A Rettungsgasse in 2017
Photo: Getty Images

Yes, this is actually how Germans make room for emergency vehicles when there’s a pileup on the highway: Drivers split down the middle to both sides to create an open lane in the middle of the road to let emergency vehicles through.

You form the lane anytime traffic comes to an absolute crawl or a complete standstill, splitting down the middle rather than hoping that there’s room on an emergency lane to the right or left.

This is all call a Rettungsgasse, rescue lane in English, and it’s not nearly as old or established as you’d think. It only hit the books in 1971 in what was then West Germany, and it only said that drivers had to make way for emergency vehicles generally. In 1992, then-unified Germany declared that drivers had to make a middle lane free, which was then clarified again in 2016 to make it clear exactly how drivers should split up. As of now, things follow what’s referred to as the right hand rule:

Illustration: Johannes Kalliauer

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Yeah. You always split so that the open lane is one in from the left, basically.

What’s interesting is a quick google search of these rules show that there is an endless series of articles since 2015 explaining to other Germans that, hey, nobody follows this stuff so here’s how to do it. Some of this is, I’m sure, thanks to the rise of explainer journalism online, but I think genuinely this isn’t as well known or well-adhered to as Americans might think. Our image of German drivers is that everyone is absolutely perfect all the time. The reality is more like an Audi A6 doing 130 in the far left when a VW Caddy towing an empty trailer slowly meanders into their lane.

When I lived in Germany back in 2010 and 2011, I never even remotely heard of this, nor have I seen or heard much of it on my trips back. I’m no expert, but still.

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The German mock Wikipedia “Stupidedia” gives a good sense of how Germans actually see people (not) following their own emergency lane rule:

According to the Federal Ministry of Transport, around 8.4 percent of license holders are in control of the formation of a rescue lane. In a Forsa Institute question of 17 May 2016 respondents responded as follows:

Do you build a rescue lane during traffic jams?

  • 24.6% I do not dare to do that yet, but I would like to face the challenge in the future
  • 32.8% No, better not, my husband rips my skull down when I accidentally drive into the centerline plank and then we need an ambulance.
  • 57.4% What kind of lane?

As such, it’s not hard to find public service announcements desperately pleading with motorists to please follow these rules so that people don’t die.

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Photo: Stef Schrader

Just last year, it made national news in Germany when rescue workers had to walk more than a mile to the site of an accident.

Some emergency drivers have complained that this isn’t the best system, as it’s not what’s followed in other countries in Europe (though Austria picked it up a few years ago and the Swiss wonder why they don’t have it) and it adds more confusion than is really needed. But the German authorities believe that this is the right way, and it will stick with it until the whole world burns down, I expect.

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(Hat tip to Mike’s buddy Nolan spotting this on Reddit)