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National Transport
The Autobahn

This page last updated November 14, 2019


Autobahn photo

The Autobahn from the driver's view

The Autobahn is the pinnacle of the German driving experience, perhaps the ultimate in driving altogether. Virtually all of the world's serious drivers have heard of it and longed to take their shot at conquering it. Teutonic cars are known for their precise engineering and craftsmanship; the Autobahn completes the driving equation.

Some people are disappointed the first time they drive on the Autobahn. They come with visions of a twenty-lane superhighway where cars are barely a blur as they whiz by. In reality, the Autobahn looks like a typical freeway, and despite rumors to the contrary, not everyone is hurtling along at the speed of sound. The stories of speed anarchy are only half correct-- many sections of Autobahn do in fact have speed limits.

Still, the Autobahn offers the transcendent driving experience. The roads are superbly designed, built and maintained, even now in the east where the German government had to undo 40 years of Communist neglect. Amenities are numerous, and drivers are well-trained and cooperative. It's literally life in the fast lane on the Autobahn. (Don't tell me you didn't see that coming. <g>)

On this page:


What is generally regarded as Europe's first motorway-- and the world's second-- was built in Berlin between 1913 and 1921. The 19 km long AVUS ("Automobil-Verkehrs- und Übungsstraße") in southwestern Berlin was an experimental highway that, until 1998, was also occasionally used for racing. It featured two eight-meter lanes separated by a nine-meter wide median. It is still in use today as part of the A115.

Italy built several expressways (Autostrada) in the 1920s, and Germany followed with its first "auto-only roads" opening in 1929 between Düsseldorf and Opladen and in 1932 between Cologne and Bonn. More routes were planned in the early '30s and Adolf Hitler, seeing the propaganda and expansionist benefits of a high-speed road system, started a program to build two north-south and east-west links. The first of these Reichsautobahnen opened on May 19th, 1935, between Frankfurt and Darmstadt. At the end of World War II, the Autobahn network totaled 2,128 km.

After the war, construction on new sections finally started again in 1953, with 144 km added between 1953 and 1958, bringing the total to 2,272 km. Starting in 1959, West Germany began Autobahn expansion in earnest by embarking on a series of four-year plans that expanded the Bundesautobahnen system to 3,076 km by 1964. Major additions continued during the next two decades, and the system reached 4,110 km in 1970, 5,258 km in 1973, 6,207 km in 1976, 7,029 km in 1979, and 8,080 km in 1984.

A new series of five-year plans, with the goal of putting an Autobahn entrance within 10 km of any point in West Germany, had expanded the net to over 8,800 km by 1990. The reunification of Germany in 1990, however, put those plans on hold as the federal government focused on absorbing and upgrading the Autobahns it inherited from East Germany. The incorporation of those eastern Autobahns put the total Autobahn network at almost 11,000 km in 1992. Additions to the unified network increased the total to 11,515 km in 2000, 12,531 km in 2007, and 13,009 in 2018.

Until 2000, the Autobahn was the world's second largest superhighway system after only the US Interstate System. Today, however, the Autobahn network has dropped to fifth place, having been eclipsed by China, Spain, and Canada.

Map of Autobahn network

Early Autobahns were rather crude by today's standards. Most of those first routes, like their Italian counterparts, featured limited-access and grade-separated crossings, but no medians. The first Reichsautobahnen did have narrow medians without barriers, but they lacked shoulders, and while the main roadway was concrete, ramps and waysides typically had cobblestone surfaces.

When Germany was reunified in 1989, the Autobahns of East Germany were in virtually the same condition as they were in 1945, exhibiting the aforementioned qualities as well as mediocre signing, poor pavement, widely-spaced and often non-functional emergency telephones sometimes located in the center median, and service areas consisting of a dilapidated roadhouse next to a short wayside. Newer West German Autobahns had for many years featured wide lanes, shoulders, landscaped medians with crash barriers, frequent roadside emergency telephones, and ample, well-provisioned service areas. After reunification, the German government expedited upgrading of the old East German Autobahns in a series of "German Unity Transport Projects." By the end of 2009, the program was nearly complete with about 2,100 km of upgraded or newly-built Autobahn.


