Driving in Germany

“From the German Autobahn to the US Interstate System, der Führerschein or driver’s license – over the past few years we have done a LOT of driving in both Germany and the United States.

Although the US Highway System was modeled after the German Autobahn, you might find some surprising differences. Come ride along with us as we roam the roads of both countries!”

Very helpful, and funny, comments. From Germans. Explaining their logic:

“Germany: The problem that you cannot see the traffic light clearly when you are in the front row is resolved by the fact that the car behind you immediately honks when you are not driving when the traffic light changes to green :-)”

“The main reason why traffic lights in Germany are on your side of the crossing is clarity. Germany with its old town centers has many very irregularly shaped crossings, and a traffic light at the opposite side can not easily be attributed to a certain lane or even a road. When the first traffic lights were introduced in the 1920s, Germany experimented with the placement of the traffic lights on the opposite side or hanging down from cables spanned across the crossing. In the 1950s, all those installations were removed due to constant confusion of drivers.”

“Turning right on red lights is not often used in Germany due to pedestrian and bicycling traffic. When you are waiting on a crossing, chances are high that you not only have to watch out for car traffic, but also for pedestrians and other traffic you don’t regularly have in the U.S.. Thus in Germany, turning right on red lights is decided on a case-by-case base.”

“My instructor in Germany told me early on: “You are behind the wheel, you are handling a weapon.” This stuck with me.”

“About the driver’s license: there is a 40% fail rate on both the theoretical and practical exams here in Germany, which says a lot about the quality of the drivers the government is striving for. As I tell my kids: Driving is easy. Being a driver is not.”

Want to know the why for a culture’s behavior? Simply ask them.

Process. Procedure. Same meaning?

From the New York Times – 15 September 2021: “The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff twice called his Chinese counterpart in the final months of the Trump administration to reassure him that Donald J. Trump had no plans to attack China in an effort to remain in power and that the United States was not collapsing, according to ‘Peril,’ a new book by the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.”

The NYTimes continued: “After speaking to Ms. Pelosi, General Milley convened a meeting in a war room at the Pentagon with the military’s top commanders, telling them that he wanted to go over the longstanding procedures for launching a nuclear weapon. The general reminded the commanders that only the president could order such a strike and that General Milley needed to be directly involved.

‘If you get calls,’ General Milley said, ‘no matter who they’re from, there’s a process here, there’s a procedure. No matter what you’re told, you do the procedure. You do the process. And I’m part of that procedure. You’ve got to make sure that the right people are on the net.’

The general added: ‘The strict procedures are explicitly designed to avoid inadvertent mistakes or accident or nefarious, unintentional, illegal, immoral, unethical launching of the world’s most dangerous weapons.’

Then, he went around the room and asked each officer to confirm that they understood what he was saying.” But, wait, how does General Milley distinguish between what is a process and what is a procedure? They are not the same.


The German dictionary Duden defines Flexibilität (flexibility) as: flexible property, quality, composition, character; bendability, pliability; the ability to adjust, adapt, conform.

Synonyms: Wendigkeit agility, maneuverability, mobility; Nachgiebigkeit compliance, softness, resilience, yielding; Geschmedigkeit malleability, litheness, limberness.

Zero Tolerance

Americans typically prefer rules that are very specific, but not meant to be followed to the letter. Nevertheless, recently in response to a lot of complaints about inconsistencies in disciplining misbehaving students, many American school systems have started adopting strict zero tolerance policies.

These policies typically state that any student committing a wrongdoing will receive the same pre-determined punishment, no matter what the specifics of his/her offense are.

Schools have had quite a bit of trouble implementing these policies, and statistics have shown that the rigid rules have actually led to elevated dropout rates and an increasing number of suspensions. This is largely because American students are used to having a little “wiggle room,” and weren’t accustomed to the strict enforcement policy.

Wiggle room – permission to slightly bend a couple of rules, as long as most of the rules are followed.

Richtlinie or guideline

Americans have a higher tolerance for deviating from processes. Americans see processes and procedures fundamentally as tools. Whereas a German colleague sees in a process a Richtlinie (order, instruction), his American counterpart often sees a guideline. The term guideline is often translated into Richtlinie. This translation is false and misleading.

Like their German colleagues, Americans seek that fine line between process-discipline and -flexibility. The moment a process makes unnecessary demands which do not serve the overall goals, that process is deemed rigid. Americans will deviate by reevaluating the most important factors: risk, resources, back-up contingencies, and the final value-added for the end-customer.

Results delivered in a timely fashion, even if the product of a process is not followed step-by-step, are preferred over results delivered too late, but the product of a process vs followed step-by-step. Americans, both as customers and suppliers, can “sleep at night” with the so-called 80%-solution, as long as the missing 20% is compensated by the advantage of speed, responsiveness or price (cost).

When to deviate: Americans are quick to deviate from steps within a process or procedure if: it does not add value, does not help, does not move their work forward; external forces demand it, such as schedule, budget or customer demands; after getting input from experienced colleagues and/or permission from their team lead or process owner; and as long as the deviation conforms (compliant) with laws and regulations.

Americans speak of taking a down and dirty approach, of doing whatever it takes to get the job done, of being pragmatic.

