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It was fun driving 240 km/h in an Audi TT, until …

Unlimited speed is a rush on the German autobahn, but writer's near-collision with a VW wagon proves nothing is foolproof.

Published November 7, 2012

MUNICH—It’s the last public place in the world where you’re allowed to drive as fast as you want on roads designed for speed.

It’s also one of the safest networks of highway in the world but, no matter: high speed uses more gas, so there are always people who want to limit it.

For now, though, more than half the 12,800 kilometres of autobahn that criss-cross Germany have an open speed classification. I had a free day in Munich and a 360 hp Audi TT RS at my disposal — who could resist?

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I set out from the airport with fellow Wheels writer Lesley Wimbush as a passenger. The highway was busy heading into the city, and speed limits were well signed to restrict speed to 120 km/h. When traffic got heavier, overhead signs flashed temporary limits of 100 or even 80. Cars moved smoothly along within those limits.

In fact, speeds on the autobahn are rigorously enforced in those sections where limits are posted. Overhead cameras detect your speed and, if you’re driving too fast, you’ll get a ticket and a hefty fine in the mail. If you’re in a rental car with a foreign licence, you’ll still be fined through your credit card.

The autobahn is a safe highway because it is specifically designed for higher speeds. Where there is no restriction, lanes are wider and gently cambered on curves; the asphalt is smooth and free of potholes; and vehicles are forbidden to stop at the side of the road except in an emergency. Even running out of fuel is considered an avoidable offence, since service stations are frequent, and drivers can be fined for getting themselves in such a situation.

German drivers tend to be better educated than North American drivers, too. It costs more than $2,000 to obtain a driver’s licence, with compulsory tuition before the exams that includes first aid training. Germans take their driving very seriously.

Accident rates increased significantly in the 1990s due to the absorption of East Germany into a unified state — the Communist Bloc drivers were not so well trained; nor were their roads or vehicles in good enough shape for the higher speeds of the West. Over time, though, thanks to improved education and maintenance, the accident rate has dropped to below the pre-unification level.

Once we left the city limits, traffic lightened on the three-lane highway and the speed restriction was removed. Other cars started to overtake us — only on the left; it’s illegal on the right unless lanes are shuffling slowly — and I coaxed the TT RS up to speed. There’s an “advisory” limit of 130 km/h but it’s widely ignored and most left-lane traffic seemed to move at about 150 km/h. Glorious!

But the powerful Audi has a top speed of 282 km/h and I wanted to keep up with the faster vehicles that swept by. Traffic only stayed in the left lane for as long as it took to overtake and I found it easy and comfortable to drive at up to 200 km/h. Speed restrictions cut back in and slow everything down near towns. There are also conditional speed limits, at night or when the road is wet, in many stretches. And all trucks, buses and vehicles with trailers are also limited, usually to 80 km/h.

After about 100 kilometres, when the weather began to close in, we turned around and headed back. This time, I turned on the headlights and really wound up the car on the empty stretches to somewhere above 240 km/h (150 mph). The scenery flashed by. Steering on the TT RS became heavy and it was far from relaxing, but it was fun for a while.

At least, it was until a VW wagon up ahead pulled from the middle lane into the left lane to overtake a distant truck. We bore down on him with a speed difference of about 100 km/h. I braked hard and the tires screeched; the car slewed and Lesley ducked into the footwell, expecting the worst.

Want to see it? It’s all on video at wheels.ca.

Anybody watching can see the Volkswagen was wrong to pull in front of me, but that would be no consolation to my widow. I looked at the Audi’s camera and … well, watch the video and you’ll see what I had to say.

It’s great to drive safely and responsibly and not be treated like a criminal, but nothing is foolproof. And who really was the fool in this situation?

We slowed down to a speed closer to the pace of traffic and relaxed considerably for the rest of the drive. I don’t know what that speed was — 130? 160? It really didn’t matter.

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