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DRIVING

Starting (nearly) from scratch: learning how to drive stick shift in Germany

After passing her test in Canada with an automatic car, The Local’s Shelley Pascual had no idea what she was letting herself in for when she jumped into an Auto in Deutschland and found herself confronted with a gear stick.

This article is available to Members of The Local. Read more Membership Exclusives here.

In countries such as the US and Canada, automatic cars are much, much more common than manuals. When I was in driving school over a decade ago, I didn’t even know there was an option to learn how to drive using gears.

If you are one of the select few who can operate a manual vehicle, others tend to be in awe of you. Even today there are only a handful of friends and family I know who possess the valuable skill.

Young Drivers of Canada, the biggest driving training organization across the country with 140 locations, stopped offering their manual transmission lessons in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) in 2013. This is despite the fact that the GTA is Canada’s most populous metropolitan area with over six million inhabitants.

Looking back, I wish I had learned at 16 how to drive a manual car rather than an automatic. But how was I to know I’d end up moving to Germany years later – a country where about 80 percent of the new cars have a gear stick?

If I had known then that it’s way easier to switch from manual to automatic than the other way around, I would have saved two years of my life.

Sucking it up and learning once and for all

When I relocated to the city of Braunschweig in 2012, I was delighted yet bewildered when I found out I could easily exchange my Canadian driving licence for a German one without having to complete any tests – even though I hadn’t the slightest clue how to operate the majority of the cars in the country (bizarre, I know).

FOR MEMBERS: What you need to know about German driving licences

Friends from countries like the UK and Germany would only chuckle when I told them about my predicament. But I couldn’t change the hands of time. And I knew at that point if I ever stood a chance of driving in Deutschland, it would mean I’d have to suck it up and learn how to operate a stick shift automobile once and for all.

My partner and I didn’t have our own car, but we did have access to his family’s wheels whenever we visited them. The only issue for me was – you guessed it – the car was a manual vehicle, meaning I didn't know how to drive it.

But much like my vigour for learning German, I was determined to learn how to operate the family’s Kleinwagen. Still, it took me about two years before I could say I properly achieved this feat.

To be fair, I could have probably learned stick shift in a few months. But since there was no rush for me to learn, and I didn’t want to cough up loads of cash for the lessons, I chose instead to learn the freestyle way and practise whenever visiting my in-laws.

Shelley decided against taking lessons at a driving school. Photo: DPA

The biggest hurdle by far was getting out of first gear. Adding another foot to the mix felt like the most unnatural thing to me.

We would go out to practise in empty parking lots, and over and over again I’d lament the fact that my right foot just couldn’t get in sync with my left foot when it came to getting into first gear. For months I pressed much too hard on the accelerator while failing to find the clutch. Over and over again the car jolted and stalled.

During these first few practice sessions there were times when I thought I’d pack it all in, vowing that I’d never buy myself an automatic. Slowly but surely though, I managed to get my feet to coordinate with one another and the shuddering stalls became ever less frequent.

Each time we visited my in-laws I had the chance to practise, which isn’t to say I improved bit by bit. Sometimes I’d make lots of progress, such as getting onto a country road without making any glaring mistakes, only to feel I’d unlearned everything a few months later.

The autobahn was less scary than I anticipated

Soon enough though I was able to drive on city roads comfortably and decided it was time to try out the autobahn. When I finally got onto the highway, I was surprised to find it was actually less scary than I had anticipated.

Having learned to speed up in the ramp during my driving school days, I did the same while driving the Kleinwagen by switching directly from third gear to fifth gear.

And once I was on the autobahn, aside from the lack of a speed limit in certain sections, and the rule that cars can only overtake on the left, I found it very similar to driving on Canadian highways.

On highways in Canada the speed limit is usually 120 km/hr and it’s common for cars to overtake on both sides (something I’ve come to despise, as the German rule which states cars can only overtake on the left makes much more sense for the flow of traffic).

SEE ALSO: Six reasons why I never want to drive on the autobahn again

Reaching a milestone

It must have been sometime in 2014 when I unwittingly reached a milestone in my drawn out process of learning how to drive stick shift. While I felt fine for the most part driving manual vehicles, the only passenger I’d ever had was my partner.

The memory is vivid in my mind: we were at a friend's house and all wanted to go out for drinks, but no one wanted to be the designated driver. After a bit of nudging I was eventually talked into being the one who would refrain from drinking any alcohol that night.

