Home / Transportation / Postcards from the Road Frankfurt

Postcards from the Road Frankfurt

Wednesday, April 12. Frankfurt airport after a rather short, but harrowing, shuttle ride from the hotel. I think the Germans love their cars as much as Americans do. Maybe even as much as Californians.

The Autobahns in Germany are a virtual Grand Prix for the most part. Not all, but a major portion of Germans enjoy tooling down the highway at 120 or 130 MPH. If you are going under 100, you’re going to have lights flashed at you to tell you to get out of the way. And unless your car is even faster than the one coming up behind you, with afterburner engaged, you’d better move. The Germans have no problem tailgating while doing 100 MPH, smoking a cigarette and talking on their cell phone hopefully hands free all at the same time. It’s enough to make a New York driver envious.

The Germans’ idea of hell is being stuck on a one lane road behind a Dutchman pulling a camping trailer. Said Dutchmen invade Germany’s Autobahns every summer traveling at an average of about 50 MPH across Germany to the various southern European mountain resorts. I think this is where the word angst came from.

My new customer and friend if I live long enough is Karsten. He drives an “undercover” Volkswagen Passat. Undercover because it doesn’t have any model numbers or emblems to let anyone know exactly what size engine, amount of horsepower, etc. is in the car.

“I like to fool people. If a Porche or high end BMW comes up behind me when I’m only doing 180 KPH (120 MPH) and flashes his lights, I like to watch the driver’s face in my mirror as I pull away.”

Being able to watch a driver’s reaction in your rearview mirror at 120 MPH is something that takes a lot of practice I guess.

“Also, when I visit my customers, they won’t feel that I am making too much money from them to be able to afford a real fast expensive car. So, it is undercover.” As a salesman, that reason makes perfect sense to me.

We are on our way from Frankfurt to Frankenthal, a distance of about 50 miles. We make it in about 30 minutes. It used to be that the Autobahns had no speed limits. That has changed to a point. Many interchanges now do have speed limits of as low as 40 MPH and photo radar has sprung up like mushrooms all over the European landscape. There’s nothing like flying down the road at 100+ MPH and all of a sudden you’re in the middle of a panic deceleration to 40 MPH in about 50 yards. Fines for speeding are extremely heavy and loss of license for just a couple of infractions is a real deterrent.

It also tends to keep the brake replacement people very busy in Germany.

After traveling for a mile or two at the top speed of a farm tractor, it’s time to launch again. Somehow seat belts just don’t quite seem to be enough.

One of the most important points when a German professional is negotiating a new position is what type of car will be included in the package. It’s not so much getting a company car, but getting a car that advertises your status to your peers, friends and neighbors. Even their wives get catty about who sports what car as they head to their local Wal-Mart (truly) or Aldi for a Saturday morning grocery run. An entry level professional may be able to settle for a Volkswagen Golf or BMW 3 series. However, if you are an executive who has been in a certain career path for a while and haven’t made it to at least a midlevel Mercedes, Peugeot or BMW, it’s time for you to change professions. It’s kind of like being passed over for promotion in the military.

There are some aspects that the Germans admire about driving in the U.S. however. The Autobahns are mostly just four lanes except in some limited urban areas. The fact that much of the American Interstate system is 3 plus lanes in each direction for the most part is something they just dream about. Though, passing on the right is legal in some U.S. states and is pretty common across the rest of the country whether legal or not, it is totally verboten in Germany. Kind of like jay walking the Germans just don’t do it. There is also no turning right on red. They think that driving in the U.S. must be totally chaotic to allow those sorts of things. Come to think of it, they might be right.

My wannabe jet fighter pilot, Karsten, and I get into a discussion about the origin of our respective superhighways. Karsten tells me that Hitler did only three things right when he ran Germany. First, he put people to work during the high unemployment of the Great Depression. Second, he put them to work building roads. And third, he oversaw development of the Volkswagen – creating a “cheap” car and opening those roads for the German masses.

The Interstate system in the U.S. is actually named the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System. Old Ike thought the Autobahn in Germany was one of the slickest things since sliced pumpernickel. Immediately seeing the strategic and economic importance of being able to move things and people across country very quickly and efficiently, he wanted a system for the U.S. as well and, when he became President, he got his wish. One twist to the U.S. system though is that one mile in every five has to be a straight line in case an airplane has to land. Ah, the military mind!

Everyone knows or should know that the faster you drive, the lower your gas mileage. With gas prices between $5 and $6 a gallon, you would think the Germans would be more economy minded in their driving and slow down a bit. In Germany, that is unthinkable. People have been burned at the stake for suggesting less than that.

I survived my roundtrip drive to Frankenthal. Coming to a long stop in heavy traffic on the return to Frankfurt, however, did give me some respite from trying to leave permanent fingerprints in Karsten’s armrest.

And my terror on the ride to the airport? Herr von Van Driver seems to have been a farmer who had driven a tractor as a career and took this job part time after retirement. Cars were running up on us at NASCAR speeds, slamming on their brakes, flashing lights, blowing horns and displaying excellent imitations of the New Jersey state bird as we moved along at 45 MPH in morning RUSH hour traffic.

Life on the road in Germany – always too slow or too fast. I wonder if angst is really just another word for “slow driver” in German.