For many foreigners driving in Italy could represent a nightmare. Sometimes I admit that could be tough. But this happens mostly in the biggest city, such as Rome, Milan or Florence, because there are a lot of cars and a not efficient urban system.
It is also true that driving in Italy is hard because Italians often have a kind of reluctance in respecting the rules of the road. Some people park on sidewalks, or double park, some do not use turn signals. But I also have to notice that all these bad habits are not true for every Italians. There are a lot of people who drive properly too, and being afraid of driving in Italy represents a cliché.
In fact, there are no reasons to get afraid of driving in Italy, more than in another place.
The car is one of the best ways to travel in Italy. You can discover hidden places not reachable by public transportation, and take all the time you want to enjoy the beauty of the country without running late for a train or bus or plane.
That’s why I put together the following suggestions to grow your confidence of driving in Italy and your safety feeling.
Driving in Italy, 13 things to know
1. GET YOUR DRIVING DOCUMENTS IN ORDER
Police officers are not so pliable in Italy. If you break road rules, they will give a ticket… for sure. Then, if you want to travel by car around Italy, be sure to be authorized on driving along the Italian roads.
All the non-EU members, such as Americans, Australians, and Canadian, it is important to get the international driving license before leaving your country. Otherwise, you can ask it to the Embassy or Consulate of your country once in Italy.
If you are a member of EU instead, you are allowed driving along the Italian roads with your original license.
Last but not least if you come by your own car, check the validity of your insurance, which should cover third parties even outside your country.
2. USE A GPS, AN APP FOR MAPS, BUT DO NOT FORGET THE OLD PAPER MAPS
If you are not fluent in Italian, don’t be afraid. Most of the Italian road signs are the same you see in your country.
Moreover, I have to admit that sometimes road signs in Italy are hidden or confuse the driver. I still have to understand why some road signs are positioned just in the exact point where you have to turn, without giving you the time to realize what is written on. Or why there are so many indications that you should stop your car, take your time to decide where you have to go, and then go. Probably the local administration or the agency for roads maintenance should think better about the positioning the signage. That’s why I suggest you use a GPS. I often use it when I am not accustomed to the area.
An alternative to the GPS can be an app for maps, such as Google Maps, but they are not always correct. Otherwise, if you don’t want to spend all data credits on your mobile, (and because somewhere the free wifi signal is really low or absent), I suggest bringing with you the old loved paper map, which is vintage but more accurate if updated.
Italian Motorway at night – Photo Credits: Riccardo Cuppini
3. CHECK TO HAVE THE RIGHT TOOLS ON BOARD
The Italian law obliges every driver to have the following items on board: a reflective jacket that must be worn in case of breakdown or accident, or alongside a road where stopping or parking is prohibited; a warning triangle, which is compulsory for every vehicle over 4 wheels; Headlamp beam deflector; Helmets for motorcyclist and their passengers; Child seat for children under the age of 12 years old, or with a height of 1,50 cm, which have to be positioned on the rear seats if your airbag system is on; Safety belts, always fitted on the front and rear seats.
4. DRINK AND DRUGS DRIVING
I will never suggest you drive if you have to drink some alcoholics. Anyway, the legal limits in Italy are 0,05%, which is pretty low. Police can request a test if they suspect you are under the influence of alcohol. You can refuse to do it, but then you will be led to the nearest hospital to analyze the level of alcohol in your blood. If unfortunately, you have an accident, police can request to do tests to verify if you are under the effect of alcohol. Same rules in case police suspect you are under the effect of narcotics or drugs.
5. RESPECT THE GENERAL RULES OF THE ROAD
- Driving in Italy with normal traffic conditions you can’t exceed 130 km/h along the motorways, 110 km/h on main extra-urban roads, 90 km/h on secondary extra-urban roads, 70 km/h on urban highways, while in built-up areas you can’t exceed 50 km/h.
- The speed must be reduced during night according to visibility, near intersections, bends, schools and places frequented by children, on roads with a steep gradient or especially narrow roads, and in built-up areas.
- In a case of precipitations such as rain and snow, the speed limits are reduced to 110 km/h along the motorways, 90 km/h on main extra-urban roads, 70 km/h on secondary extra-urban roads, 50 km/h on urban highways.
Give Right of Way
- Always give priority to vehicles from the right or traveling on rails, (except if indicated by road signs).
- Pedestrian always has the priority when they are already crossing. The same rule is valid for the cyclist in cycle paths.
- Drivers must give right of way to all police and emergency vehicles when they are using special audible or luminous warning signals.
Overtaking and passing
- Take your right as possible and not accelerate, to permit to other vehicles to overtake.
- Do not overtake a vehicle if it is already overtaking, or overtake a vehicle which has slowed down or stopped near a pedestrian crossing to allow the pedestrian to cross.
- If you are approaching a level crossing, you cannot overtake. The same is if you are in a place where the visibility is limited, at the intersections, on the bow of a hill, or at bends.
6. BE FAST WHEN THE GREEN LIGHTS COMES
Italy uses the international three color traffic light system, which is green (go), amber (slow down and be prepared to stop), and red (stop), and could be signed with arrows at some intersections. Crossing level uses a flashing red light, as well the mobile bridge, and ferry boarding point, to indicate to drivers that they must stop. If you are in front of a flashing amber light near an intersection, pay attention and slow down, always proceed with caution and respect priority rules.
