The German Driver

Head of the German Bureau of the MANCHESTER GUARDIAN for a number of years, TERENCE PRITTIE has traveled widely among the motorists of Germany. He is the author of GERMANY DIVIDED: THE LEGACY OF THE NAZI ERA, published by Atlantic-Little, Brown.

Last year was one of more than usual disaster on the West German roads. Over 14,000 people were killed on them, and around half a million were injured. For every thousand vehicles, there were 50 percent more deaths than in Britain and 150 percent more than in the United States. One German was seriously injured to every three Americans, but there were roughly seventy million motor vehicles on the American roads and only six million in West Germany. The German victims averaged one dead to every six miles of road and one injured to every three hundred yards. Anyone driving thirty or forty miles in any thickly populated part of West Germany could hardly escape seeing the upturned truck which had pitched off the autobahn, the winking blue lights of police car and ambulance, the disconsolate driver examining a battered bumper, or the stretcher case on the side of the road.

All sorts of traffic experts have tried to explain this state of affairs. One has suggested, for instance, that it is due to the lack of civilian traffic on the German roads from 1939 to 1950. But there has been plenty since then, and in spite of lower speed limits and higher penalties, the accident rate still mounts. Another explanation was that the Germans, like the French, put many pre-war veteran cars on the road as soon as rationing of gasoline was relaxed. But in Germany the pre-war veterans, even the long-lived Mercedes and the expensive Maybach, have vanished completely.

German drivers, it has been suggested, were inexperienced. But with comparatively few parking problems, German drivers get the maximum use from their cars. And they have to pass a stringent test, which includes the production of a certificate to show that they have spent enough hours with a registered driving school (a minimum of twelve hours, but up to thirty hours for someone in his fifties). In Belgium, on the other hand, there is no driving test, and no one need go to a driving school if he chooses not to. Yet the Belgians, in the most crowded country in Europe, are far more chary than the Germans of killing and maiming on the roads.

There is no single simple explanation of this German propensity. But there are plenty of contributory factors, which may be more easily illustrated by anecdotes than by logical analysis. Here are some of them.

The German at the steering wheel is generally an easily irritated fellow. He does not confine himself to reflective headshaking or the hard, thoughtful stare at the real or imagined offender. Horn tooting is the rule; brandishing of fists is frequent. So is head tapping, although this practice has declined since the recent verdict of a Rhineland court which held that this mode of reproof constituted insulting behavior and a breach of the peace.

Head tappers are now liable to a fine. But angry Germans at the wheel will do far worse things. Not long ago I watched one literally trying to maneuver a rival off the road. He made swerving charges at his opponent’s front wheel, sheering off again toward the middle of the road at the last possible moment. The other driver countered by braking sharply at each charge, and then surging on again in order to stay in the murderous race. No doubt badly scared, he still had no intention of giving up or giving in.

The German at the wheel is almost always in a tearing hurry. Most typical is the pilot of the fast car who hogs the outside lane of the autobahn all the way, flashing his headlights while still half a mile behind the car which he is going to overtake. Another technique of haste is that of the small-car driver, who may just manage to overtake a car on the level road at his absolute maximum speed of 75 mph, is passed in turn as he flags on the hill, but dashes up again at the first opportunity. The truck driver is in as much of a hurry as anybody else — more so, perhaps, as he may still get a bonus (technically illegal) for completing a long journey in less than the scheduled time. The wisecrack of the truck driver who was asked if he usually won his court cases after an accident is well known: “Maybe not,” he said, “but I always win my collisions.”

The German driver is not more often under the influence of drink than his counterpart in other countries. He is not more often a cripple, epileptic, or cardiac case. He is not more subject to blackout. His troubles would seem to be basically mental. To irritation and haste he adds a mechanical method of thought. In his mind, the cardinal factor at all times is whether he has Vorfahrt, or right of way. He may have studied the German highway code (it is over one thousand pages long!), and if so, he will have a touching faith in his own interpretation of Vorfahrt. With a crash imminent, he will not consider braking if he thinks he is in the right. It may be just his bad luck that he is meeting another who believes in his own Vorfahrt — head on. The odds will be that neither driver will give way until it is too late.

Once, at the Rond-Point on the Champs Élysées, I was driving my own car in the breathtaking scamper of traffic, with astute Parisian drivers weaving their way toward the Place de la Concorde, thrusting in front of my bow on their way to the Avenue Matignon and the Gare St. Lazare, fanning my stern as they swooped southward via the Avenue Victor for the Left Bank. In front of me a Volkswagen driver with a Düsseldorf number plate held on his rigid course, confident in his rectitude, oblivious of the narrow margins by which he was being missed. His luck held until he was halfway around the Rond-Point. There he collided with another Volkswagen, which also had a Düsseldorf number plate.

The two drivers clambered out, bespectacled, bald-headed, glaring. They might have been twins. Just as they confronted one another, two policemen came running. One was blowing his whistle; the other was giving vent to epithets which could not possibly have contributed to Franco-German understanding. “Just fancy,” my driving companion said, “those two poor Germans having to come all the way to the middle of Paris to have their accident.”

There is a popular fallacy that Germans are stereotyped people, lacking in individual character and temperament. This has probably never been true. In the past, German character and temperament were held in check by discipline discipline applied from the highest to the lowest in the land, from the cradle to the grave. The introduction of democracy into Germany has given free rein to German temperament. The antics of German motorists are just one consequence of this.

Recently, it fell to a Federal minister to give a stirring example of temperament on the road. Defense Minister Franz-Josef Strauss was on his way to an appointment with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in the latter’s office at the Palais Schaumburg in Bonn. The gate of the Palais Schaumburg is awkwardly placed for the motoring visitor; it opens a few yards along the “No entry” arm of a main crossroad, where there is always a policeman on point duty. On this occasion the policeman kept Herr Strauss waiting and fuming in his ministerial car. Suddenly the minister ordered his chauffeur to drive on. The resultant squeals of brakes and furious bell ringing of a streetcar might have been heard by Dr. Adenauer in his office. So might the unparliamentary epithets exchanged by the minister and the policeman.

Temperament, haste, irritability, dogmatic thinking — all these are factors in the growing death toll on the German roads. So, too, are lack of courtesy, the desperate creed that time lost is money lost, and the Transport Ministry’s mulish refusal to institute a road-politeness campaign. Millions of Germans will go through life, it seems, never giving hand signals, never looking in their mirrors, bawling oaths and taunts and grimacing with rage, pontificating about the sins of others. And things, one is told, will get worse. Each year there are 10 percent more cars on the road, while the road network grows by only 2 percent. Each year there will be a bigger number of dead and injured.

Possibly it is the German pedestrian who provides the ultimate commentary on German road manners. In the towns he is thoughtfully provided with pedestrian zebra crossings. In theory, motorists should pause to let him cross, once he is embarked on his perilous passage. German motorists rarely do. But I have done so frequently, because I know that it is worth the time lost. For, granted the safe passage to which he is entitled, the average German pedestrian’s reaction is charming. He is both amazed and grateful — and he lifts his hat to you as he passes your car.