Don’t Look Back!

(Excerpt from The Tales of a Fly-By-Night by V M Karren)

Autobahn near Frankfurt, Germany

I first heard about it as a young boy. I was never able to forget the word even though I didn’t fully understand what it meant. When my brother and his friends spoke about it, they spoke with awe and reverence. In America the closest that boys get to experiencing it is through the posters on the wall in the school’s metal shop; the cover of Sport Car Illustrated; and an occasional glance of something heading very quickly in the other direction. With their first cars, they dream of a stretch of road with no speed limits and an empty left lane, known commonly around the world as the Autobahn.

I’ve been asked several times by teenage boys in America if I’ve ever driven what they believe to a specific stretch of German road. It is so sad to see their faces fall when I explain that “The Autobahn” is simply any divided highway in the Bundesrepublik of Germany. 

What really disappoints the kids is when I tell them that there are rules on the Autobahn. Just as soon as one understands the rules of this motoring hierarchy, one can drive just as fast as one wants—or at least as fast as his automobile will drive, which are usually two very different speeds. This usually cheers them up again. 

The two simple rules that govern the use of the Autobahn are the following: 1) Stay in the right lane, except when passing. 2) Stay out of the left lane, except when passing. 

The only exception to these two rules is complex, but logical, like most things German. This exception is based heavily on the German’s use of the automobile as a sure status symbol, or as many consider it, a qualifier for driving through the Pearly Gates. Not any old car will get you in!

Imagine you are driving through the rolling hills of Westphalia or Hesse, and you run up on long line of cars in the right lane which are moving somewhat slower than you. You may proceed to use the left lane, and stay in the left lane to pass this string of Sunday-drivers, unless one of the following applies: 

  1. If you are driving an Opel, you must yield to a Volkswagen behind you in the left lane, by returning quickly to the right lane.  
  2. If you are driving a Volkswagen, you must yield to an Audi behind you by returning quickly to the right lane.
  3. If you are driving an Audi you must yield to the Mercedes in the same manner, by moving to the right lane without delay.  
  4. Likewise, if you’re driving the Mercedes, you must yield to the BMW and BMW to the more powerful BWM behind it.
  5. The high-powered BMW must yield to the Porsche.
  6. The Porsche to the Ferrari.
  7. The Ferrari to the Lamborghini, so on and so forth.  

For non-Germans, this can be explained very effectively with this simple rule of thumb:  The more you paid for your car, the more other cars have to get out of your way when you are in the left lane. The inverse is therefore also true; the less you paid for your car, the quicker you must return to the right lane. If you violate these social norms of the Autobahn, you will see your life flash before your eyes in the rearview mirror. 

In addition to the rigorous driving courses and exams that any driver who desires to drive on the Autobahn should complete, the one other skill that should be required is the ability to identify the profiles of the cars from a distance of no less than one kilometer. This should be tested while looking in the mirrors of a moving car. The practical reason behind this is that as soon as you see these automobiles as a dark spot in your rearview mirror, it’s already too late. What may be a good kilometer and half behind you will be riding your bumper in less than three seconds if you do not immediately return to the right lane. There is no time to watch and wait. You may be driving one hundred thirty kilometers per hour (80 mph), but the dark spot in your mirror may by moving at two hundred forty kilometers per hour (145 mph). This is almost twice your current velocity. Hence the origin of the cliché: “He passed me like I was standing still.” 

It is not uncommon to be traveling at one hundred sixty km/h (100 mph) and be overtaken by a string of high-powered sports cars in a manner that not only makes you feel like you drive like your grandmother, but also confirms that you are in fact driving like your grandmother. The shaking in both the suspension and everything below your waist caused by such an experience can be very violent and disabling. 

 From my personal experience, I can highly recommend for one’s personal safety that one does not try to navigate these highways unless one is driving in a Sherman Tank, a high-performance sports sedan, or a small three-cylinder Nissan Micra with a high-powered magnifying rearview mirror. The small Nissan is what I foolishly chose to drive the first time on the Autobahn, and it shook like a leaf in the autumn. Had it not been for the magnifying rearview mirror, we would not have lived through the terrifying experience.

