Germany is known across the planet for the strong car culture present in the country. Germans, more so than other Europeans, see their cars as symbols of status, wealth and power – and it remains, despite being an otherwise environmentally conscious nation, the only country in Europe where driving fast is a national pastime. The autobahn is no exception – many stretches have no speed limit, and on many of the others the rules are ignored (somewhat uncharacteristically for Germans).
As Germany has become a nation of greater social equality, one of the last places with a strong social hierarchy has been the Autobahn system. Our Volkswagen Passat station wagon is a mere peasant, being severely outranked by any (in descending order) Porsche, Mercedes, BMW or Audi cars on the road. The fast lane may only be used by us when passing Opels, Fords and foreign cars. Among the foreign-built cars, there is a seemingly arbitrary pecking order: Japanese cars are just below German, French are next in line, and Italian cars are at the bottom. Trucks and campers are obviously even lower and must keep right at almost all times. There is also a sort of hierarchy for cars with foreign plates: Scandinavians are below the Dutch and Belgians, Eastern Europeans even lower.
This is, of course, only in the dream world of the car owners at the top. In the real world, the rules are broken all the time. And this leads to a desperate quest from drivers of expensive cars to patch up their bruised egos after a cheaper car has passed them. Additionally, drivers of minivans and similar are often seen blazing by at 150 km/h (90-95 mph) to prove that they have preserved their youthful spirit.
The first experience of autobahn pride occurred as we were about to pass a BMW. Going at about 130 in the fast lane, we were crawling up alongside him when he began speeding up. The total mental collapse that must have occurred in the BMW driver’s brain is absolutely hilarious to imagine. After passing a Porsche (only to see it blaze by at almost 200 km/h a few seconds later – butthurt, anyone?), and hitting a few miles of Stau (the local, extreme version of traffic congestion – yet, totally organized and extremely regular, how German), we encountered perhaps the ballsiest Skoda driver the world has ever known. We were passed by (another) Porsche, whereupon this family father (I assume) pulled his Skoda Yeti mini-SUV into the fast lane – cutting off the Porsche and causing smoke to emerge from the driver’s seat.
Today, we also saw an informal street race between three completely unrelated Audi drivers (with license plates from three very different parts of Germany), as they overtook (and undertook) each other to prove who was the fastest driver. At the same time, the Autobahn does not have a higher accident rate than other highways. This may well be because of the hierarchy, even though it is seemingly disobeyed. Unlike in many other European countries, a slower driver will get out of the way if a Porsche is speeding through. Drivers will slow down if the weather is bad. And, most importantly, the concept of road rage exists only if the hierarchy is broken.