Photo: DPA

On the outside I appeared cool, calm and collected. But on the inside I was terrified at the thought of being responsible for the lives of four other people.

In the end I had worried the entire night for nothing, as the drive home went smoothly. Needless to say, it boosted my confidence and the handful of times after that when I had passengers, I became more and more at ease.

What also helped me become a more confident stick driver was the fact that after I arrived in Germany I also learned to drive a manual transmission moped. I’d tell myself, “if I can drive a two-wheeler without a metal shell protecting me from the dangers of German streets, surely I can manage a four-wheeler with a shell.”

SEE ALSO: Here’s a little-known East German vehicle that’s actually amazing

Nowadays I still don’t own a car, meaning it’s not often I find myself driving at all. When I visited family in Toronto last Easter, I rented a car for about a week which was (sorry, not sorry) automatic.

Nevertheless I have plans to buy a Kleinwagen of my own in the near future. And I’ve decided it will be of the stick shift variety.

I want to do this not because it will be better for fuel consumption or that I’ll have more control over the vehicle, but because I don't want to take the easy way out.

While I’m now fine in pretty much all road situations on German streets and highways regardless of a vehicle’s transmission, if you asked me to parallel park on a slope with a manual car, I’d still find myself in a bit of a pickle.

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DRIVING

REVEALED: The key traffic violations and fines to know about in Germany

Every country has its own unique way of keeping drivers in check, and Germany is no exception. Here are the main traffic violations foreigners should know about - and the penalties for breaking the rules.

REVEALED: The key traffic violations and fines to know about in Germany

When many people think of Germany’s road rules, the first thing that comes to mind is the famous speed-limit free section of the Autobahn. Though speeds of 130km or less are recommended, speed junkies generally don’t have anything to fear when they step on the accelerator – although reckless driving, like speeding in rainy or icy conditions, can be penalised by the police.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot more to driving in Germany than getting an adrenaline rush on the motorway. In fact, there are numerous strict rules to follow – and many of the penalties for breaking them have been tightened up in recent years.

Since 2014, authorities have used what’s colloquially known as the “Points in Flensburg” system, which refers to the location of the Federal Motor Transport Authority. Drivers can accrue up to eight points on their licence for various misdemeanours, at which point their licence is revoked. 

While it’s possible to get another driving licence if this happens, it’s not a particularly straightforward process: a suspended driver first has to wait for a certain amount of time, and will then be subject to a psychological and medical assessment. 

Of course, the best way to avoid getting points on your licence – or facing hefty fines – is to have a good grasp of how drivers should behave. Here’s an overview of some of the main rules and penalties you should know if you plan to spend some time driving in Germany. 

READ ALSO: What you need to know about getting a German driving licence

Speeding fines

Generally, there are two types of speed limit you’ll need to observe in Germany: in built-up areas, drivers should observe speed limits of up to 50km per hour, and in non-residential zones, drivers can generally drive up to 100km per hour. 

As mentioned, the Autobahn does have some sections where speed limits don’t apply, but a maximum speed of 130km per hour is recommended. People who want to drive particularly fast generally drive on the far-left lane, where the minimum speed is 60km per hour.

However, even here, drivers are expected to have their car in a road-safe condition and adapt their behaviour to weather conditions, since police can still use their discretion to penalise drivers they feel aren’t being careful enough. 

Cars drive on the A73 in Bavaria in the rain

Cars drive on the A73 in Bavaria in the pouring rain. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Löb

The fines for exceeding the limit range from €30 for going up to 10km per hour over the limit to €680 for going 70km per hour or more over the speed limit. Authorities will also penalise drivers with points on their licence and driving suspensions for more severe violations. 

For example, drivers that travel more than 21km over the speed limit can expect to get an €80-90 fine and a point on their licence, and if they’re caught going this fast in a residential area, they’ll also face a one month suspension of their license. The same applies for people going 26km per hour or more over the limit in a non-residential area.

People going more than 41km over the speed limit, meanwhile, will get a €200 fine, at least two points on their licence and a suspension of either one or two months, depending on whether they were driving in a residential zone or not.

Travelling more than 70km per hour over the limit will land you a €680 fine, a three-month suspension and two points on your licence. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Germany’s tougher driving fines

Driving under the influence

The consequences for driving under the influence of alcohol depend on a number of factors, including how much you’ve drunk, how old you are, and whether it’s your first offence. 