Typical section of Autobahn

Typical section of Autobahn

The general rule for design is to provide for unimpeded, high-speed traffic flow. Unimproved older segments aside, most Autobahns feature the following design elements:

  • Two, three, or occasionally four lanes per direction.  Lanes on rural sections are generally 3.75 meters wide except the left lane of newer three lane segments-- it's 3.5 meters wide. On urban sections, all lanes are 3.5 meters wide.
  • A landscaped "green" median 3.5 or 4 meters wide (3 meters in urban areas). A double-sided guardrail runs down the middle. Glare screens are often used on curves. Some newer sections have concrete barriers instead of green medians.
  • Outside emergency shoulders and long acceleration and deceleration lanes.
  • Full grade-separation and access control, generally provided by half cloverleaf interchanges at exits and full cloverleafs or directional interchanges at Autobahn junctions. Interchanges are generally well-spaced, sometimes exceeding 30 km between.
  • Grades of 4% or less. Climbing lanes are provided on most steep grades.
  • Gentle and well-banked curves.
  • Freeze-resistant concrete or bituminous surface.
  • Roadbed and surface typically measuring about 75 cm (30 inches) in thickness.

In addition, Autobahns also feature the following amenities:

  • Reflector guide posts at 50 meter intervals.
  • Frequent parking areas, often equipped with toilet facilities.
  • Extensive and ample service areas featuring fuel stations, restaurants, and hotels.
  • Automated traffic and weather monitoring and dynamic signs for displaying variable speed limits and/or advance warning of congestion, accidents, construction, and fog.
  • Emergency telephones at 2 km intervals.
  • Pre-signed detour routes to facilitate emergency closures.
  • Standardized signage.
  • Wildlife protection fencing, crossover tunnels and "green bridges".

Maintenance is superb. Crews inspect every square meter of the system periodically using vehicles with high-tech road scanning equipment. When a fissure or other defect is found, the entire road section is often replaced. Signs, barriers, and other features are also well-maintained.

Urban Autobahns
Generally-speaking, the mainline Autobahn routes avoid the metropolitan cores. Instead, spur routes provide Autobahn access into and within the cities. These spurs are usually built as "urban Autobahns" (Stadtautobahn). Design features of urban Autobahns include six or eight lane elevated or depressed roadways with frequent and more closely-spaced diamond interchanges. The standard rural signage standards are suspended in favor of more closely-spaced signage. There are sometimes no emergency phones or roadside reflector posts. Tunnels, overpasses, and sound barriers are more frequent and nighttime illumination is often provided.

Tunnels and bridges
To help maintain safe grades, the Autobahn system has extensive tunnels, bridges, and viaducts. Some viaducts (Talbrücke) are often over 500 meters high and sometimes more than a kilometer long. The Autobahn system now has over 70 tunnels, both through mountains as well as in urban areas. As a result of recent tunnel disasters elsewhere in Europe, extra emphasis has been placed on tunnel safety. All Autobahn tunnels have extensive safety systems including 24-hour monitoring, motorist information radio and signs, frequent refuge rooms with emergency telephones and firefighting equipment, emergency lighting and exits, and smoke ventilation systems.

Autobahn tunnelAutobahn valley bridge

Autobahn tunnel (left) and valley bridge (right)

Traffic regulations

To safely facilitate heavy, high-speed traffic, special laws apply when driving on the Autobahn:

  • Bicycles, mopeds, and pedestrians are specifically prohibited from using the Autobahn, as are any other vehicles with a maximum speed rating of less than 60 km/h (36 mph).
  • Passing on the right is strictly prohibited! Slower vehicles must move to the right to allow faster traffic to pass, and drivers should stay in the right lane except to pass. When passing, you must do so as quickly as possible, and it's in your best interest to do so lest you become a hood ornament on that Porsche that was just a speck in your mirror a second ago and now is close enough for you to see the look of disdain on the driver's face. You are, however, allowed to pass on the right in heavy traffic when vehicles have started queuing, but only at a low speed. You may also pass on the right while you are still in the designated acceleration lane upon entering the Autobahn.
  • Stopping, parking, U-turns, and backing-up are strictly verboten, including on shoulders and ramps (except for bonafide emergencies of course.)
  • Entering and exiting is permitted only at marked interchanges.
  • Traffic entering the Autobahn must yield to traffic already on the Autobahn.
  • On Autobahn sections with three travel lanes, trucks over 3.5 tonnes and any vehicle with a trailer are prohibited from using the far left lane.
  • During traffic jams, motorists in the left lane are required to move as far to the left as possible and those in the adjacent center or right lane must move as far to the right in their lane as possible, thus creating a gap (Rettungsgasse) between the lanes for emergency vehicles to pass through. Only emergency vehicles are allowed to drive in the Rettungsgasse.
  • If you have a breakdown or accident, you must move to the shoulder if possible and place a warning triangle 200 meters behind the scene. You must report the incident to the authorities using the nearest emergency phone (see below).
  • It is illegal to run out of fuel on the Autobahn. Technically, there is no law specifically against this, but it is illegal to stop unnecessarily on the Autobahn and this law is also applied to people who run out of fuel as such an occurrence is deemed to be preventable.
  • There are no tolls for passenger vehicles to use the Autobahn. However, trucks must pay a per-kilometer fee which is collected electronically.

