The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







This article is about the German, Austrian and Swiss road system. For the Kraftwerk album, see Autobahn (album).
German Autobahn sign

Autobahn (pronounced in IPA, plural Autobahnen) is the German word for a major high-speed road usually linking one or more cities and towns, similar to motorway or freeway in English-speaking countries.



Similar to such freeways in other countries, autobahns have multiple lanes of traffic in each direction, separated by a central barrier with grade-separated junctions and access restricted to certain types of mechanically-propelled vehicles only. The autobahn roadbed was built to be 27 inches (686 mm) thick, with a life span of at least 40 years or so. (The United States freeway system from the 1950s is 11 inches (279 mm) thick and built to last about 20 years.) The average surface grade before WWII was set at a maximum of 7 degrees, and subsequently lowered to 4 degrees after the war.


Autobahns were first conceived, planned and built on a limited scale in Germany during the Weimar Republic era in the 1920s, but apart from the AVUS in Berlin, construction was slow, and most projected sections did not progress much beyond the planning stage due to economic problems and a lack of political support. One project was the private initiative HaFraBa which planned a "car only road" (the name Autobahn was created in 1929) crossing Germany from Hamburg in the North via central Frankfurt am Main to Basel in Switzerland.

Just days after the 1933 Nazi takeover, Hitler enthusiastically embraced an ambitious autobahn construction project and appointed Fritz Todt the Inspector General of German Road Construction. Soon over 100,000 laborers worked at construction sites all over Germany in Organisation Todt. As well as providing employment and improved infrastructure, necessary for economic recovery efforts, the project was also a great success for propaganda purposes. Another aim of the autobahn project was to strengthen centralized rule and national unity. (see Nazi architecture)

The autobahns formed the first limited-access, high-speed road network in the world, with the first section from Frankfurt am Main to Darmstadt opening in 1935. This straight section was used for high speed record attempts by the Grand Prix racing teams of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union until the fatal accident of the popular German race driver Bernd Rosemeyer in early 1938.

During World War II autobahns were even used as auxiliary airports, with aircraft either being stashed in numerous tunnels or camouflaged in nearby woods. However, for the most part they were not militarily significant, and most military and economic freight continued to be carried by rail. After the war, numerous sections of the autobahns were in bad shape, severely damaged by heavy allied bombing and military demolition. Furthermore, thousands of kilometers of autobahns remained unfinished, their construction brought to a halt by 1942 due to the increasing demands of the war effort.

In West Germany, following the war, most existing autobahns were soon repaired. The finishing of the incomplete sections took longer, with some stretches being opened to traffic only in the 1980s. Some sections cut by the Iron Curtain in 1945 were only completed after German reunification in 1990. Finally, certain sections were never completed, as more advantageous routes were found. Some of these sections stretch across the landscape forming a unique type of modern ruin, often easily visible on satellite photographs.

The autobahns in East Germany and Poland after 1945 were grossly neglected in comparison to those in West Germany and Western Europe in general. They received minimal maintenance between 1945 and 1989. However, they did not deteriorate because car ownership, and hence traffic volume, in Communist countries was much lower than in the West.

During the 1950s, the West German government restarted the construction program; it continuously invested in new sections and in improvements to older ones.

A short stretch of autobahn around the Lucerne area in 1955 created Switzerland's first autobahn. For Expo 1964, an autobahn was built between Lausanne and Geneva. The route Bern - Lenzburg was inaugurated in 1967.

During the 1980s, a goal was set in West Germany to provide autobahn access within 10 km of every household, but with the German reunification, most of the construction and funds shifted from the west to the neglected east.

Current density

Today, Germany's Autobahn network has a total length of about 11,980 km (as of January 1, 2003), second only to the United States' Interstate system.

The Swiss autobahn network has a total length of 1,638 km (as of 2000) and has, by an area of 41,290 sq km (slightly less than twice the size of New Jersey), also the highest density of the world.

