Everything you need to know about the German autobahn

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The sky's the limit

The only European country without a general speed limit on most parts of its highways, Germany has an excellent system of motorways. They are generally well-maintained, inviting you to explore them. The minimum age for obtaining a driver's license used with a legal guardian present in Germany is 17. An unrestricted car driver's license can be granted at age 18.

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Bracing yourself

According to statistics by ADAC, Germany's national automobile association, traffic jams increased by around 15 percent in 2016 as compared to the previous year. That's a lot for a relatively small country. The increase resulted from both more cars on the highway, and more construction sites. So brace yourself for more time and stress in the car, especially around big cities.

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Tailgaters

Even when you think you're soaring down the autobahn, you may get the distinct impression it's still not fast enough. Some German drivers may drive right up behind you and try to "push" you over. They may even flash their headlights to rattle your nerves. You aren't supposed to block the "fast" lane — the aim being to only use it for passing. But don't let pushy drivers bully you!

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Smile for the camera!

Watch out for speed cameras! They are used widely in Germany, from the autobahn to inner city areas. These box-shaped devices are installed next to the road, and will often catch you unawares. Should you be driving over the speed limit, a ticket will be sent to your house, complete with a picture of you at the wheel and the license plate confirming your offense.

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Cell phones a no-no

Holding a cell phone in your hand while driving is an absolute no-no. If caught, you could be fined 100 euros ($124) and get a one-point penalty against your driver's license. Penalties spike up if you cause an accident, and you may have your license revoked. Fines were raised in 2017. Investing in a hands-free car kit is smarter. Penalties also apply to bicyclists using their cell phones.

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Make way for help

The same thing goes for not making way for emergency vehicles. Once traffic jams up, you are required to create a lane for ambulances and police, even before you see the flashing lights behind you. If not, you could be fined at least 200 euros (around $250) and get points on your license. The emergency lane is always between the far left and the rest of the lanes.

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Be on the alert

You are also required to set up a warning signal should you break down or have an accident. This means placing an orange metal triangle on the road, donning a fluorescent jacket, both of which you must have in your car. You must also have a first-aid kit stored in your vehicle.

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Driving under the influence

In Germany, there's zero tolerance for beginners, as well as for professional drivers. There's a 0.5 percent blood alcohol content (BAC) limit to driving under the influence. Bicyclists may not exceed 1.6 percent. Penalties start at a €500 ($623) fine, points off your license and even a one-month license suspension. Best bet: don't drink and drive!

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Snow tires

Snow tires are required once streets become slick with slush, ice or snow. In Germany, the rule of thumb is that this can occur anytime between October and Easter. Should you not have snow tires installed on your car and still drive on slippery streets, you could be fined and have points taken off your license. Without proper snow tires, your insurance may also not cover an accident.

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A relaxed approach

To navigate both the German autobahn and city streets, the best approach is a zen one: take your time and don't let yourself get frazzled. Besides, with an expansive train and public transportation system in the country, you might not even want to hop into your car, but board a train and put up your feet!

Germany is famous the world over for its autobahn — also known as "the highway without speed limits." But that's not the case everywhere. Here are some tips for navigating it.

Germany has its beer and sausages, its sauerkraut, its Christmas markets, and all the other things that people abroad call to mind when they think about the country. And, of course, there is the autobahn. Adventurous, speed-craving tourists think they can rent a car, jump in and drive without speed limits across the national highway network. What a way to travel!

And they can do that — sometimes. As the German paper Süddeutsche Zeitung notes, Germany is the only European nation to not have a general speed limit. Instead, there is a speed "recommendation" of 130 kilometers per hour (81 mph). But there are restrictions in certain places, such as near construction sites, dangerous stretches with curves or in and around cities. According to ADAC, Germany's national automobile association, there are speed restrictions on about 40 percent of the German autobahn.

Dispelling myths

Why there are no limits on the other 60 percent of highways has largely to do with the power of the German automobile industry's lobby, says Thomas Harloff, author of the Süddeutsche article.

After all, the country is known for its fast, extremely well-engineered cars — a reputation that is a major selling point. Allowing those cars to fly across German highways without restriction "justifies their right to exist" in the first place, notes Harloff.

Still, Harloff points out, studies show that the majority of Germans would prefer restrictions, both to cut down on accidents and fatalities, and to protect the climate from increased emissions.

However, statistics show that 60 percent of all fatal accidents occur not on the autobahn, but on country roads where the maximum speed limit is 100 km/h (62 mph).

So, we can dispel the myth that there are absolutely no speed limits on German freeways — and perhaps while we're at it the myth that Adolf Hitler initiated the construction of the autobahn. Read here for more:The myth of Hitler's role in building the autobahn

Meanwhile, if you're planning to travel to Germany just to put the pedal to the medal, view the picture gallery here for some tips. After all, you need nerves of steel to maneuver the autobahn and still stay alive!

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