In addition to the official laws, most drivers adhere to the following customs:

  • Motorists at the rear of a traffic jam usually switch on their hazard blinkers to warn approaching traffic of the slowdown.  (It's probably as much a self-preservation exercise as a courtesy to approaching drivers.)
  • Many drivers flash their high beams ("Lichthupe", or "light honking") or switch on their left turn signal to politely (or not) request that you vacate the left lane to let them pass. There are conflicting opinions about whether this is legal or not and why, but there are reports that drivers have been cited for doing this. So while there is no specific law regarding this, it appears that such actions can be construed to violate Germany's coercion laws, so do so at your own risk.

Autobahn section

Four-lane Autobahn section

Speed limits

Despite the widespread belief of complete freedom from speed limits (and a lobbying effort that has the same influence and deep pockets as the American gun lobby), some speed regulations can be found on the Autobahns. Many sections do indeed have permanent or dynamic speed limits ranging from 80 to 130 km/h (50-80 mph), particularly those with dangerous curves, in urban areas, near major interchanges, or areas where there are specific safety concerns. In construction zones, the limit may be as low as 60 km/h (37 mph). Also, some sections now feature nighttime and wet-weather speed restrictions, and trucks are always regulated (see table below).

That said, about two-thirds of the Autobahn network has no permanent speed limit, although there is always an advisory limit of 130 km/h (81 mph). This recommendation is generally seen for what it is-- an attempt by the government to cover itself without having to upset millions of Porsche and BMW owners/voters. However, if you exceed the advisory limit and are involved in an accident, you could be held responsible for some of the damages even if you are not at fault.

(These are "default" limits; where posted, signs override these limits)
130 km/h recommended
Car w/trailer Truck
Bus Truck with trailer
80 km/h

Vehicles that are limited to a lower speed limit will usually have a decal resembling a speed limit sign displayed on the back of a vehicle indicating the speed it is authorized to travel depending on its specific characteristics. In some cases, those vehicles may be authorized to travel slower or faster than the general limit and will display the appropriate decal indicating such.

Over 3,200 km of Autobahn now feature dynamic speed limits which are adjusted to respond to traffic, weather, and road conditions. These speed limits and conditions are indicated using a rather elaborate system of electronic signs (see Traffic management section below).

Various efforts over the years to enact a national speed limit have not made great strides. Studies have attributed the high speeds on the Autobahn to air pollution that has caused widespread Waldsterben, or forest destruction. As a result, some Autobahns in forest areas have seen new limits imposed, but a national limit remains unlikely, as demonstrated during the coalition government negotiations in 1998. In those talks between the then-new Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrat party and the Greens, one of the final points to be resolved was the Greens' desire for a nationwide 100 km/h speed limit on the Autobahns. In the end, a compromise was struck whereby energy taxes would be raised and local governments could reduce speed limits on city streets, but no national Autobahn speed limit would be implemented. Subsequent discussions by various groups of a possible blanket limit have met with immediate and formidable political resistance, most recently in early 2019. A proposal then to implement a 120 km/h speed limit to help Germany meet its 2020 climate goals died almost immediately. Indeed, pollls have consistently shown that about half of Germans oppose Autobahn speed limits, a wide enough margin to render any attempt at implementation an act of political suicide. "Freie Fahrt für freie Bürger!", or "Freedom of driving for free citizens!", remains the rallying cry.

A national speed limit of 100 km/h (60 mph) was enacted in November 1973 during the energy crisis. It was repealed less than four months later.

In 2008, the federal city-state of Bremen enacted a 120 km/h speed limit on all Autobahns in that state, the first and thus far only federal state to do so. However, in practice, this only added speed limits to 6 km of Autobahn as the remainder of the 60 km of Autobahn in that state already had speed limits in place.

Accident rates
Despite the prevailing high speeds, the accident, injury and death rates on the Autobahn are remarkably low. The Autobahn carries about a third of all Germany's traffic, but injury accidents on the Autobahn account for only 6% of such accidents nationwide and less than 11% of all traffic fatalities were the result of Autobahn crashes (2014). In fact, the annual fatality rate (1.6 per billion km in 2014) is consistently lower than that of most other major superhighway systems, including the US Interstates (3.4 in 2013).  

