mirrors. On the autobahn, the speed differential between the faster and slower drivers can easily be 60 mph. This is equivalent to negotiating around parked cars in free flowing freeway traffic. At those speeds, being constantly aware of one's surroundings is a very good idea.
Urban and suburban autobahns have speed limits ranging from 83 mph (or 130 kph) down to 63 mph (or 100 kph). "Autobahn" is simply the German word for "highway." Most autobahns are two lanes. However, the lanes are much wider than what we are used to in the States, allowing for an extra margin of safety. Cars must share the autobahn with trucks that are subject to speed limits, depending on their size and weight. However, trucks are banned from the highways from 6:00 p.m. Friday to 6:00 a.m. Monday.
The autobahns post unlimited speeds between population centers. This is indicated by the typical speed limit sign, but bordered in black with what appear to be tire tracks over black "130" numerals. In these sections of roadway, motorists can travel as fast as traffic, the weather, and their cars will allow. There are few things that compare to pushing the accelerator as far down as it can go, and holding it there for minutes at a stretch.
The authors chose to make light of a system that requires rigorous driver training and strict compliance to the rules. In return, drivers get a well maintained and sophisticated highway system, high speed travel, the security of knowing that those sharing the road have met the same rigorous standards, and a surprising low fatality rate.
After some time on German roads, you get past the humorous cultural differences and comfortable with the high speeds. Then, you realize that their system makes one of the best arguments for raising speed limits in the U.S.
It is with great disappointment I feel obligated to write. The article by Colin Chase and Kim Felton regarding the difficulties on getting a German driving license is oddly mean-spirited, condescending in tone, and wholly unlike anything I expected. It is not only right, but a must, for any foreign country to make sure American drivers, using their roads and endangering their citizens, should pass all driving tests in their country before being allowed to drive.
They whine that they should not have to look out for pedestrians and cyclists when coming to an intersection. Obviously, Germans consider the safety of their pedestrians as an important aspect of driving.
Remarks contending that a majority of German drivers do not know how to merge onto the autobahn are not only irritating, but show off an air of superiority where none should be. Most likely, the drivers who do not know how to merge onto the autobahn are Americans!
To conclude, I will say this: Every time I go to Germany, and drive on German roads, I feel much safer than I do in this country. The roads are smooth and well-engineered, yet scenic and challenging to drive. It would behoove any visitor to Germany to try and make an effort to understand the unique driving conditions and adapt.
Horst Reinhardt, Jr.
Rochester Hills, MI
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