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

Driving on German roads can be fun, or terrifying, depending on your level of experience. But it is important to be aware that there are some subtle differences here to the rules in other countries. Here’s what you need to know.

The German rules of the road that are hard to get your head around
A Rettungsgasse. Photo: DPA

Germany indisputably makes some of the best cars in the world. Even if you don’t own your own, driving a BMW or Mercedes down an Autobahn is surely on everyone’s German bucket list.

But before you hit the autobahn, or even the streets of your city, you should learn these rules.

Rechts vor Links!

Right before left is one of the most important rules of driving in Germany, especially in the cities. Getting used to a rule that relies on trust of other drivers can take time though.

READ ALSO: Fines and speed limits: Germany votes on new traffic rules

To explain: there is a hierarchy of controls at German junctions. At the very top is the policeman: if he is on the street controlling traffic he overrides all other traffic signals. Then comes the traffic light, followed by give way, stop and Vorfahrt signs. 

A Vorfahrt sign is a yellow diamond inside a white diamond and signals that your street has priority regardless of whether a car is approaching a junction from your left or right side.

A man holding a Vorfaht sign. Photo: DPA

But, if there are no signs, then the principle of Rechts vor Links kicks in. This is very common in inner cities. Even if you think your road is bigger, if a car approaches from a smaller road on the right you need to give way to them.

This also applies to bicycles. If the car approaches from the left though, you have priority.

Even Germans don’t always get this rule right. Just sit for an hour at a busy junction where this rule applies and you are sure to see at least one argument.

Freie Fahrt für freie Bürger!

To be fair, this isn’t so much a rule as a way of life. Freie Fahrt für freie Bürger means free travel for free citizens and is a slogan from the seventies referring to the joys of an autobahn without speed limits.

In case you haven’t noticed, people drive fast on the far left lane of the autobahn.

According to the law, the minimum speed for driving on the left lane is 60 km/h. In reality don’t even think about pulling over there on a three-lane motorway unless you're doing at least 120 km/h.

Typical speeds on the fast lane are between 150 km/h and 190 km/h, so you have to have a head for it.

Rechtsfahrgebot

Literally meaning the “order to drive on the right”, the Rechtsfahrgebot applies on the autobahn and is there to stop slow drivers blocking the faster lanes.

Essentially it means that you should, whenever possible, drive on the right lane (which is the slow lane). Sticking to the middle or left lane is actually forbidden, even though many drivers do it anyway.

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

The rule has been relaxed in recent years though, as travel authorities have come to see that forcing people to change lanes all the time can actually make the roads more dangerous.

Now the law states that one is permitted to stay in the middle lane when there is slower traffic on the right lane “now and again.”

According to the German Automobile Club, if your next overtaking manoeuvre will happen in the next 20 seconds you are allowed to stay in the middle or left lane.

People who fail to adhere to the rule risk an €80 fine and one point on their licence.

Anlieger frei

Photo: DPA

A sign that you will come across on a lot of small roads is a red circle with a white centre and the words “Anlieger frei” underneath it. This is such jargon, even people with good German might not understand it at first.

The word Anlieger doesn’t exist in German law, but it refers to someone with an “anliegendem Grundstück” (adjacent plot of land). So the sign literally means “free for adjacents.”

All you need to know is that you are not allowed to use the street unless you live on it or are visiting someone who lives there. Or, if you own a garden there you are also allowed to use it.

Fines of €50 will be slapped on transgressors.

The Parkscheibe

Photo: DPA

Many parking places in Germany allow you to park for free but only for a set amount of time. To allow traffic wardens to monitor this, every car has a Parkscheibe, which is a little blue and white disk that you put on your dashboard. You adjust the time on it to the closest half hour after you park.

Typically, you can park for an hour without payment. You are not allowed to just return to your car and move the time on the disk at the end of the hour.

Rettungsgasse

If you’ve ever driven on a German autobahn then you've probably been stuck in traffic at some point. Crashes are fairly regular occurrences on the busy interstates.

So that ambulances can get to the site of the accident as quickly as possible, all the cars that come to a stop behind the crash need to build a Rettungsgasse (rescue lane). 