End of all restrictions

"End of all restrictions" sign, indicating the end of all
speed limit and passing restrictions


Because of Germany's robust economy and location in central Europe, traffic on the Autobahn is generally quite heavy. In 2008, motorists logged a staggering 225.3 billion kilometers on the Autobahn, averaging almost 50,000 vehicles per day on any given segment. As a result, traffic jams (Stau) occur frequently on the Autobahn, especially on Fridays, Sundays, holidays, and anytime after an accident or during bad weather or road work. Regional traffic reports, with a variety of monikers including Verkehrsmeldungen, Verkehrsdienst, Verkehrsfunk, and Stauschau, are excellent and are provided on most radio stations.  Germany is divided into several traffic reporting regions (Verkehrsrundfunkbereich). There used to be "traffic information radio" signs Traffic information radio along the Autobahn to indicate the local radio stations carrying the traffic reports for the local area, but now this has been rendered obsolete as radios now have automated traffic report tuning via the Traffic Program (TP) function. You will need to have a working knowledge of German to understand the radio reports, though. 

In addition to radio traffic reports, many sections of Autobahn are equipped with traffic monitoring systems and dynamic signs (see Traffic management section below) to warn of downstream incidents or congestion, provide a controlled reduction in the speed of traffic as it approaches the jam, and suggest alternate routes. On sections without digital signs, the Autobahn police (Autobahnpolizei) generally do an excellent job of warning of congestion via portable roadside signs, signs mounted on police cars parked along the shoulder, or on banners draped from overpasses. Traffic information is also available from several other resources including the websites of radio and TV stations, auto clubs, government agencies, online maps, and increasingly through on-board telematics systems using the Traffic Message Channel (TMC) service.

Typical weekend and holiday Autobahn traffic

Typical weekend and holiday Autobahn traffic

A couple of notes about traffic reports: sometimes the "traffic report" may include information that has nothing to do with traffic such as civil emergency alerts, police bulletins, etc. Also, if you have a German rental car with a CD or MP3 player, don't be surprised if your tunes are interrupted by reports of a Stau somewhere-- German radio tuners continue to monitor the last-selected radio station even when an auxiliary input is selected. Radio stations broadcast a special tone at the start of traffic reports which causes the tuner to switch the audio from the auxiliary input to the radio so that you can hear the information.

Traffic reports use one of several terms to describe varying levels of congestion: "Stau" usually means a colossal traffic jam where you'll have the opportunity to get to know the people in the cars around you, "stockender Verkehr" indicates the only slightly more tolerable stacking or slow-and-go type traffic, while "dichter Verkehr" or "zähfliesender Verkehr" denotes the annoying but hardly-noteworthy heavy or sluggish but moving traffic.

Construction & closures

Autobahn maintenance and improvements don't escape the German penchant for obsessiveness. As a result, construction zones (Baustelle) are frequent and widespread. The standard protocol for large projects is a traffic shift-- the lanes for both directions are narrowed and crammed onto one side of the Autobahn so that the other side can be worked on in its entirety. Such situations are well-marked with "lane crossover" signs Lane crossover and speed limits are usually reduced greatly in these areas.

Autobahn construction area

Autobahn construction area
Note the yellow road marking-- these supersede all regular markings in work zones

In the event that a segment of Autobahn must be closed due to an accident or other emergency, pre-posted provisional detours are ready to guide traffic around the closure. As you exit, look for the U-numbered "provisional detour" sign Provisional detour on the exit ramp-- this denotes the detour route for that exit. Follow the same-numbered route over the secondary roads and you'll eventually arrive at the next downstream entrance ramp. If that entrance is also closed, just follow the next sequential detour number to reach the next entrance after that. However, there is one small gotcha-- odd numbers continue in one direction, even numbers in the opposite direction. So if you're following an odd numbered route, be sure to follow the next sequential odd number (and, obviously the same goes for even-numbered routes.) These routes also come in quite handy if your patience runs-out and you want to get around a Stau.

Service areas

The Autobahn has an extensive system of service areas (Rasthof, Raststätte) generally spaced between 30 and 60 kilometers apart. These usually feature a fuel station (Tankstelle), restaurant or snack bar, convenience store, telephones, and restrooms.  Many also feature hotels, showers, playgrounds, conference rooms, and chapels. There are over 700 service areas in operation and they're open 24 hours a day. A brochure with maps and charts showing the network of service areas and the facilities available at each can be obtained at any service area and is also available on the web (see links below).