Rules are made to be broken

In America, refusing to deviate from the rules is often perceived as negative behavior. There is a popular saying which states that “rules are made to be broken.” American General Douglas MacArthur famously expanded on this phrase and said “Rules are mostly made to be broken and are too often for the lazy to hide behind.”

Sam Walton, the founder of the Wal-Mart chain (which became the largest corporation in the world in 2002), wrote in his autobiography that the most important rule in business is to break all of the rules. He also gave preference to rule-breakers when hiring employees, as he considered them superior workers to their rule-following counterparts.

Many of the best known American scientists and engineers were also rule-breakers. Bill Gates broke the rules with his innovative software, Henry Ford with his moving assembly line and welfare capitalism, and the Wright brothers with their fixed wing aircraft, just to name a few.

Much unease

Americans become very uneasy whenever they see their German colleagues address processes with their characteristic intensity. German process discipline is almost synonymous with rigidity.

Another, more careful, look reveals, however, a contradiction. On the one side, German processes are generic, theoretical, complex and seemingly not fully focused on the goal. On the other, Americans have the sense that Germans expect processes to be followed by the letter. They ask themselves how they are supposed to follow a process which is hardly described?

German procedures are also generic and not spelled out. The Germans take this as a signal to decide independently, to make their own judgement, in a given situation. Instead of requesting input or permission from their manager, they either decide themselves or discuss with an experienced colleague how to handle a given procedure within the context of its process.

To the Americans this represents a severe breakdown in process discipline. They have little understanding, thus tolerance, for processes or procedures which allow for so much independent action when that action can lead to mistakes, errors, problems, to an domino effect.

Guideline and more

Discipline: Punishment; a field of study; training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character; control gained by enforcing obedience or order; orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behavior; a rule or system of rules. Latin disciplina teaching, learning, from discipulus pupil.

Deviation: Deflection of the needle of a compass caused by local magnetic influences; the difference between a value in a frequency distribution and a fixed number; departure from an established ideology or party line; noticeable or marked departure from accepted norms of behavior.

Flexibility: Capable of being flexed, pliant; yielding to influence, tractable; characterized by a ready capability to adapt to new, different, or changing requirements.

Law: A binding custom or practice of a community; a rule of conduct or action prescribed or formally recognized as binding or enforced by a controlling authority; a rule or order that it is advisable or obligatory to observe; something compatible with or enforceable by established law; a rule of construction or procedure; a statement of an order or relation of phenomena that so far as is known is invariable under the given conditions; a general relation proved or assumed to hold between mathematical or logical expressions. From Old English lagu, of Scandinavian origin; akin to Old Norse lǫg law; akin to Old English licgan to lie.

Policy: Prudence or wisdom in the management of affairs; a definite course or method of action selected from among alternatives and in light of given conditions to guide and determine present and future decisions; a high-level overall plan embracing the general goals and acceptable procedures; a writing whereby a contract of insurance is made. From Middle French, certificate, from Old Italian polizza, modification of Medieval Latin apodixa receipt, from Greek apodeixis proof, apodeiknynai to demonstrate.

Rule: A prescribed guide for conduct or action; an accepted procedure, custom, or habit; a usually written order or direction made by a court; a regulation or bylaw governing procedure or controlling conduct; a standard of judgment; a regulating principle; a determinate method for performing a mathematical operation and obtaining a certain result; the exercise of authority or control; a linear design produced by or as if by such a strip. Middle English reule, from Anglo-French, from Latin regula straightedge, rule, from regere to keep straight, direct.

Guideline: A line by which one is guided; a cord or rope to aid a passer over a difficult point or to permit retracing a course; an indication or outline of policy or conduct.

Value-add: A product whose value has been increased especially by special manufacturing, marketing, or processing.

Elastic Clause

The Americans tendency to treat rules more as guidelines even extends to their Constitution. In Article 1 Section 8 of the US Constitution there is a clause which is known colloquially as the Elastic Clause.

This clause gives Congress the ability to add, remove, or change laws as its members see fit. This can include in the judicial system – if a person breaks a law, the court can decide to ignore it and grant the accused clemency, or if a person doesn’t break a law and is taken to court, the court can decide that he/she is guilty anyway.

Astronaut John Young

In 1965, during the first manned flight of the Gemini program, American astronaut John Young smuggled a corned beef sandwich onto the Gemini 3 spacecraft. One part of the Gemini 3 mission had been to test the effects of food on the astronauts, and also to see how well the two men onboard could work and eat efficiently and how bad the mess and odor would be.

Each official item of food had been specifically prepared as part of the test, however, unbeknownst to NASA (or even to his co-astronaut), Young decided to make an addendum to the prepared menu.

The sandwich did not fare well in space and made such a mess that the effects of the prepared food were largely untestable. Although Young was officially reprimanded for his action, this deviation in the accepted process did not damage his career, and he later landed on the moon in the Apollo 16 mission and piloted the space shuttle.

Rogue – vagrant, tramp, scoundrel; a horse inclined to shirk or misbehave; an individual exhibiting a chance and usually inferior biological variation; to weed out inferior, diseased, or nontypical individuals from a crop plant or a field; used to describe something or someone that is different from others in usually a dangerous or harmful way. First known use in 1766.