The rule is that, if you are on the left lane you move to the far left side. If you are on any other lane, you move to the right hand side.

Member comments

  1. So, all in all not very difficult really. Give way to the right when obligatory, keep to the right when obligatory and don´t park where you aren´t supposed to…

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DRIVING

COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?

Certain countries around Europe have stricter policies than others regarding drinking and driving and harsher punishments for those caught exceeding legal limits. Here's what you need to know.

COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?

European countries set their own driving laws and speed limits and it’s no different when it comes to legal drink-drive limits.

While the safest thing to do of course, is to drink no alcohol at all before driving it is useful to know what the limit is in the country you are driving in whether as a tourist or as someone who frequently crosses European borders by car for work.

While some countries, such as the Czech Republic, have zero tolerance for drinking and driving, in others people are allowed to have a certain amount of alcohol in their blood while driving.

However, not only can the rules be different between countries, they are usually stricter for commercial (or bus) drivers and novice drivers as well. Besides that, the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is extremely difficult to estimate, so the old “one beer is ok” standards no longer safely apply.

In the end, the only way to be safe is to avoid consuming alcohol before driving. Any amount will slow reflexes while giving you dangerous higher confidence. According to the UK’s National Health Service, there is no ‘safe’ drinking level.

How is blood alcohol level measured?

European countries mostly measure blood alcohol concentration (BAC), which is the amount, in grams, of alcohol in one litre of blood.

After alcohol is consumed, it will be absorbed fast from the stomach and intestine to the bloodstream. There, it is broken down by a liver-produced enzyme.

Each person will absorb alcohol at their own speed, and the enzyme will also work differently in each one.

The BAC will depend on these metabolic particularities as well as body weight, gender, how fast and how much the person drank, their age and whether or not (and how much) they have eaten, and even stress levels at the time.

In other words there are many things that may influence the alcohol concentration.

The only way to effectively measure BAC is by taking a blood test – even a breathalyser test could show different results. Still, this is the measuring unit used by many EU countries when deciding on drinking limits and penalties for drivers.

Here are the latest rules and limits.

Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Greece, Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, and Croatia

In most EU countries, the limit is just under 0.5g/l for standard drivers (stricter rules could be in place for novice or professional drivers).

This could be exceeded by a man with average weight who consumed one pint of beer (containing 4.2% alcohol) and two glasses of red wine (13% alcohol) while having dinner.

If a person is caught driving with more than 0.8g/l of blood alcohol content in Austria, they can pay fines of up to € 5,900 and to have their license taken for one year in some cases.

In France, if BAC exceeds 0.8g/l, they could end up with a 2-year jail sentence and a € 4,500 fine. In Germany, penalties start at a € 500 fine and a one-month license suspension. In Greece, drunk drivers could face up to years of imprisonment.

In Denmark, first time offenders are likely to have their licences suspended and could be required to go on self-paid alcohol and traffic courses if BAC levels are low. Italy has penalties that vary depending on whether or not the driver has caused an accident and could lead to car apprehension, fines and prison sentences.

In Spain, going over a 1.2g/l limit is a criminal offence that could lead to imprisonment sentences and hefty fines. 

Norway, Sweden, and Poland

In Norway, Sweden, and Poland, the limit for standard drivers is 0.2g/l. It could take a woman with average weight one standard drink, or one can of beer, to reach that level.

Penalties in Norway can start at a one month salary fine and a criminal record. In Poland, fines are expected if you surpass the limit, and you could also have your license revoked and receive a prison sentence.

Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia

The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia have one of the strictest rules in the European Union. There is no allowed limit of alcohol in the blood for drivers.

In the Czech Republic, fines start at € 100 to € 800, and a driving ban of up to one year can be instituted for those driving with a 0.3 BAC level. However, the harshest penalties come if the BAC level surpasses 1 g/l, fines can be up to € 2,000, and drivers could be banned from driving for 10 years and imprisoned for up to three years.

This is intended to be a general guide and reference. Check the current and specific rules in the country you plan to travel to. The easiest and best way to be safe and protect yourself and others is to refrain from drinking alcohol and driving.

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