Autobahn service area

Autobahn service area

Signs announcing the approach of a service area give the name of the service area, the distance to it, and one or more of these pictograms indicating the services available there:

Filling station Restaurant Snack bar Hotel
Fuel Restaurant Snack bar Hotel

Service area approach sign
Service area approach sign
The sign at the bottom indicates the distance to the next service area

Smaller parking areas, many equipped with restrooms (WC), are even more abundant along the Autobahn. These are marked with signs like the one below.

Parking area approach sign

Approach sign for parking area w/ WC

The past few decades has seen the proliferation of service facilities (mainly fuel stations and fast-food restaurants) just off Autobahn exit ramps. Especially increasing in popularity are truck stops or travel centers (Autohof) which offer facilities comparable to the service areas, but usually at considerably lower prices. These are typically marked by special signs on the Autobahn like the one below.

Truck stop exit sign

Autohof announcement sign

Signs & markings

Signage on the Autobahn is excellent. All direction signs on the Autobahn as well as those giving directions to the Autobahn are white on blue. Signage before interchanges is standardized both in form and placement. 

Overhead signs are being used increasingly more frequently. These signs generally take on the forms shown in the various pictures below. Note that the route number shields are typically located at the bottom of the signs rather than at the top like in the US. Drivers should also be aware that unlike the US, directions on the Autobahn (as well as other roads) are not given using the cardinal directions (North, South, East, West), but rather by destination cities. Know what the major cities are along your route before you start out. A helpful idiosyncrasy is the tendency to list major cities on signs on connecting Autobahns that lead toward another Autobahn route that will actually take you to that city. The most important cities start appearing on signs hundreds of kilometers away. One other peculiarity is that when several cities are listed, the farthest city is generally listed first or on top; in the US, it's usually the opposite. The last place listed is usually the name of the next exit. Finally, you may come across names that include a one or two letter abbreviation (e.g. "S-Degerloch" or "HH-Zentrum"); these correspond to the official license plate registration city abbreviations and indicate an exit for a district or other destination in that city. So "S-Degerloch" would be the exit for "Stuttgart-Degerloch" while "HH-Zentrum" denotes "Hamburg-Zentrum", or downtown Hamburg.

Overhead signs

Advance guide signs for Autobahn junction


Overhead signs

Typical overhead advance guide sign for exit


Overhead signs

Exit signs at Autobahn junction

Overhead butterfly signs

Overhead "butterfly" exit signs

Autobahns bear a one, two, or three digit number with an "A" prefix (e.g. A 8); however, the "A" is not shown on signs. The one and two digit numbers indicate mainline routes; three digit routes are spurs. Route numbers are assigned by region (e.g. the area around Munich is region 9, so most Autobahns in that area start with 9) and even-numbered routes generally run east-west while odd-numbered routes run north-south. Route numbers for spurs and connectors usually start with the parent number followed by an additional digit or two to make three digits total (e.g. the A831 branches off of the A8; the A241 branches off of the A24.) Route markers are an oblong white and blue hexagon:

Autobahn route number

Here are the main signs you will encounter:

Autobahn sign Autobahn entrance
  • Marks entrance ramps to the Autobahn and indicates the start of Autobahn traffic regulations
  • This symbol is also used on signs giving directions to the Autobahn
Interchange initial approach sign Initial interchange approach sign
  • Typically placed 1000 meters before exits and 2000 meters before Autobahn junctions
  • Shows the interchange number and name
  • The symbol indicates the type of interchange:
Autobahn exit
  Autobahn junction
Interchange advance directional sign Interchange advance directional sign
  • Typically placed 500 meters before exits, and 1000 meters and 500 meters before Autobahn junctions
  • Shows a schematic of the interchange and gives additional destinations and route numbers
Interchange number
Sign 406-51
Interchange number
  • Shown on the initial interchange approach sign and on the first interchange countdown marker
  • Interchanges are numbered sequentially; if a new interchanges is added, a letter suffix is used to preserve the numbering system
Countdown markers Interchange countdown markers
  • Placed 300 meters (3 stripes), 200 meters (2 stripes), and 100 meters (1 stripe) before the exit
  • Interchange number appears atop the 300 meter marker
Exit sign Exit sign
  • Located at exit point
  • Occasionally placed in the median
  • When placed overhead, may be repeated several times above the exit lane
Exit sign Exit sign
  • Marks the exit ramp
Kilometer marker Kilometer marker
  • Installed along the roadside every 1/2 kilometer
  • Can be used to give locations of breakdowns and accidents
Provisional detour Provisional detour
  • Marks a pre-posted detour route for use in the event that the Autobahn must be closed
  • Follow the same-numbered route to return to the next Autobahn entrance
  • Can also be used to bypass Autobahn congestion
  • Odd numbers go in one direction, even numbers in the opposite direction
Provisional detour schematic Provisional detour schematic
  • Used to direct Autobahn traffic to the next sequential provisional detour route when traffic cannot return to the Autobahn at the next entrance
Alternate route Alternate route
  • Indicates a recommended alternate route on the Autobahn system for specific vehicles or destinations in order to avoid congestion
  • Type of vehicle and/or destination will be shown in conjunction with this sign
Distance sign Distance Sign
  • Placed after every entrance
  • Lists distances to major cities along the route
  • Distances to other nearby major cities accessible from an intersecting Autobahn are listed at the bottom with the respective route number
Sign 448.1
Sign 1010-15
Truck stop
  • Indicates a service area (truck stop) located off the Autobahn at the indicated exit
  • The services available are indicated by the pictograms
  • Company logos for the services may also be included
End of Autobahn End of Autobahn Sign
  • Located on exit ramps from the Autobahn and indicates the end of Autobahn traffic regulations
  • Also used to warn when the Autobahn mainline ends ahead (terminus)
Diagram exit sign Diagram exit sign

