12 December, 2011

Driving on the Autobahn

One of the more exciting tasks I've had as intern in the International Office was to drive two guest professors along with my boss Baldur Veit from Reutlingen to Heidelberg. One day Herr Veit asked me if I had a driver's license and if I could drive stick-shift. Luckily, my Illinois driver's license is valid in Germany and, thanks to my parents affinity to manual transmission, I learned how to drive with a stick shift from the very beginning. He asked me because a couple of guest professors from Kettering University in Flint, Michigan were going to be on campus and he thought he might need me to drive them to the airport or something. So, in the meantime I did some research on traffic laws in Germany. I had noticed in my travels in other peoples' cars that the road signs here are slightly different and I didn't want to be caught by surprise or break any rules in ignorance.

Then one day Herr Veit finally told me the plan. We were to pick up the professors at their hotel in Reutlingen, drive to Heidelberg (ca. 3 hours), leave the professors at their hotel in Frankfurt because they were flying home the next morning, and then return ourselves to Reutlingen.

All in all the trip was a great success. I didn't get us in any accidents and, as far as I know, I didn't break any traffic laws. We drove one of the school's cars: a Mercedes B class. It was a very smooth ride and I was able to quickly adjust to the clutch. A lot of people have asked me in the past if you really can drive as fast as you want to on the German Autobahn. I can now knowledgeably answer yes, but not everywhere. On most of the Autobahn there is a loosely enforced speed limit of 120kmh, but when you see a sign like the one below, it means there is no speed limit until further notice. There were a couple such areas on our route. I think I missed the sign the first couple of times, it being so inconspicuous. But on the way home I saw it and noticed that immediately afterwards, we were passed by a number of Porsches. I only went a maximum of 140kmh. I mean, my boss was in the car, so I didn't want to go too crazy.

End speed limit sign

That was also my first time driving in a car with an integrated navigation system. It was really cool because the turn-by-turn instructions were spoken over the car speakers and the distance-to-next-turn was displayed along with an arrow on a small LCD between the speedometer and tachometer. Another design feature that I appreciated was on the external rear-view mirrors, a section of the mirror furthest from the driver was more convex. This effectively eliminated any blind spots you'd otherwise suffer from with a standard mirror. I've seen these types of mirrors on a bunch of cars here and I hope that it gets adopted in the States.  

For more info on how to drive in Germany, see "Brian's Guide to Getting Around Germany"

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