How to drive a car in Germany
(by Kate Müser)
My 16th birthday fell on a Sunday. I had to wait an entire day to complete my drivers’ exam in the beautiful state of California. Waiting has never been one of my strengths.
It was a “close call”, but I’m convinced that the driving examiner just made it seem that way to instil a sense of fear. Probably not a bad thing when it comes to a 16-year-old moving a massive piece of metal near other humans.
After that stressful day in 1996, I never would’ve thought that I’d have to repeat the scenario 11 years later. Complete with sweaty hands and a racing heart.
Americans are known for a lot of things abroad, as every expat very quickly learns, but strict driving exams are not one of them. At least not in Germany – the country with the most ruthless driving examiners, the freest freeways, the most well made cars (all recent scandals aside), and the most Fahrvergnügen (literally: driving pleasure) when in them.
As a newcomer to this country, you’re allowed to partake in that Fahrvergnügen for precisely six months after your arrival. On the first day of the seventh month, any driving skill you may have brought with you – or even amassed during your experience on the world’s only true Autobahn – suddenly evaporates into thin air and your license is no longer valid.
Those who would rather not hand their transportation fate over to the strike-loving train service must make a trip to the drivers’ license authorities to have their now invalid foreign licence converted into an official German one.
(No) break for California
For American licenses, it must be said that not all 50 states are created equal in the eyes of German authorities. If you have a license from the “right” state, you can go straight to the local authorities, pay the necessary fee, and come out with your German document.
If you’re unfortunate enough to come from the “wrong” state, you’re treated like any other German teenager and are required to pay thousands of euros to complete hours of theoretical and practical driving training before passing the German exam. The rest of Germany can say three Hail Marys that you didn’t cause any major damage during your six-month grace period.
California falls into the third category. Its weather, beaches, Baywatch girls, mountains, wine, and movie stars may be the dream of many Germans. But in terms of driving skills, Californians are apparently mediocre at best. That’s why I was required to pass the German driving exam. I didn’t have to fulfil the other requirements of new drivers (a specified number of hours in class and behind-the-wheel with an instructor). I just had to pass the test – any way I could.
Since I didn’t want to screw this thing up, I studied the books. I hired a driving instructor. And I realized I’d underestimated not only what it takes to drive in this country, but also German logic. The two don’t always go together.
These three things defy logic – and make driving in Germany a challenge for anyone who thinks they don’t need to go to a German driving school.
1) Guess whether you have right-of-way
There are more different signs for right-of-way than you can count. At every intersection, you encounter a different one and have to make a split second decision: Keep going full speed ahead or yield to the car on the right? Germans have so many different street signs that they even have a word for it: Schilderwald – sign forest.
Nevertheless, they use stop signs very sparingly. Instead of stopping at a four-way intersection, you have to search for the right-of-way sign, determine whether it applies to you, register whether any other vehicles may be approaching, guess what they will do in half a second, and hit the break or the gas. Sound like a lot at once? That’s why it’s tempting just to keep driving and hope the car on your right sees you in time to yield.
2) Don’t pass on the right
In theory, it’s a good idea to only pass on the left when driving at high speeds on the freeway. But in practice, there’s always that swerving granny who insists on driving 120 km/h in the far-left lane. When you race up behind her at 200 kmh and have to slam on your breaks because she can’t drive and look in her rear-view mirror at the same time, things can get dangerous, particularly if the dozen Porsches behind you are also doing 200.
As a second-time beginner, I was admittedly the granny more often than the Porsche, except that I constantly had an eye on the mirror so that I could hop into the middle lane as soon as a speeder approached me from the rear. But that middle lane wasn’t always available, which led to a few stressful situations in the beginning.
Sure, passing on both sides American-style can be dangerous, too. But that’s better than slamming granny’s bumper at the speed of sound. The alternative would be to introduce a speed limit on all sections of the Autobahn, not just some, as is the case now. But even though unlimited speed freedom is rarer than foreigners think in Germany, Germans cling to it as if it were a constitutional right (we Americans can relate to that).
3) Wanted: Two lanes
In most German cities, the streets were created centuries before cars were invented. Horse-drawn carriages were probably wider than your average Audi or VW, so you’d think the streets would be wide enough for two carriages to pass each other. But, alas, in residential areas they usually aren’t. This is exacerbated by the fact that, unlike horses, cars are parked on the street without regard to the narrowing effect that has.
Germans may be well used to it, but for American drivers it’s a nightmare to constantly have to pull up on to the curb to let the other cars pass to the left. Often the other driver has a very different perception of the width of his own car than you do. Let’s just say you could make a pretty penny if you started a mirror repair business. Suddenly that Smart looks more attractive than the SUV you always wanted.
The back seat driver
After twice as many behind-the-wheel hours as I’d budgeted and countless hours with the books, I passed the German driving exam. It was a “close call” – but again, I have my theory about that. My driving instructor was in the front seat, the examiner in the back, and the instructor saved me with a few secret hand signals.
Back at the city office, I went to claim my prize. To my chagrin, the administrator demanded I relinquish my California license to him.
“But why? In my country that’s my ID,” I said.
“But you can’t have two valid licenses at the same time,” he countered.
“If my California license were valid, I wouldn’t be sitting here,” I replied.
Sometimes logic has to take a back seat.
Image: ©Dominic Müser
Kate Müser, who grew up in Pleasanton, California, was surprised to discover that she feels even closer to her home state now than she did when she first moved to Bonn, Germany, over 13 years ago.
For over a decade, Kate has been a TV, radio and online journalist at Deutsche Welle, where she currently hosts the video series Meet the Germans with Kate and the TV show PopXport.