The autobahn is Germany's high-speed road network. It extends approximately 12,000 km, or 7,500 miles, and is the third longest highway network in the world after that of the United States and China. The bordering countries of Austria and Switzerland have their own versions, but "the autobahn" more commonly refers to the German system.
The term "autobahn" was first used in the late 1920s, and construction of major portions began in the 1930s. It grew to 8,800 km in West Germany, and as a result of repair and incorporation of East Germany's network after reunification, it has grown to its current size.
Built for speed, the autobahn's surface is extra thick bitumen (asphalt) or concrete. There are regularly spaced reflectors and double-sided guardrails in most stretches, including blinders on the medians to prevent distraction from oncoming traffic.
Approximately two-thirds of the autobahn has no speed limit, but the government recommends 130km/80 mph for safety reasons. Other stretches have posted limits that range from 80 km to 120 km per hour.
Lane discipline is very important, and passing on the right is strictly prohibited. It's illegal to stop unnecessarily on the autobahn, and broken-down vehicles must move to the shoulder and erect a warning triangle. Buses and heavy trucks must stay in the far right lane, except when passing.
The autobahn is known for its large number of convenient service areas, which include diner-style restaurants, gas stations and motels. Maintenance is thorough and frequent. Despite the speed, the fatality rate is often lower than that of the U.S. highway system.