Italians get really frustrated when the first car at the traffic light does not react immediately when the green light is on. If you will distract yourself while waiting, be prepared to hear the other cars horn, and sometimes even some yelling or annoyed gestures such as the sign of the horns (this means your partner is cheating you, which is a common insult in Italy). I avoid intentionally to explain all the other insults you can receive, or you could really feel offended.
7. ZTL IN THE HISTORICAL CENTERS
In many historic downtowns of Italy, the access is limited to the traffic by an electronic system of permits. We call it ZTL “Zona a Traffico Limitato”, which means Limited Traffic Area. Cameras record the license plates of cars, and if you are not authorized you will receive a fine. But those areas are marked, so you just have to pay attention. In any case, you will not be pulled over or stopped, and do not expect any contact with a police officer. Fines are cumulative for each time you pass a control point. A similar system is used on motorways if you exceed the speed limit. Contest a fine is possible. You should write a letter to the Prefetto of the city. (which represents the local representative of the national government). Consider that you have to write your complaint in Italian, so maybe it could be useful consulting an English speaking professionals.
ZTL in Turin – Photo Credits: Alain Roullier
8. PARKING RULES
Do you know that you can stop and/or park in built-up areas only on the right-hand side of the road in a street with two-way traffic? Instead, if you are on a one-way street, you can park or stop on both sides of the street providing at least 3m of free clear space in the middle of the road.
Generally, in the main parking downtown towns is not free. You recognize the “pay and display parking” by the blue road signs. Anyway, have a look at the panels, because sometimes it can be free on certain days or hours. Most of the parking areas provide machines where you can buy a ticket. Otherwise, you can buy a scratch ticket (like a scratch and win) to a tobacconist or newsstand. Of course, if you do not pay you risk to get a fine.
Pay attention to do not park on the pavement, because you could find clamps on your wheels. Instead, if your car is causing obstruction to the circulation of traffic, the car will be towed away. In both cases, you will have to pay a fine, which includes the removal cost of the vehicle and the fine.
Disabled parking access
If your car displays an international sticker for disabled, you can use spots marked by yellow lines and the international symbol of the wheelchair. Generally, disabled people are allowed to park in areas where other cars are not, paying the parking when requested. Bikers with a disability can park with no limit of time where parking is free of charge but restricted by time.
9. IN CASE OF PENALTIES
In case you find a fine on the mirror of your car, together with it, you will find a special form with the instruction of “how to pay”. Usually, you can pay at the post office or at the police station that notified the violation by cash. You can even find bank details to make the payment by bank drafts. If you pay within 5 days, there is a reduction of 30%.
In case a police officer notified you personally the violation, you are obliged to pay immediately the penalty. Where is considered you can pay the reduced amount? Moreover, you have the right to contest the fine, but in this case, you have to leave a “deposit as guarantee” equal to the half of the maximum amount of cash or in the form of a surety. If you refuse to pay the deposit, police may confiscate your vehicle, until the time you pay. For EU vehicles, the guarantee is reduced to a quarter of the maximum fine.
If you rent a car, you got a fine and you don’t want to pay for it, be sure the rental company won’t charge the corresponding amount on your credit card.
10. AVOID THE CITY CENTERS IF YOU CAN
My suggestion is to avoid the center of the biggest cities when driving in Italy. If you can, the best way to enjoy the city is to park the car in a safe place out the most crowded areas, and then use the public transportation. You won’t a problem of a traffic jam, parking, fines, and rear-ending.
Traffic in Rome – Photo Credits: Jody Sticca
11. CONFISCATION OF VEHICLES
- Your vehicle can be confiscated in many cases, such as you do not have a driving license, or you forget the number plates, or your documents have expired.
- For motorcycles and moped, this occurs when you do not wear the safety helmet, or you carry a passenger unless allowed.
12. QUEUE OF CARS
There is nothing you can do with that. Except for waiting for your turn. Turn on music on the radio, try to relax, enjoy the surroundings, and pay attention to do not leave a space between you and the car in front of you, because for sure someone else will overtake you to occupy that space.
Car queue – Photo Credits: Maritè Toledo
13. TOLL ROADS
Driving in Italy mostly all motorways require a payment of a toll. You can pay it by cash or by credit cards at the tool booth. Have a look at our post “tips for traveling in Tuscany by car“. You will find some useful information about the main road of Tuscany.
14. HEADLIGHT FLASHING
If you are driving along a normal road, and someone on the other way use headlight flashing, means that is trying to inform you that on your way you will find a police checkpoint. Be aware, because these light signal are illegal, and police can fine you if they catch you doing it.
Instead, if you are driving along a motorway, you are in an overtaking lane, and you notice from the rear mirror that the car behind you is headlight flashing, it means, “Get out of my way, you are too slow, and I am faster than you, so get out”. It is not a really nice habit, but I generally avoid to have problems with that kind of people letting them overtake me.
Probably, if you come from a big city all that is quite normal for you too, and this should not make you feel too much afraid of driving in Italy. Moreover, if you still feel worried driving in Italy, take in consideration to use the Italian train system, which instead is quite good, and guarantee good connections almost everywhere. But this is a topic for a new article.