No Open Casket Funeral For You: Realities Of The Autobahn
Sports cars are designed to do something virtually none of their buyers will ever get to use them for: fly down a stretch of highway at over 100 miles an hour just so that you can finally feel something. But every fast car enthusiast knows there is one magical place where you can, in fact, get all Fast and Furious on the pavement's ass: The Autobahn.
It's the system of highways throughout central Europe that doesn't have any speed limits and, in theory, any driver could blaze down a stretch of it until the friction of their wheels ignites the air itself in all-consuming flame. But according to Mehmet Schumann, whose job is to keep the Autobahn in good working order, the reality is a little more complicated -- and somehow, a lot more metal.
Autobahn Accidents Are Automatically More Awful
Imagine you're driving down the freeway when the guy behind you picks the wrong moment to tweet that hilarious zinger. He bumps into you from behind and you both spin into the guardrail. Your day is ruined, but it's entirely possible to walk away from that scenario with some spilled coffee and a series of annoying conversations with your insurance company. Mehmet has seen that exact accident happen on the Autobahn, "except the cars were going at such a high speed that they became flat," he says. "When I arrived where they crashed, it was two piles of metal. It looked more like a plane crash."
He's not kidding. A Ferrari crashing into a guardrail on the Autobahn looks less like a car accident and more like one of the cubes of recycled metal they produce at a junkyard.
Both passengers died. It would actually be super weird if they hadn't.
Sometimes it's not even the fault of a shitty driver. This is the result of a random-ass flat tire at 186 mph:
"Hi, Triple-A? I need a spare ... everything."
"If you hear the name of a sports car on a part of the Autobahn for a cleanup, that is sometimes what I'll see," Mehmet said, saddened. "It doesn't have to be a sports car either ... I'm waiting for the day when I see a small car like the Smart Car meet a large truck."
He doesn't have to wonder. Those tests have been done, and the results are a conclusive "not recommended." Those babies pretty much shatter.
Autobahn Maintenance Is Terrifying
If you've ever been minding your own business walking down the highway when some jerk zipped past going 75, you can imagine how trouser-murderingly scary it'd be if that asshole were going double that speed. Actually, we take that back -- you can't imagine it. The odds are overwhelming you've never been passed by any object going that fast, for any reason. For road workers like Mehmet, who fix the sundry potholes of the Autobahn while maniacs drive across it, it's a frequent reality.
"You won't hear a fast car coming until a few seconds, then there is a second of engine noise and a breeze of air, another second of the car speeding away, then nothing."
The only place on Earth you can feel badass in a Prius.
Keep in mind, "the Autobahn is always being worked on somewhere," Mehmet says. That's less out of national pride and more in the interest of public safety: 10 percent of all car accidents are caused by bad road conditions. That means Mehmet is always out there, dodging traffic that is sometimes literally too fast to stop.
"One stretch of the Autobahn, we couldn't close down the lanes, and we needed to work next to one still open," remembered Mehmet. "I was putting up signs for reduced speed, but I didn't get them all up in time. I had a few with me and put them down near the road. A sports car went by extremely fast, and the force of the air when it went by shot those signs on the ground into the road, with one of them spinning along the road like a wheel (German speed signs are round). In English, you can say I 'near shit my pants.'"
Don't worry, if it was America-shaped it would have just impaled you.
It's Not All An Unregulated Mayhem Zone
Just because there are no speed limits doesn't mean there are no laws. In fact, it means more laws are required, and some of them sound stupid until you remember what gruesome horrors they're intended to prevent. For example, it's not uncommon in the U.S. for someone to run out of gas, walk a mile or so to the nearest gas station, get overcharged for a gas can, and walk out in embarrassment. This is not an option on the Autobahn.
"There is a lane on the Autobahn that is just for emergencies," Mehmet explained. "But if tourists stop there to take a picture or a car runs out of gasoline there, then it's illegal. There are so many plazas with gas stations that [running out is] seen as something that should never happen. Police will tow you and give you a big fine. You can't walk on the side of the road, either. No matter what, you're going to be caught." Basically, don't get out of the car under any circumstances, and understand that the goal is to prevent your body from getting instantly turned into a fine red mist.
Minutes later, this entire family became lefties.
This is where Mehmet is a really useful guy to have around, like your cool uncle you can always count on to bail you out and not tell your parents. "If a car is fortunate to stop nearby me or some of the other workers, we are going to help," he assured us. "We carry around a spare fuel canister, and we're always going to give them a liter so they can make it to the next gas station -- if police aren't around. I see it as a matter of safety." After all, Mehmet (and you, now) knows what accidents on the Autobahn look like.
Yet, what surprises most drivers is that the highway without speed limits has, um, speed limits. Your own personal action movie comes to a screeching halt once you reach the vicinity of a city, or someone will halt it for you. "You can always tell when a driver who is unfamiliar with the Autobahn is here," said Mehmet. "They always assume you can go as fast as you want on any highway. Earlier this year police seemed to pull over a Russian a day for going over [120 MPH] through the middle of Berlin." It's hardly a slap on the wrist, either -- that's good enough for a three month driving ban and a $720 fine.
Oh and if you're from an EU country, and you drive after getting a ban, they can take away your license permanently -- even if you're from another country. If you're a foreigner, you just landed yourself a date in court in goddamned Germany, because that's a criminal offense. And Germany doesn't exactly have a reputation for lenient criminal justice.
"One of those Russians got stopped again, was found that they had a driving ban, and they had to go to court here," Mehmet told us. "I don't remember the verdict, but it was bad enough that we didn't have any more problems with those Russians after that."
German courts did the impossible: Make a Russian driver give a fuck.
The Autobahn Is Surprisingly Safe
Despite those laws, some safety-conscious people from outside of Germany might look at those accident photos and suggest throwing the whole thing into the ocean. But those accidents are thankfully few and far between, and according to Mehmet, it's largely because of how difficult it is to get a German driver's license.
"The license is the reason why the Autobahn isn't a parking lot of crashed cars," he said. "They test you at high speeds. My tester would say, 'Increase your speed to [80 MPH],' and I had to if I wanted my license."
Germans also pay as much as $3,000 for a license, after months of up to 50 but no fewer than 12 lessons. It's no wonder Europe has such robust public transportation, because most of us would give up after the first half of that sentence. American driver's licenses are seen as so comparatively puny that, depending on your state, you may not be allowed to drive at all in Germany. The country that doesn't believe in speed limits doesn't want a terror like you on the road.
"Do what I say, or get autobanned."
It's hard to argue that it doesn't work: Over the past 40 years, Autobahn deaths in total have dropped 80 percent, and there are fewer than two deaths per billion kilometers driven on the Autobahn. For comparison, on U.S. highways with speed limits, 3.4 people die in that same number of Europe-miles. Though we're sure those numbers are far from the front of Mehmet's mind in the moment when three tons of metal go blasting past him like a fucking shell fired from a battleship.
So, yeah, if you ever make the trip to the Autobahn to live out your hot-rod fantasies, watch out for the pothole guy.
Evan V. Symon is an interviewer, writer and interview coordinator for Cracked. Have an awesome job/experience you'd like to share? Hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org today!
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