Examples of diagram signs for complex interchanges

Pavement markings on the Autobahn are fairly intuitive. You can see examples of several of these in the picture below and on other pictures on this page:

  • Solid white line: Marks the left edge of the road or, on the right side, marks the inside of the shoulder or the right edge of the road if there is no shoulder. Also used sometimes between traffic lanes to indicate that changing lanes is not allowed.
  • Long, thin broken white lines: Separate traffic lanes.
  • Short, thick broken white lines: Separate a deceleration (exit) lane or acceleration (entrance) lane from the main traffic lanes.
  • V-diagonal markings: Mark the restricted area at an exit gore.
  • Yellow markings: Used in construction zones and supersede all regular white markings.

See the Signs and Signals page for complete information on German road signs and markings.

Autobahn road markings

Typical lane markings

Traffic management

During the past few of decades, German traffic engineers have developed extensive and sophisticated traffic management systems to manage the increasingly congested traffic along many Autobahns and expressways. These systems consist of surveillance cameras, speed sensors, and a variety of variable message signs, as well as equipment to detect and automatically warn of adverse weather including fog, rain, and ice, all connected by communications systems to centralized traffic monitoring and control centers located throughout the country. There are two main objectives of these systems: to warn and provide systematic regulation of traffic approaching or driving through areas with congestion, construction, or hazardous weather conditions, and to divert traffic around incidents and congestion. Studies have shown that these systems have reduced accidents by as much as 30% within three years of being installed. The first such systems were developed and tested in the mid '70s and since have been expanded to over 2,500 km of Autobahn especially near interchanges, in areas subject to frequent congestion or dangerous weather conditions, as well as in and approaching tunnels and metropolitan areas. These systems have also been installed on several non-Autobahn expressways, and the transport ministry is prioritizing their expansion.

Autobahn electronic signs

Dynamic signs showing 100 km/h speed limit and construction ahead

Dynamic traffic flow control

Now in widespread use are dynamic traffic flow control systems that allow for variable regulation of traffic in response to congestion, road work, or weather conditions. Common examples include
the temporary implementation or reduction of speed limits, passing restrictions, or lane closures. The intent of these systems is to gradually and systematically reduce the speed of traffic approaching incidents or congestion. Many of these systems are completely automatic and adapt based on prevailing traffic and/or weather conditions.

The signage used in these systems typically consists of an overhead gantry with a digital display over each lane and displays between lanes that can display facsimiles of official traffic signs to warn of downstream conditions and implement dynamic regulations. The signs can also indicate lane closures using the standard international lane control symbols. Below are examples of these electronic signs.

Electronic sign 101 Electronic Sign 124 Electronic sign 123 Electronic sign 114 Electronic sign 113
Congestion Road work Slippery road Watch for ice or snow

Electronic 80km/h sign Electronic sign 277 Electronic Sign 278 Electronic Sign 281 Electronic Sign 282
Speed limit
No passing for vehicles over 3.5t End of speed limit End of no passing for vehicles over 3.5t End of all restrictions

Green arrow down Yellow slant arrow leftYellow slant arrow right Red X
Lane open Lane closed ahead
Merge in the direction indicated
Lane closed
You may not drive in this lane

In addition to the symbols above, the following word messages may be used, usually in conjunction with the "danger" sign:

  • UNFALL (crash)
  • NEBEL (fog)
  • STAU (congestion)

In addition to indicating lanes blocked by accidents or construction, lane control signals are used in some areas to close lanes to help reduce congestion or conflicts at interchanges. For instance, if there is significantly heavier traffic merging from Autobahn 1 onto Autobahn 2, the right lane on Autobahn 2 may be closed to provide an unobstructed lane for the heavier traffic to merge into.

