Defensive Driving

Young adults in the GDR aspired to lead a good life and hoped to achieve certain things. Obtaining a license to drive a car and purchasing an automobile are two items that in all likelihood would have appeared on most young GDR citizens’ wish lists. At age eighteen East Germans could apply for a license to drive a car. As soon as they turned eighteen, most persons put their name on the waiting list, even if they had no intention of obtaining the driver’s license. They did this because an application for a driver’s license—just like an application to purchase a car—could be transferred to another person. After waiting for a period of four to six weeks, one could take the theoretical test and then begin practical driver training on a driving simulator. After successful completion of these two steps in driving school, as well as an eye exam and a first-aid course, students would be permitted to drive on the roads with a trainer. The total cost of driving school was about 200 marks, which was not expensive, and it took about three months to complete. Upon successful completion of a road test, the student driver would receive a driver’s license. But once someone had obtained a license, what was that person going to drive? That brings us to a related, much trickier issue—the purchase of an automobile.

In the period after WW II, two types of automobiles were manufactured in state-owned production facilities and available for purchase in the GDR: the Trabant and the Wartburg. The Trabant was East Germany’s answer to the Volkswagen Beetle—an affordable “no frills” car with room for four passengers and luggage despite its small size. It was made of Duroplast, a composite material similar to plastic, and had a noisy two-stroke engine that generated lots of black smoke and pollution. The first Trabant, the P 50, was produced in 1957; the production line closed in 1991, one year after the reunification of Germany. The Wartburg, a medium-sized family car, was produced from 1966 to 1991. It was powered by an engine with only seven major moving parts, crankshaft included. This led to a common saying among Wartburg owners that “one simply drives a car, but must only maintain a motorcycle.”

Most East Germans first submitted an application to buy a car and then applied for a driver’s license. Timing was a major issue, if the applicant wanted to receive the automobile and the license more or less at the same time. This is because one typically had to wait ten years or more from the time the car was ordered until the vehicle was ready to be picked up. And when the applicant received a letter indicating that the car was ready for delivery, s/he had to pick it up in person and pay for it with cash: the price was approximately 7,000 marks for a Trabant and 16,000 marks for a Wartburg. When submitting an application, one could choose between those two models. The long wait made it difficult to acquire a car, so it is easy to understand why the acquisition of an automobile was at or near the top of everyone’s wish list. Also, because of the long wait used cars were usually sold for more money than the owners had paid for a brand new one. People would not only sell their cars to friends, but also to strangers who would pay a premium to avoid the long wait.

If you have to wait ten years to take possession of an automobile you ordered, you are in all likelihood going to take good care of it. That is precisely what East German car owners did, of course, and they also did everything possible to avoid getting in an accident. They drove in a manner designed to protect their vehicle, consciously practicing what we commonly call “defensive driving.” In the Safe and Responsible Driving guidelines from the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, defensive driving is summarized as three things: visibility, space, and communication. Visibility—be alert and actively checking what vehicles around you are doing. Space—maintain a safe following distance with sufficient room to stop without causing a collision, if the vehicle in front stops suddenly. Communication—be sure to signal your intention to the vehicles around you.

Defensive drivers proceed at a safe speed and are cautious; they slow down at all intersections; they pay attention to what is going on all around them as well as directly in front of them; they try to anticipate other drivers’ actions; they are tolerant of other drivers’ mistakes; they minimize distractions; and they monitor their own driving performance. Moreover, they also do not drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, something that was strictly forbidden in the GDR. For a first DUI offense, one could have the driver’s license taken away for as long as one year.

I am tempted to declare that East Germans were the best defensive drivers in the world, but since there are many countries in which I have not driven a car, I cannot do that. However, I can state with absolute certainty that they were the best defensive drivers I have ever encountered—out of necessity, to be sure. They obeyed the rules of the road assiduously, observed speed limits, crossed through intersections with traffic lights only when the light was green. Yet, despite all their caution and precautions, GDR drivers occasionally had accidents and from time to time their vehicles needed replacement parts or repair. What did they do then?

For both Trabant and Wartburg automobiles there were repair centers that were authorized by the manufacturers. The repair work would be carried out in their shops, not at a dealership or gas station, but everything depended on the availability of replacement parts. Sometimes car owners had to wait for a long time because the parts were not readily available. There were also stores where you could buy a part your car needed—a new muffler, for example, and their mechanics would install the parts. Of course, it helped if you knew and/or bribed the store owner and the mechanic. Very few cars were totaled in East Germany, so trying to repair the damage was always the first option. But in the rare cases when the car was beyond repair, the owner would be provided after some time with a new vehicle, the cost of which would mostly be covered by insurance. All GDR car owners were required to purchase accident and liability insurance.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to confess that I had an automobile accident in the GDR, a collision with a streetcar that was my fault. It happened in June 1976, while I was driving around the busy central district of East Berlin in my relatively new, conspicuously bright red/orange Volkswagen Rabbit. The streetcar or tram that hit me had two cars, no passengers (fortunately!), and an operator who was taking it for a midday practice run as part of her driver training. In East Berlin trams traveled on rails or tracks located alongside or in the public streets; some included segments of segregated right of way, which made driving a car in the urban environment more challenging. I collided with a tram that was moving on tracks in the street and about to negotiate a curve where I was about to drive my vehicle across the tracks. In these situations, trams always had the right of way so the driver pressed forward. For some reason, I was not driving defensively and did not observe the right of way. When I was crossing the tracks and almost on the other side, the tram rammed into the back of my Rabbit on the driver’s side of the car. I was not injured, but the rear chassis and body of my vehicle were seriously damaged by the collision. What happened next still amazes me when it comes to mind. The young tram operator and I discussed the accident and how to proceed. She was very frightened, and I was worried that the police would soon show up. Since neither of us was injured, and since the tram was not damaged in any way, we quickly agreed that it would be best not to report the accident and to simply go our separate ways. And that’s just what we did—a stroke of luck after my misfortune! But unfortunately, my beloved Rabbit never recovered fully from that collision.