In general, drivers must have no more than 0.5 percent alcohol in their blood to get behind the wheel. People caught with a blood alcohol content of between 0.5 and 1.09 percent face a fine of €500 and a one-month driving ban. For second offences, this goes up to €1,000 and a three-month driving ban, while third offences are punished with a €1,500 and a three-month driving ban. In every case of being caught over the limit, drivers get two points on their licence. 

These rules get stricter for anyone under the age of 21 or who has had their licence for less than two years. In these cases, no alcohol whatsoever is permitted before driving and people who break that rule will get a €250 fine and a point on their licence.

People with a blood alcohol level of 1.1 percent of higher are considered completely unfit to be driving and will face criminal proceedings that could result in hefty fines and even prison time. They’ll also get three points on their licence and a lengthy driving suspension.

All of this assumes that there are no accidents or reckless driving involved. If you are deemed to be driving dangerously while drunk, you’ll likely have to go to court and face a much harsher penalty. 

READ ALSO: The German rules of the road that are hard to get your head around

Parking violations

Parking violations are generally handled by the Ordnungsamt on a local or regional level, but they generally vary from small fines of around €10 for parking without a permit or ticket to fines of around €70 for more serious violations like blocking emergency vehicles or parking on the Autobahn. 

To stay on the right side of the law, look out for blue and white signs with a ‘P’ that indicate that parking is permitted – though you may still need to buy a ticket. 

A 'Park and Ride' sign in Potsdam, Brandenburg.

A ‘Park and Ride’ sign in Potsdam, Brandenburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jens Kalaene

Running a red light 

Though running red lights isn’t entirely uncommon, drivers who do it should expect tough penalties from the authorities if caught. The most lenient of these is a €90 fine, but if drivers run a light that has been red for at least a second and cause damage, this will increase to €360, two points on the licence and a one month driving ban. 

Railroad and pedestrian crossings

Not giving way to pedestrians at a pedestrian crossing can lead to a fine of €80 and a point on the licence. For violations at railroad crossings, the penalties are much steeper: you can expect a €240 fine, one point and a one-month suspension for running a warning light and a €700 fine, two points and a three-month suspension for crossing when the gate is closed.

Hit and run

Understandably, hit and run incidents are taken incredibly seriously in Germany. Leaving the scene of an accident before the police arrive can land you three points on your licence, while causing an accident and fleeing the scene is likely to result in a fine, licence suspension and even time behind bars. 

Tailgating 

Tailgating penalties vary dramatically depending on the speed at which you’re driving. At high speeds, driving too close to the car in front can result in fines of up to €400. If you’re travelling slower than 80km per hour, a much more modest €25 fine is the norm. 

Turning, intersections and lane changes 

Especially when driving in cities, it’s important to signal properly, be careful and attentive when turning and observe the proper system of right-of-way, which generally follows a “right before left” principle.

People who don’t indicate when turning or changing lanes will only face a proverbial slap on the wrist with a fine of just €10. However, failing to observe the proper right of way rules will likely land you a much steeper fine of €85 – so make sure you’re clued up about these.  

Early morning traffic in Göttingen, Lower Saxony

Early morning traffic in Göttingen, Lower Saxony. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Swen Pförtner

Overtaking on the wrong side – or unsafely

In German cities, you should always overtake on the left – and not doing so could result in a fine of €30. If you try to pass another car without observing road signs or lane markings, you’ll likely be suspended from driving for at least a month, as well as getting two points on your licence and a €300 fine. 

READ ALSO: How much does it cost to get a driving licence in Germany?

Mobile phone and seatbelt violations

Of course, traffic violations are not just about how you drive your car, but what you do when you’re in it. Talking on or otherwise using your mobile phone while driving will result in a fine of at least €100 – but this could be much higher if you end up causing an accident.

Failing to put on your seatbelt or fasten it properly will land you a €30 fine from the authorities, while failing to put seatbelts on children in the car results in a fine of €70.

Driving in a defective vehicle 

Keeping vehicles in a road-safe is vital for any driver in Germany – and there can be steep fines for those who don’t. Unsafe deficiencies in a vehicle can see drivers slapped with a €90 fine, while driving with inadequate tires gets you a €60 fine and driving with the licence plate obscured gets a €65 fine. 

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