Driving in Italy for many foreigners is like a nightmare. Sometimes we must admit that could be tough, but this happens mostly in the biggest city, such as Rome, Naples, or Florence. Too many cars and a not efficient urban system are the problems.
Driving in Italy may be also tricky because of us, the Italians. Sometimes, we do have a kind of reluctance in respecting the rules of the road. Some people park on sidewalks or double parks. Some do not use turn signals. But we even must observe that not every Italian has these bad habits. Many of us drive correctly and carefully, and being afraid of driving a car in Italy may represent just a cliché.
In fact, there are no reasons to get afraid of driving in Italy, no more than in other places in the world.
The car is one of the best ways to travel in Italy. You can discover hidden places you could not reach by public transportation. You can take all the time you want to enjoy the beauty of the country without rushing to get a train or a bus.
That’s why we put together the following list of suggestions to grow your confidence in driving in Italy and your safety feeling.
Driving in Italy, 14 things to know
1. Get Your Driving Documents In Order
Police officers are not so pliable in Italy. If you break a road rule, you get a fine, for sure. Some might say unless you have a cousin, or a friend of a friend, in the Polizia to help you. But you don’t. If you want to travel by car in Italy, make sure you have the right to drive on Italian roads.
All non-EU citizens, such as Americans, Australians, and Canadians, should get an international driving license before leaving their country. All rental cars require it.
If you are an EU citizen instead, you can drive in Italy with your original license.
Last but not least, if you come to Italy with your own vehicle, check the validity of your car insurance. It should cover third parties even outside your country.
2. Use a GPS or APP for Maps
If you are not fluent in Italian, don’t be afraid. Most of the Italian road signs are the same as you see in your country.
However sometimes road signs in Italy are hidden behind a tree or may confuse the driver. It happens to find signposts positioned at the exact point where you have to turn, having no time to realize what is written on them. Or, those road signs have so many indications that you need to stop your car, read carefully, and finally decide where to go. Why do they do that? We don’t know. Probably the local administration or the agency for road maintenance should think better about the signpost positioning. That’s why we suggest you use a GPS. We often use it when we don’t know the area.
An alternative to GPS is one of the apps for maps, such as Google Maps or Waze. Even if they are not 100% correct, they do their job very well. If you don’t want to waste all data credits on your mobile, or if the free wifi is weak or absent, there is the last solution. The old forever love paper map, which is vintage but more accurate, if updated.
3. Check to Have the Right Tools on Board
Italian law obliges every driver to have the following items on board. In the case of a rental car, check to have all these tools included:
- A reflective jacket to wear in case of breakdown, accident, or alongside a road where stopping or parking is prohibited;
- A warning triangle, which is compulsory onboard every four wheels vehicle;
- Headlamp beam deflectors for UK cars. They help to redirect the beams towards the right-hand side of the road (from the left-hand side) and avoid dazzling oncoming drivers;
- Child seat for children under the age of 12 years old, or with a height of 1,50 cm. It has to be placed on the rear seats if your airbag system is on;
- Safety belts are always fastened both for passengers in the front and rear seats;
- Snow Chains or winter tires are compulsory onboard from November to April to drive on the highways. It doesn’t matter if it is really snowing;
- Helmets for the motorcyclist and their passengers.
4. Drive & Drink Responsibly
Obviously, we will never suggest driving after having drunk. The drink-drive limit in Italy is 0,05%, 0,5 mg of blood alcohol content, which is pretty low. It means approx one glass of red wine. Police may require an alcohol test if they suspect you are driving under the influence. You can refuse to do it, but they will lead you to the nearest hospital for a blood test.
Even in the case of a car crash police officers may require a test to verify your condition. Same rules if Polizia suspects you are under the effect of narcotics or drugs.
So, if you wish to have more than a glass of wine, you better walk or get a taxi to go back home or to the hotel.
5. Respect the General Rules of the Road
- On motorways, you can’t exceed 130 km/h (80 mph). 110 km/h (68 mph) is the speed limit of the main extra-urban roads. 90 km/h (55 mph) on secondary extra-urban roads like Superstrada or Milano Tangenziale. 70 km/h (43 mph) is the limit on urban highways, while in built-up areas you can’t exceed 50 km/h (31 mph).
- You have to reduce the speed at the night and according to visibility, near intersections, bends, schools, places with children, on roads with a steep gradient, narrow roads, and in built-up areas.
- In the case of precipitations such as rain and snow, the speed limits are reduced to 110 km/h (68 mph) along the motorways, 90 km/h (55 mph) on main extra-urban roads, 70 km/h (43 mph) on secondary extra-urban roads, 50 km/h (31 mph) 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 priority when they are already crossing. The same rule is valid for cyclists on cycle paths.
- Drivers must give the 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 do not accelerate, to permit other vehicles to overtake.
- Do not overtake a vehicle if it is already overtaking.
- Do not overtake a vehicle that 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 it. The same is if you are in a place where the visibility is limited, at the intersections, on the brow of a hill, or at bends.
6. Be Fast at the Traffic Light When the Green Comes
Italy uses the international three-color traffic light system. So when green you go, if amber slow down and prepare to stop, stop when is red.
The crossing level uses a flashing red light, as well as the mobile bridge, and ferry boarding point. It indicates to drivers that they must stop. If you are in front of a flashing amber light near an intersection, pay attention and slow down. And always proceed with caution and respect priority rules.
Italians get really frustrated when the car on the first row at the traffic light does not react immediately when the green light comes. If you distract yourself while waiting, be prepared to hear another car’s horn. Someone may even yell at you or make some 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 explaining all the other insults you can receive, we don’t want to offend anyone.
