The Autobahns, Autostrades, and Autoroutes of Europe are serious business, especially in Germany.

At speeds of 130 to 200 kilometers per hour (80 to 125 mph)—and occasionally even higher—things happen much more quickly on European highways than on our more sedate, though less predictable, freeways and turnpikes. Here are some thoughts on driving them. Though they apply mostly to Germany, where the speed has no limit, the principles are the same in most other countries, where the limit is typically about 80 mph.

Left lane, right lane, a big difference

First-time Autobahn drivers either enjoy the fast driving or are appalled by it. Very quickly, they learn that only the fastest drivers-those traveling 160 to 225 kilometers per hour (100 to 141 mph) can stay in the left lane.

At speeds below that, they are repeatedly required to vacate the left lane by faster cars. Some will come on to you so quickly they will virtually materialize in your rear view mirror with their left turn signal blinking and, if you're slow to react, headlights flashing. It doesn't take a car going 125 mph very long to overtake one going 90 mph.

Tips on Passing

The major danger on the Autobahn is the huge difference in speed between lanes. If there are only two in your direction, the left will have vehicles traveling 50 to 80 mph faster than the big trucks in the right lane, which are plodding along at 60 miles per hour-slower on hills. Drivers traveling 75 to 100 mph are caught in a no-man's land-too slow for the left lane and much too fast for the right. Imagine this: you are in the right lane cruising at a sensible (for Germany) 140 kph (88 mph). Ahead, just as you round a long curve, is a giant truck going 60 mph in your lane. Your rear view mirror reveals a BMW closing fast in the left lane at say 120 mph. Your choice is to stand on the brakes and pray you don't rear-end the truck, or jump on the accelerator, switch to the left lane, and hope the Beamer doesn't rear-end you. A high level of concentration is required for this sort of driving, particularly if you venture in that 75 to 100 mph no-man's land. A few hours of such driving takes its toll. You will be tired.

Rolling with the Big Boys

If you have a fast car and want to compete with the fliers in the left lane you'll have to be especially alert. Passing a line of traffic going 75 mph when you're hurtling along at 110 mph becomes a major problem rather quickly if someone in that line decides to change lanes in front of you. There might be room on the left shoulder, but that's your only out. Watch every vehicle in the right lane like a hawk for any sign that they have a lane change in mind. (More about the Autobahn.)

Etiquette

In the United States, especially California, one sees stubborn drivers camping in the left lane at precisely 55 mph. Blithely they roll along, secure in the knowledge that they're traveling the speed limit and breaking no laws. Well, in Germany they are breaking the law, and German drivers will quickly deal with them. It is difficult to imagine anyone withstanding the onslaught of flashing lights and tight tailgating that European drivers use to deal with slow left lane drivers. Almost never will they resort to passing in the right lane. Instead, they will ride the slower car's bumper, flash headlights, and even blow the horn. If you're a "left laner" who resists everyone, no matter who wants to pass, you may wish to rethink that practice. German drivers have a way of making nonconformists conform.

Speed Traps

Though you won't get a ticket on the German Autobahn for speeding (unless there is a posted speed limit), you can get fined for other violations. On lesser highways, particularly in the countryside, there are radar speed traps, and many cameras. At the speed traps you pay on the spot, with the cameras you'll be notified by mail, though it can take up to a year. We were stopped outside a tiny village by hidden radar a few years ago and escorted to a police van containing several beer-sipping polizei. They spoke no English, but the atmosphere was relaxed and friendly, particularly when they saw our U.S. passports. We had a jovial conversation about American film and music stars, and for a time I thought we would get off. But after a few minutes came a big smile and a big bill, about $100 if memory serves.

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