Autobahn electronic signs

Dynamic signs showing left lane closed ahead and 100km speed limit in open lanes

When reduced speed limits are displayed, it is important to comply and you will find that the limits shown are generally very appropriate for the prevailing traffic or weather conditions. It should be noted that the speed limits and other regulations shown are enforceable and many areas are also equipped with photo radar that is integrated with the system (and thus is aware of the current speed limit.)
When different speed limits are shown on a single gantry, the limit shown applies to the lane under the sign. In the example below, the speed limit in the left lane would be 120 km/h, 100 km/h in the center lane, and 80 km/h in the right lane.

Gray gantryElectronic 120km/h signGray gantryElectronic sign 123Gray gantryElectronic 100km/h signGray gantryElectronic sign 123Gray gantryElectronic 80km/h signGray gantry

Dynamic alternate route guidance

Over 1,700 km of Autobahn are part of dynamic alternate route guidance systems. These systems employ changeable guide signs which, when activated, display recommended alternate route guidance to help drivers avoid incidents or congestion. Some areas employ "substitutive routing" where the destinations shown on the standard blue guide signs are changed using mechanical panels to re-route traffic onto different routes. In other areas, "additive routing" is utilized. In this case, the regular blue guide signs are static, but additional white signs with changeable panels and the big orange "alternate route" arrow symbol are used. The arrow points in the recommended direction to follow along with the destination city, route number, and/or vehicle types (e.g. trucks) that the suggested alternate route applies to. For instance, in the picture below, traffic headed to Deggendorf and the Munich airport is being advised to exit in 1200 meters and follow the A99 and A92. Once you are on one of these alternate routes, continue to follow alternate route arrow signs until you have reached your destination or have returned to the original route. Note that many times much of the alternate route is marked by permanent static signs, but a dynamic sign is used at the initial "decision point". 

Autobahn alternate route signage

Changeable sign showing recommended "additive" alternate route

Autobahn alternate route signage

Changeable signs capable of showing "substitutive" alternate routes
Notice the destination names are on rotatable panels

In recent years, a new type of dynamic route guidance signage has seen widespread deployment. The "dynamic route guidance with integrated traffic information" signs, typically located on the approaches to interchanges, are a hybrid static and variable sign. The static signage shows the lane arrows and route numbers of the upcoming interchange. The embedded digital panels, when activated, can show both incident or congestion warnings and corresponding recommended alternate routes. The placement of the dynamic information on the sign corresponds to the static lane assignments to help facilitate quick comprehension and decision-making by drivers. An example of this signage is below and shows the recommended alternate route to Mannheim via Karlsruhe junction by continuing straight ahead instead of exiting onto A81 as there is a traffic jam on the A6 past the (36) HN/Untereisesheim exit. These signs are also often used to provide ephemeral route guidance to stadiums and special events.

Autobahn alternate route signage

Integrated route guidance/traffic information sign

Ramp metering

In 1976, a ramp metering (Zuflussregelung) pilot project was undertaken on the A3 in the Bonn area. However, this project was discontinued due to numerous technical reasons. In 1998 and 1999, several pilot projects were launched to again test ramp metering, this time at three locations
on the A94 in Munich, at five locations on the A40 between Gelsenkirchen and Bochum, and at one location on the A1 near Dortmund. Those experiments were successful and today there are about 100 locations throughout Germany with entrance ramp meters, mostly concentrated in the Rhein-Ruhr area, with 30 more locations planned.

Like their counterparts in the US and other countries, ramp meters work by limiting the number of vehicles entering the Autobahn using a traffic signal on the entrance ramp. This helps reduce congestion on the Autobahn by spacing-out entering traffic, thus eliminating the shockwave caused by the sudden inflow of a large number of vehicles. Studies show metering increases the capacity of the through lanes by up to 5% and increases the speeds on those lanes by 10-30 km/h, thus shortening travel times. They also have been shown to reduce entry-related crashes.

Ramp meters use the standard red-yellow-green traffic signals although the cycle is much faster. A sign posted on the signal will indicate how many vehicles are allowed to enter on each green signal (e.g. "1 Fahrzeug bei Grün".) The signals are typically dark when traffic is free-flowing and activated when traffic density builds. They can operate on a regular-interval cycle, variable-interval cycle based on local traffic conditions, or in coordination with the regional traffic management system.