Pedestrian Street in Frankfurt, Germany

In the spring of 2000, during a short holiday break from my studies in Maastricht, my wife Christine and I, with young Matthew, went on a modern equivalent of a religious pilgrimage to Friedrichsdorf, Germany. On a small student’s budget, we could afford to rent only a small car. Not ever having driven in Germany I was naïve enough to think that I had had enough driving experience to be able to handle what was waiting for me twenty kilometers in Germany. Even though we planned about four hours for our journey from home to the Frankfurt area, it took us nearly seven hours. This was not because we had underestimated the distance. It was because I wasn’t up to the task of driving as fast as needed to avoid being forced off the Autobahn by the locals. After some close calls, we decided to take the scenic route.

When we first crossed the border from the Netherlands into Germany, we noticed an increase in the speed of the traffic by about fifteen or twenty km/h. Even though I was holding my own in the middle lane with the other Dutch drivers, it was immediately apparent that I was too slow for the Germans. For fifty or so kilometers I thought that I was having the time of my life. I was driving one hundred forty km/h (90 mph) in the right lane and passing at will in the center lane. So far, so good.

As we turned towards Koblenz to follow the Rhine River south, the nature of the road changed. The road to Cologne had been a wide four lane highway, stretched across a flat plain. One could see for a good mile behind and ahead over the flatlands. The new road on the western bank of the river became a two-lane highway that twisted around and traversed some formidable hills. That made driving a bit more tricky in our Nissan Micra. Unfortunately, the equation was only further complicated by the fact that Germany doesn’t border to the Atlantic Ocean.  Let me explain.

Germany receives a very large portion of its imported good through the Port of Rotterdam. The freight containers must be transported inland from the Dutch coast to German distribution centers via truck, train or barge. While automobiles have very few speed limitations through many parts of Germany, these large trucks carrying heavy sea containers are not allowed to exceed ninety km/h. Throw in the hills of the river valley and these trucks might as well be standing still. On the inclines I had no chance of getting around the trucks before a Porsche or a Mercedes was right on my bumper. On the way down, though, I found that our car could make it around a line of three trucks before being forced back into the right lane. We reached speeds of one hundred eighty km/h (108 mph) while passing in this manner. The little car felt as if it would flip over when swerving back into the right lane. 

Cafe Window in Frankfurt, Germany

On the curve of a high bluff, hugging the side of a hill with a slight downhill slope, I slipped into the left lane to pass. When I entered the left lane, I could not see around the bend behind us. This was a mistake! I tried pushing the gas pedal through the sheet metal floor to get clear of the braking trucks and swerve right; out of the way of a high-speed convoy that was bearing down on my bumper. 

Just as soon as had I entered the left lane, the first of seven cars was already flashing its lights and honking. It was a terribly frightening sight! I had pulled out from behind a braking truck at one hundred km/h (60 mph) in front of a large silver Mercedes moving at what must have been one hundred fifty km/h (90 mph). Before I was able to get around the truck and back into the right lane, I was already moving at one hundred thirty (100 mph) and I knew the Mercedes was braking to avoid hitting us.  

Our little car shook as the Mercedes passed and quickly moved into the right lane, just off our front left fender. No sooner had the Mercedes moved over than another vehicle moving even faster passed the two of us and moved just as quickly into the right lane in front of the Mercedes. Behind him came a Porsche 911 flashing his lights, followed directly by a twelve-cylinder Jaguar moving even faster. The Jaguar was being pursued by another Porsche who’s passing shook our Nissan so hard that I lost control of the steering and began rocking dangerously on our suspension. Just as the Porsche and the Jaguar had moved right, even though they were driving two hundred fifty km/h (150 mph), we were all passed by a candy apple-lipstick-hellfire red Ferrari Testarossa, as if we were ALL driving like our grandmothers. I didn’t feel the car shake until the Ferrari was out of sight, around the next bend. (I knew it was a Ferrari only by its tail lights.)

The fear and the numbness of my legs on seeing this chain of compounding speed closing in on my bumper was thus: Imagine that you are lashed to the back of a tortoise. You are wearing a red sweater and scarf trying to outrun a charging bull on the edge of a high cliff. The best advice that can be seriously offered in these situations is simply: “Don’t Look Back!” 

Enjoy the story? More of our adventures can found in The Tales of a Fly-By-Night by V M Karren. Click on the book image to read more.

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