Many sections of Germany's autobahns are modern, 3 lanes wide plus emergency lane. Yet, other sections remain similar to the original state, with two lanes, no emergency lane, short ramps etc. Such a combination of the two types of autobahn can be seen on the A9 autobahn (Nuremberg - Berlin). Heading out from Nuremberg, the autobahn starts off as a modern, 3 lane + emergency lane autobahn. However, after heading into Thuringia, which was formerly part of East Germany, parts of the autobahn are no wider than two lanes and no emergency lane exists (only rare emergency bays with a telephone post in orange-yellow). Coincidentally, this very autobahn is consistently being repaired.

Swiss autobahns always have an emergency lane except in tunnels.

Speed limits

The German autobahns are famous for being some of the only public roads in the world without blanket speed limits for cars and motorcycles, though traffic on them is usually heavy enough to restrict speeds to little above the typical motorway speeds found elsewhere. However, speed limits do apply at junctions and other danger points, like sections under construction or in need of repair. (Speed limits at non-construction sites are generally 100 km/h (62 mph) or 120 km/h (75 mph); construction sites have a usual speed limit of 80 km/h (50 mph) but may be as low as 60 km/h or even 40 km/h (25 mph). Certain stretches have separate, and lower, speed limits used in cases of wet lanes.) Some limits were imposed to reduce pollution and noise. Limits can also be put into place temporarily through dynamic traffic guidance systems that display the according traffic signs. If there is no speed limit the recommended speed is 130 km/h (80 mph) (German: Richtgeschwindigkeit).

It is important to remember that in places without a general limit, overtaking is not limited either. So everyone who is speeding at will has to beware of trucks running side by side at roughly 80 km/h (50 mph). In theory, trucks are not allowed to overtake others unless they drive 20 km/h (12 mph) faster than the truck in the right lane, but truck drivers are under pressure to arrive in time. Police don't enforce this for economic and political reasons, as many trucks are from foreign countries. Basically, apart from on Sundays, (when trucks aren't allowed to drive) the right lane of German Autobahns are crowded with trucks, and too often, trucks pull out to overtake.

Modern cars easily reach well over 200 km/h (125mph), and most large car manufacturers follow a gentlemen's agreement by artificially limiting the top speed of their cars to 250 km/h (155mph) for safety reasons (inexperienced drivers and risk of tires failing, especially when underinflated). Yet, these limiters can easily be removed, so speeds over 300 km/h (185mph) are not uncommon nowadays. But due to common speed-limits and other traffic, no one should expect to be able to drive such speeds always. The most kilometers without a limit are in the south of Germany, where the big automobile groups are, like Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Porsche and BMW, i.e. the A8 at Stuttgart.

Autobahns in Austria (130 km/h; 81 mph) and Switzerland (120 km/h; 75 mph) have normal speed limits.

Notable traffic laws

  • Autobahns may only be used by powered vehicles that have a design maximum speed exceeding 60 km/h
  • The right lane must be used when it's free (Rechtsfahrgebot)
  • Overtaking on the right is forbidden (except in traffic jams with caution)
  • General speed limits (Höchstgeschwindigkeit):
    • 60 km/h for:
      • buses carrying standing passengers (except in Switzerland)
      • motorcycles pulling trailers (in Switzerland: 80 km/h)
    • 80 km/h for:
      • vehicles with maximum allowed weight exceeding 3.5 t (except passenger cars)
      • passenger cars and trucks with trailers
      • buses (in Switzerland: 120 km/h)
    • 100 km/h for:
      • passenger cars pulling trailers certified for 100 km/h
      • buses certified for 100 km/h not pulling trailers
  • In Germany, a guidance speed of 130 km/h (on every road with a border between the two directions) is in effect; this speed is not a binding limit, but being involved in an accident at higher speeds can lead to being assigned part of the fault due to "increased operating danger". In Switzerland the maximum speed is 120 km/h, in Austria 130 km/h.

See also

The contents of this article are licensed from under the GNU Free Documentation License. How to see transparent copy