Today, I had my first jaunt in the new car on the Autobahn. (I assume that anyone with a bit of school learning knows that term, so will not provide a German Word of the Day.)
I will not comment on how the car performed relative to other cars I have driven, beyond noting the newest Audi A7 is faster and rides smoother than my first Porsche 911.
And, I like to drive it better than my second 911.
I will not mention BMW, not wanting to hurt any feelings.
I was reminded of a lesson I learned during my early days of tearing up German highways and byways in my 911. There was less traffic and gas cost 18 cents. Everyone that takes driver’s education learns about defensive driving. Take that and increase it exponentially for driving on a German Autobahn.
Lack of speed limit lets people drive at crazy speeds. Even I have been guilty of such folly. That said, I have always found 180 kilometers per hour (112mph) to be the safest speed...not considering other drivers.
The thing about Autobahns is that speeds are so unpredictable. Some people race and some plod, either to save gas, to be cautious, or because the car is a dog. The problem with slow drivers is that they have no understanding of how fast others can move. The concept of rate-of-closure is unknown. A glance in the rearview mirror might reveal an approaching car, but they have no idea about how soon said car will be upon them. I can spot the wheels slowly turning in the brain of a driver up ahead and can determine when he will pull out to pass the car or truck in front of him...without taking a second look in his mirror to discover that I am now on his tail and, without braking, would crash into his slow-moving ass. This guy cannot appreciate how fast I am moving, because he is driving as fast as he ever has and cannot imagine that anyone can drive faster...despite being constantly passed by faster cars. Some human brains do not move that fast.
So, driving a fast car on an Autobahn requires true defensive driving. Needless to say, I achieved speeds today far below those of my Porsche and BMW days. Cars might have improved, but my reaction times have slowed, and I know how fast cars can drive.
Germany is renowned for Autobahns without speed limit and fast cars. Most people living outside Germany cannot imagine driving at unrestricted speed, but have seen photos of massive pile-ups. There is a touch of myth in both.
First of all, Germany does not have the highest level of highway fatalities in Europe. Despite the number of spectacular crashes, the statistics prove Germans to be better-than-average drivers. This has something to do with strict driver education requirements, (fabled) German discipline, good roads, and safe cars. It is also aided by the truth behind the other semi-myth.
It is true that large stretches of the Autobahn network do not have a speed limit. As with every aspect of German life, everything is permitted that is not specifically not allowed. (There are a lot of rules regulating human behavior.) Back to the Autobahns: many stretches do have speed limits, but there are enough kilometers to allow fun, speed, and recklessness.
In reality, there are three speeds on German Autobahns: ridiculously fast, standard traffic, and parked.
I have owned Porsches, Mercedes, and BMWs. This is not bragging, because these are standard cars in this country. Most taxis are Mercedes, and BMWs are rather middle class. That said, all are very fast. My preferred driving speed on the Autobahn is 180 kilometers per hour (about 112 miles per hour for fans of an English king's foot), which I found safe and swift enough. The biggest danger was other drivers, who had no comprehension of speed. A fast car on a good road was often a pleasure to drive, but it has become an increasingly rare pleasure.
The most common speed on Autobahns is 100 kilometers per hour (about 60), because of the increasing amount of cars on the road. Heavy, bumper-to-bumper traffic often moves at this speed. One is happy to be moving, but it can be frustrating on a highway without a speed limit. The days of open roads and cheap gas are long gone. German industrial prosperity has put automobiles into too many hands, but makes driving speeds similar to those of most countries.
The third speed, common during rush hour and vacation times, is required when traffic increases to fill the highways or there has been an accident. The Autobahn turns into a long, linear parking lot. Traffic jams have been known to extend up to 75 kilometers and take hours to dissipate. This is beyond frustrating, especially for anyone captured in a Porsche. News footage or photographs show people standing beside their cars staring at a packed Autobahn, surely dreaming of a different speed.
Autobahn driving in Germany is a case of "hope for the best and expect the worst"...
Prior to writing novels, the author enjoyed a multifaceted career: from decorated combat aviator to advertising professional to global communications director of a major consumer brand. He has traveled the world and met sports, film and television stars, political leaders, and royalty. He graduated from Middlebury College, is married, lives in Germany, and has two grown children.