Autobahn ramp meter

Autobahn ramp meter

Hard shoulder running
Along some sections of Autobahn with heavy traffic volumes, traffic may be permitted to temporarily use the outside emergency shoulder as a traffic lane during congested periods. Lane control signals and/or "shoulder open to traffic" signs Shoulder open to traffic indicate when this is permissible. Traffic managers will first determine that the shoulder is clear of breakdowns and debris before allowing traffic onto the shoulder. There is typically a 100 km/h speed limit implemented when the shoulder is in use. Hard shoulder running is usually considered as an interim solution until the affected roadway can be widened.

Autobahn shoulder open to traffic

Autobahn with shoulder open to traffic
Note both the blue signs as well as the green lane control signal over the shoulder


In the event of an accident, breakdown, or other emergency along the Autobahn, you are never more than a kilometer away from help. Nearly 17,000 orange emergency phones (Notrufsäule) are located at 2 km intervals along each side of the road. The direction to the nearest phone is indicated by a black arrowhead atop the roadside reflector posts. In long tunnels, emergency phones are located in refuge rooms every 100-200 meters.

Autobahn emergency phone

Autobahn emergency phone

Roadside post with arrow pointing to nearest emergency phone

Roadside post with arrow pointing
direction to nearest emergency phone

The widespread installation of emergency phones along the Autobahn began in 1955 with calls answered by the nearest Autobahn district office. In 1999, the system was privatized and all calls now go to a central call center in Hamburg. 

There are two varieties of emergency phones in use: those with a cover and those without. If there is a cover, lift it up all the way. Inside, you will find a speaker, microphone, and two buttons: a yellow button with a wrench symbol for reporting a breakdown, and a red button with a red cross symbol to report an accident. Press the appropriate button and wait for the dispatcher to answer. There are still some older phones around that don't have the buttons; in this case, just wait for the dispatcher to answer after lifting the cover. If there is not a cover, the speaker,microphone, and buttons will be visible externally.

Old-style emergency phone

Emergency phone with cover

New-style emergency phone

Eemergency phone without cover

The exact location of the phone is transmitted automatically when your call is connected. However, be prepared to give the dispatcher your direction of travel and the kilometer location of the phone as indicated on a label on the inside of the cover or near the speaker. 
An English-speaking dispatcher is always available.

If you are reporting an accident, dispatchers will connect your to the nearest police or emergency services dispatcher. Be prepared to report the number of vehicles involved, if there are any injuries and their severity, and if there is a fire or fuel spill. For breakdowns, the dispatcher will obtain the information necessary to send the appropriate service such as the "Yellow Angels" of the ADAC or AvD auto club, a tow truck, or an insurance, dealership, or rental car repair service. Be prepared to give the vehicle's make, model, color, and license plate number, and your auto club, insurance company, or rental agency details.

Man demonstrating use of an emergency phone

Man demonstrating how to use an Autobahn emergency phone

After completing the call, return to your vehicle or the accident scene and wait for help. For breakdowns, someone will arrive shortly to assist you.
Roadside assistance is free, but you'll likely have to pay for parts. If you need to be towed, there is no charge to tow the vehicle to the next exit and off of the Autobahn, but you will have to pay for towing beyond that. If you're driving a rental car, assistance may be covered by the rental agency. Depending on the time of day, volume of calls, and traffic conditions, response time for a breakdown may vary from a few minutes to possibly over an hour.

In the event of an accident, a cavalry of emergency aid will descend on you quite quickly-- sometimes arriving even before you have completed the call. Police, fire service, ambulances, and emergency doctors all respond to Autobahn crashes. A medical evacuation helicopter is also always on standby.

Alternatively, you can contact the emergency call center via mobile phone at 0800 6683 663. Despite the proliferation of mobile phones, the Autobahn emergency phone system still handles about 200 calls a day, and authorities still recommend using the emergency phones since your exact location can be immediately determined.

Other sites of interest

The German Way (by Hyde Flippo)
German Autobahn Page (by Henning Maruhn)
Autobahn Atlas (by Patrick Scholl)
Autobahn Police
Autobahn service area guide
German Federal Transport Ministry
German Federal Highway Research Institute

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This page and all its contents are Copyright © 2019 by Brian Purcell

The information provided on this website is provided on an "as-is" basis without warranties of any kind either express or implied.  The author and his agents make no warranties or representations of any kind concerning any information contained in this website.  This website is provided only as general information.  The author expressly disclaims all liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based upon the information contained herein or with respect to any errors or omissions in such information.  All opinions expressed are strictly those of the author.  This site is not affiliated in any way with any official agency.