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Published: November 23rd 2006
J did all of the driving in Europe, so here are his (longwinded) thoughts on the experience:
No question I liked driving in Germany a lot. It was primarily freeway driving, and the freeway typically has only two lanes. Drivers seemed VERY good at staying in the slow lane unless passing. Even while passing, I experienced several BMW and Mercedes drivers appear out of nowhere and suddenly flash their high beams at me. The speed limit (when there is one, and there usually is) is 130kph, or about 80mph. Slow drivers would typically do around 140; normal drivers like myself, 160kph (100mph). I decided to keep up with the big boys during one section of road, and quickly found myself at a new personal record of cruising at over 200kph (125mph). Now I could see how these guys could pop up out of nowhere. Cars doing the 60 mph limit in the States would get passed like they were at a complete stop on the shoulder!
I think the drivers on the freeway in Germany also seemed a bit better than drivers in the States. Not only did the trucks and non-passing drivers stick to the right lane, the
precision of driving was impressive. On nearly every freeway, we encountered construction and lane diversions. Narrowing the two lanes and shifting them over to the left shoulder in Seattle would cause a massive slowdown to maybe 45mph at best. Not so in Germany. There was one point (I was too white knuckled to ask CM to take a photo), we were driving in a really narrow spray painted left lane, passing about 5 semi trucks. We had "slowed down" to 130kph, and I noticed that the car in front of me was maybe a foot or two to the left of the truck, and that its left mirror was actually over the center guardrail! I quickly realized that I had the same margin for error as the guy in front of me, peeking over, and realizing that if stopped, I could have maybe opened my door 6 inches. Incredible.
Driving in the city is a somewhat different affair especially in Italy. I suppose the aggressiveness of the freeway driving carries over, but it was of course much more difficult for us to handle because we were reading maps and signs. In Switzerland, the drivers were pretty much tailgaiters in
On the Road
Taken by CM.
the city, getting feet off your back bumper even if you were going the speed limit, or had a turn signal on. Close enough where I can't see your headlights anymore means I do a brake check. So much for defensive driving! Anyway, in Germany and Austria it seemed a bit better in the towns. Italy is, as you might expect, really interesting to drive in. The freeways are pretty much like Germany, but the cities seem to have these "optional" traffic rules. We made the mistake of trying to drive into Milan, and were caught several times going down streets where we had the right of way, but there were cars going the opposite way towards us in a standoff formation. Although there were lane lines in Milan, traffic seemed to simply go where there was space, to avoid double and triple parked delivery vehicles. This is similar to Thailand, where people pretty much form as many lanes as they possibly can. Surprisingly, in many other European towns, there weren't lane lines, and sometimes not even oncoming lane lines, although people seemed to adhere to the rules of the road.
There is a funny habit of signs with
strikethroughs on roads in Europe. If there is a special speed limit, and it ends, they will show a "greyed out" speed limit sign, with three strikethrough lines on it, indicating that you can go back to the normal recommended limit (80 in towns, 100 in the country and 130 on the freeway). They also do this when leaving a town, leaving the freeway, etc.
Compared to US driving, I give the Autobahns high marks for speed limit, road quality, driver skill and a complete lack of wasteful HOV lanes. Where things start to fall down is in capacity, city linkage, tolls and photo radar. Two lanes, even at 100mph average wouldn't cut it in the States. Part of the reason that speed works is that the exits are much further apart, so there isn't constant merging. This leads to the second problem - most freeways don't go anywhere near to the central town, but rather to ring freeways, and ring roads that lead to the city center. It took about 20 minutes to get out of Zurich, 45 to get back in with traffic on one lane roads, and about an hour each way to get in and
out of Milan (granted we were a little lost there). If you've ever driven to Vancouver, you'll understand this phenomenon. You get within about 20 miles of the city and the freeway just ends. It takes about 40 minutes through stoplights to actually get to the city. Ridiculous. We didn't encounter tolls in Germany or Switzerland, and in Austria there is just a ~ 10 Euro window tag you get at gas stations that lets you drive on the freeway for a week - for all but "special roads". The tunnel between Austria and Italy hit us with a 14 Euro toll - ouch! Italy has a toll system where basically you get a card stamped at the onramp, and when you get off, a reader determines how far you've gone and you pay accordingly. The drawback to this scheme is that often they'll take you for miles on these little freeway linkage roads just to get you to a toll onramp so you can pay. In general the tolls were around 4 euro for 100 or 200km. Some sections are free, and some sections also require you to pay up front, and don't give you any stamped ticket. Go
figure. We spent about 50 Euros total in tolls.
Gas in Europe we calculated was a bit less than double the States. We luckily had a diesel, which gets better mileage and is cheaper per gallon (except in Switzerland, where diesel is more expensive for some reason). Theoretically you can go between 800 and 1000km on a tank in the Jetta, and it cost us about 60-70 Euros to fill the tank. Really not bad compared to the price of trains or airfare. We went over 2000km and spent ~ $250 on gas.
FYI - the Lamborghini Murciélago
we saw in a Zurich gas station. I met and talked to the owner a bit, he was about our age and looked like he was going out to a club. He said he had hit 300KPH on the Autobahn when I asked him. He asked if I was a car enthusiast, and I said I just had a 4WD SUV, to which he replied: "This has 4WD; at first I thought it would drive like crap, but I've done 200 in the rain - it handles really well."
Overall, if the US would increase the speed limit and drivers would get more on the ball, we would have the best driving experience. As a German we talked to said - 60mph is just too slow with the huge distances in the States.
Tot: 2.3s; Tpl: 0.049s; cc: 34; qc: 159; dbt: 0.0741s; 1; m:saturn w:www (188.8.131.52); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.7mb