- if you're imagining long stretches of empty autobahn in germany because of the coronavirus pandemic, you're right.
- a trip to audi's headquarters in ingolstadt took this writer 40 minutes instead of the usual hour and a half, for instance.
- few people are able to drive for fun right now, of course, but the good news, as bavarian classic-car dealer matthias knoedler told c/d: people are being more considerate on the roads, even though they may be driving faster.
under normal conditions—which we're not in now—driving germany's autobahn can be exasperating. on paper and in theory, you can travel as fast as you like. indeed, not just the autobahn but every four-lane road in the vaterland with a divider in the center is devoid of a speed limit, unless otherwise posted.
the coronavirus crisis, with all of its gruesome implications, has created one good thing: the "corona autobahn," a phrase i have heard at a southern german carmaker. it means empty roads and pedal to the metal.
in pre-coronavirus days, trips on the autobahn actually needed to be planned diligently, not least because germany is in the center of many international trucking routes. unlike in the united states, in germany semi-trucks are only allowed to do 50 mph, and they are ruthlessly governed at 55. "elephant races" between two trucks, both stuck at the governor, frequently block the left lane for miles, and many autobahnen only feature one passing lane, not two.
in his autobiography, an english car designer abroad, car designer peter birtwhistle described the traditional attitude: "there was a distinct hierarchy on the autobahn in terms of lane 'ownership,' with the outside or overtaking lane being the clear territory of mercedes and bmw. any vehicle getting in their way was flashed vigorously, and almost pushed out of the way." driving a meek opel manta when he moved to germany, birtwhistle quickly got the memo: "i decided it wise not to venture there."
flashing lights rarely triggered the desired outcome but more often a call to the police, and it was generally wise to calculate an average speed of 60 mph, with extra time to be allocated in the morning and afternoon rush hour.
not these days.
german roads were virtually cleared for a few weeks in late march and april after the country went into a belated lockdown. "it's like in the 1960s and '70s," says matthias knoedler, a classic-car expert in bavaria, who was allowed to use the road to deliver cars to his customers. he noticed less aggression: "even if traffic flows at a faster pace, road users seem to be more considerate and more forgiving than usual. the attitude reflects the fact that everyone is on the road for a reason, and that—generally speaking—we are together in a crisis that requires everyone's cooperation."
this writer's personal experience seconds these observations. two weeks ago, the trip to audi's headquarters in ingolstadt, for which google maps estimates one hour and 16 minutes and for which i usually plan one and a half hours to be on the safe side, was completed in around 40 minutes. testing a few cars down there, i managed to put in a safe top-speed run, which is not a part of my public-road routine. but i am happy to report that the audi rs4 avant slightly exceeds its official 174-mph top speed, and the diminutive a1 sportback is considerably faster than the official 146-mph figure. no sweaty palms, no risk, and no flashing lights were involved. there was simply no traffic.
inevitably, some have overdone it, such as the laferrari driver who saw fit to post the above video of a one-handed, cellphone-recorded 231-mph run on the a7 near hannover. and a speed trap set up on the a8 near munich on april 16 recorded a whopping 513 infractions, although that sounds worse than it actually was: almost two-thirds of the speeders caught were within 12 mph over the 62-mph limit on that particular stretch.
asked for comment, rainer seebauer, spokesman for the police in the province of middle franconia, said that no irregularities have been recorded during the pandemic. "there are always singular cases, but we have not noticed a remarkable rise in traffic infractions." a similar statement came from the police office in straubing, which processes all traffic tickets in the state of bavaria: "we have no numbers to support a rise in motorist misbehavior," i was told. this in spite of the fact that the police have not eased up on monitoring traffic.
in fact, there are speed traps all over the place, even with far fewer vehicles on the road. except on the free sections on the autobahn, which give us an idea of what kind of travel they were once designed for.
driving for fun? not in these times, as many of us are worried about the health of loved ones or are even personally affected. many popular destinations are closed, and the countryside oozes a somber mood. the focused and generous attitude on the autobahn will be among the few positive things we will remember about this time.