5 Driving Hacks & Rules in Germany – Country Guide
Make your German journey carefree by following these 5 basic tips
It can sometimes be difficult to drive in a foreign country. You can’t assume the traffic regulations are the same as back home, and it took you ages to learn those! Then there are the practical implications – what do all the signs mean, what’s the driving etiquette and how should you address the authorities, lest the authorities address you to traffic court.
Luckily, there are usually only a few basic rules one should know about in advance in order to avoid an unpleasant situation.
In this post, a continuation in our road rules blogpost series, we will be looking at Germany and its basic driving rules and regulations. We will be looking at the basic requirements for driving in Germany as a foreign national, some of the rules you will need to follow and how they may differ from what you may be used to, and we’ll offer some practical tips on how to behave in situations that may arise during your stay.
Do you have the right driving licence?
Driving licence rules are subject to reciprocity, meaning that whether or not you can drive in Germany with your nationals licence is dependent on whether the two countries have an agreement in place. Citizens of countries in the European Union or the European Economic Area are free to drive on German roads without having to take out either an International Driving Permit or a German driving licence (the Führerschein). Others may need to get an International Driving Permit to use in consort with their own licence (it’s only an official translation, not a licence in its own right), but may usually only drive using that for up to six months, after which they will need to get a German licence. You can be issued an extension of another six months should you be staying in Germany for less than a year, but you will need to provide proof that you are leaving Germany before then at the local traffic office (the Straßenverkehrsamt). This can be a dated return ticket, a work contract or a visa that expires before then, to name a few examples.
The German driving test, should you need to take it, is no picnic. The written part is regularly failed on the first go by some 30% of drivers, and you won’t exactly breeze through the practical part either. Luckily, you may not have to take either, or both, depending on where you are from.
So check which one of these applies to you, whether in your national traffic office or the German one, after you arrive. The traffic police are reasonable, but they enforce the laws dilligently, and recieving a fine for such a minor thing can be disproportionally irksome to the hassle involved in double checking.
Obey the traffic regulations…
In Germany, you drive on the right and overtake on the left. It is illegal to do otherwise, except in traffic jams, where it is permissible in speeds not exceeding 20 kph relative the the lane on the left. The minimum driving age is 18 years old, but a rental may only offer cars for rent to persons older than that, based on the model.
Speed signs are usually white, with yellow signs being temporary signs and blue signs usually being state recommendations. Speed limits are 50 kph in cities and 100 kph in two-lane motorways, unless otherwise stated. Bear in mind that 30 kph local zones have been gaining popularity, so keep an eye out for the appropriate signs.
Turning right on a red light is forbidden unless there is a conditional green light with a rightward facing arrow next to the usual full green one.
Seatbelts should be worn by all passangers at all times. Your car must have the regulation first aid kit and a warning triangle (to be placed 100 metres behind your vehicle if you’re having truble; 200 metres on the autobahn), and you should always have all of your documents with you.
Headlights should always be switched on.
Children under 12 years old or under 1.5 meters in height are forbidden to ride in the front, unless the car is fitted with the appropriate child safety seat. The child safety seat cannot be fitted if the car has an active airbag.
…or be fined
Two things could happen in this regard. You may be stopped by police or you may be recorded by a traffic camera.
In terms of the former, the German police are professional and will treat you fairly, but will be rigorous in their duties. When it comes to traffic violations, they may ask you to pay the fine on the spot. You may legally refuse this, but you should consider paying the fine right there if you can. If they issue you with a fine and refer you to traffic court, you might be liable for higher costs, as the courts base the fine on your income.
The latter, on the other hand, are omnipresent and only increasing in usage. After you’ve been filmed, you will automatically be issued a fine, which you will recieve at your home adress. The German traffic police used to send you photographic prood with your fine as well, but had to stop after several motorists complained after they were caught philandering and their partners opened the mail for them. Now you can go to the police station to issue a complaint, but as they have photographic proof, you usually won’t get anywhere.
And don’t think you can escape paying if you are a foreign national driving a rental – they will issue the fine to your rental agency which will then provide your information to the police and refer you the fine, and cases of collection agencies following up on these are constantly increasing.
If you are involved in a traffic offence, you could risk property confiscation or imprisonment. So be careful, especially on a world famous motorway. Speaking of which…
The autobahn myth is ultimately only that
We all know about the autobahn. At worst we’ve heard the stories from Tony in the office who rented a Porsche 911 and did a re-imagining of Speed with the only exceptions being that there was no bomb, it was 150 kph rather than the cinematic 50 mph and he was the one driving while his Sandra Bullock equivalent passenger was in her seat, being thoroughly impressed.
Two things about that. One, your friend really needs to rethink his attitude to women, and two, he was playing fast and loose with the truth, as you’ve probably already guessed.
In reality, not all of the autobahn is a speed limit-free zone, and none of it is regulation-free, so you should always keep the road signs in mind. You will find the usual round white signs with speed limits in parts they apply to (and will usually be between 80 and 130) and rectangular blue signs in parts where they don’t – these signify the recommended speed and are always 130 kph on the autobahn. You can go faster, but most drivers tend to stay withing the 50 km range of that and are quite reasonable on the road. You may experience the driver behind you blinking their lights at you, indicating that they are preparing to overtake you. It is perfectly normal, if slightly rude.
Also, you can be fined for driving slower than 60 kph, and pedestrians and vehicles such as mopeds or bicycles are actively banned from using the autobahn. U-turns on the autobahn are also forbidden. Look for the next exit and turn there.
Due to the speeds in question, lanes are respected vigorously. Always overtake on the left and return to the right lane as soon as you’ve finished. Higher speeds are always partnered with higher risk, and require more discipline on the road.
The autobahn didn’t have tolls until very recently. Germany passed a new toll law in 2015 and, after a brief negotiation with the EU, which opposed the measure, finally got the green light in late 2016. Tolls are payed on a yearly basis by residents, and visitors may choose between a ten-day, two-monthly or a yearly toll. The charges vary based on the size and eco-friendliness of your car.
Parking is easy, but make sure you’re following the rules
It is usually OK to park along the streets, but you should make sure you are parking the correct way. Look for the signs to see if parking is allowed and, if it is, whether you need to park with 2 or 4 wheels on the sidewalk, or even get a Parkscheibe, which is a disk you can get at a gas station or gift shop that substitutes for the traffic meter, and is therefore used to show how long you have been parking and is required to park legally in certain zones. You simply set it to your arrival time and place it under your windshield, and you will be safe from the €5 you would otherwise have accrued.
Now, let’s find you a car!