While not being able to sleep this morning I stumbled across my Scrivener file full of notes for writing about Germany. Some of them I’ve used already but some still sit patiently for me to more fully flesh them out. This is one of those topics.
I am a Traffic and Transportation Engineer. It’s just what I am. I don’t get to work much in that field doing what I do for the Corps of Engineers, but that changes nothing. So of course my first observations about Europe involved vehicles and the driving experience.
For one thing, they put the traffic signals too close to the stop line here. Most Germans stop well short of the line so they can see but as Americans who are used to being right there at the line we pull up then lean over trying to get a look. The funny thing is that we do that in the US to minimize the lost time—the time between the light changing and vehicles moving. But here, before the light changes to green it changes to yellow giving a warning that it’s about to happen. I had long theorized that a similar action would help, coming here I learned it absolutely does.
In france, they add small lights at the base of the pole. At first I thought this was great because you can see without hunching over, but in Paris in particular this is unnecessary. You do not need to pay attention to the lights at all because when it turns green some frog behind you will honk. Whether the intersection is clear or there is a tangled mass of cars in both directions interwoven in such a way that no one can move. Which happens a lot. By the way, my advice about driving in Paris is never do that.
An adjustment though, is no right turn on red. The only positive thing California has given to traffic flow is not allowed here except in very limited circumstances. And by very limited I mean mostly only on the American installations but not even all the time there. Hard to get used to.
And no, the California roll stop is not a positive contribution to traffic flow.
People here use turn signals. Like they’re supposed to. All the time. And no one drives around with their parking lights on. Ever. Also, no one drives with the hazard lights on unless there is a hazard. If you see hazard lights in front of you one of three things has happened: they’re on the side of the road because a vehicle is broken down, a slow moving vehicle or truck with trailer is ahead of you (like 50 kph below speed limit slower), or all the traffic in front has stopped and the vehicle has put on the hazard lights to warn you that you’d best slow down because you’re about to stop. FYI, literally going 90 to nothing stinks. Going from 150 kph to 0 kph because of a stau means that all the time you just knocked off your GPS estimated time of arrival is about to get added back on.
Few people realize this, but in the United States there is never an instance when you have the right of way. Technically, you only have the right of way yielded to you. There is no textbook, driver’s manual, or law enforcement training that will ever say that one vehicle has the right of way over the other, only indications of which vehicle has to yield. That is not the case in Germany. In Germany vehicles often get the right of way. Occasionally they brazenly advertise the fact that they have it, but rarely. More often than not the most you get is a stern glance or dirty look from another driver because they had the right of way but you took it. Civility rules the day. If there is a car on your side of the road parked, the oncoming traffic goes until there is no more, then you go. If the lane merges into the lane on the right or left you drive to the merge point where one car from each lane goes at a time. Uniformly, civilly, logically, and as a traffic guy I’d say beautifully.
On the autobahn things flow nice. People are not afraid to pass up a Polizei vehicle. Even when you’re driving faster than 90 mph. For my part I have approached them at over 100 mph but always slow down to between 90 and 100 mph because it just doesn’t feel right. Sure is nice to not have to clean out my shorts afterwords though. People only pass on the left, because it’s the law. They stay to the right, because it’s the law. They also build the lanes anticipating that most traffic will be in the right lanes rather than a uniform thickness as we do in the US but that’s a different matter. Strangely enough, if you absolutely have to pass on the right (because you’re that big an asshole) you pass on the shoulder. First it’s not a breakdown lane because you can get fined for breaking down on the autobahn, but second, passing on the shoulder is improper lane use which is a cheaper fine than passing on the right.
I also happen to be a pedestrian expert, though I don’t like to walk myself. Germany is full of walking and biking paths to include lanes on the road and an awesome interconnected network of paths. One day while driving on a road through a field I saw a man with a walker out for a stroll. He was a good 500 meters from the nearest structure but he wasn’t headed towards it. He was headed further into the woods. These people take their exercise and outdoor time very seriously.
Another incident was when I was stopped at a railroad crossing in some out of the way town. There are few freight trains here, mostly passenger. They are all run by one company and would classify as a source of a blog post all by themselves but not my point here. While waiting a guy road up, this was about 2200 so 10 pm, on a bike smoking a cigarette. He didn’t light up when he stopped, he was riding and smoking. Here bicycles are not just for exercise, they are for getting around.
But overall I’d have to say that one of the first things I noticed that really stood out to me is the number of streets named Martin Luther. I’m used to streets named Martin Luther King, but here, they honor his namesake. A wide awake moment of realization that I’m not in Kansas anymore.