7. ZTL in the Historical Center
In many historic downtowns of Italy, you cannot drive through without permission. The access is limited to the traffic by an electronic system of permits. We call it ZTL, Zona a Traffico Limitato.
Cameras record the car license plate. If you have no authorization you get a fine. There are no barriers to warn you, just a ZTL road sign informing you of the beginning of the limited traffic area. But sometimes it happens to miss it. Even locals do it. So, whenever you drive close to historic downtowns, drive slowly and pay attention to signage.
Nobody stops you in case of violation. You get a notification of the ticket directly at home, within 360 days. If you rent a car, the rental company to receives a fine, and usually, they will charge your credit card.
Fines are cumulative each time you pass a control point. There is a similar system on motorways if you exceed the speed limit.
Contesting a fine is possible, but not easy. You should write a letter to the Prefetto of the city. Take note that you have to write your complaint in Italian, so it may be useful consulting an English-speaking professional.
8. Parking Rules while driving in Italy
Did you know that along a normal street with two-way traffic, you can stop and park the car only on your right? If you find a free space on your left, you have to turn your car to follow the direction of traffic. Instead, on a one-way street, you can park or stop on both sides, being sure to leave enough space for the other cars that pass. By the way, check parking rules and the color of road lines before stopping.
White Line parking
Usually, white lines mean free parking, but with a few exceptions. These parking slots may be reserved for residents with authorization. Or they may be time-restricted free parking with the use of a parking disc.
Blue Line parking
Blue lines mean paid parking spaces. You recognize the “pay and display parking” also by the blue road signs. Anyway, have a look at the panels, because sometimes they can be free on certain days or hours.
Most of the parking areas have a machine where you can buy a ticket using coins, credit cards, and recently also smartphone Apps. Then you have to place the ticket well visible on the car’s dashboard. Somewhere you can buy a scratch ticket, like a scratch and win, to a tobacconist or newsstand. But we think that this system is becoming obsolete with time. Obviously, if you don’t pay, you run the risk to get a fine.
Yellow Line Parking for People with Disabilities
Yellow lines parking is for local administration employees and people with disabilities. If your car displays an international sticker for the disabled, you can use these spots. Generally, the disabled can park in areas where other cars cannot. Free of charge or paying the ticket when requested. Bikers with disabilities can park with no time limit where parking is free of charge but restricted by time.
Pay attention to not parking on the pavement, because you could find clamps on your wheels. If you obstruct the circulation of traffic or you park in front of a driveway, police could tow the car away. In both cases, you will have to pay the fine and the price to remove the vehicle.
9. In case of Penalties…
In case you find a ticket in the mirror of your car, together with it, you should find a special form with instructions on how to pay. Most Italians go to the Post Office. It is the easiest way. Somewhere you can also pay cash to the Polizia Municipale station that notified the violation.
In Italy, we don’t like to make things easy. Depending on the postal payment slip you find on your car, you can pay it at the Tabacchi, the place where you usually buy cigarettes or lottery tickets. Recently also the Poste Italiane App allows you to pay using your smartphone. But as I said it depends on the post-giro model.
If you pay within 5/10 days from the notification, usually there is a reduction of 30% on the total amount.
Obviously, you have the right to contest the fine. Unless you can prove with extreme certainty that you are innocent, it is not convenient to go to trial before the judge. It takes a lot of time and you probably need a lawyer.
As already said before, if you rent a car, the police notify your violation to the rental company. They will charge the corresponding amount to your credit card. Before booking the vehicle, read carefully the terms of conditions.
10. Avoid City Centers
Our suggestion is to avoid the center of the biggest cities when driving in Italy. The best way to enjoy the city is to park in a safe place out of the most crowded areas. Then use public transportation. You won’t have to worry about traffic jams, parking, fines, and rear-ending. And you save money because parking is cheaper. For example, in Florence, you can leave the car at the big parking close to the Peretola Airport and take the tramvia to reach the city center.
11. Confiscation of Vehicles
Driving in Italy, may occur in the confiscation of the vehicle in the case of a driver without a license and expired documents. So, before leaving home be sure to have driving papers in order. For motorcycles and mopeds, this occurs when you do not wear a safety helmet, or carry a passenger unless allowed.
12. Queue of Cars
There is nothing you can do about that. Except for waiting for your turn. Turn on music on the radio, try to relax, and enjoy the surroundings. Be ready to move forward as soon as the line moves. Because if leave a space between you and the car in front of you, for sure someone will try to overtake you to occupy that space.
13. Toll Roads
Driving in Italy, mostly all motorways require payment of a toll. In Sardinia Island and the south of Italy, some motorways are free of charge. You can pay it by cash or credit card at the toll booth. In Italian, we call them Autostrada, and road signs have a green color. The main Have a look at our post Tips for traveling in Tuscany by car. You will find some useful information about the main roads of Tuscany.
14. Headlight Flashing
Sometimes driving in Italy along a normal road, it happens that someone on the other way’s headlight flashes you. It may signify that your lights are off. Or more often is a message of warning that on your way you will find a police checkpoint. Be aware, because these light signals are illegal, and police may fine you if they catch you doing it.
Instead, while driving in the motorway on the overtaking lane, if you notice from the rear mirror the car behind you’s headlight flashing, it means Get out of my way, you are too slow, I am faster than you, so get out. This is not really nice behavior. But I generally avoid having problems with that kind of people letting them overtake me.
For a person coming from a big city, we have guessed that all this is quite normal. Actually checking online and on social networks, while driving in Italy seems to frighten a lot of visitors. So, hopefully, this article may help you feel more confident.
Moreover, if you still feel worried and you want no stress, take into consideration using the Italian train system. Sometimes they may delay, but trains are quite good and guarantee good connections almost everywhere. But this is a topic for a new article.
21 thoughts on “Don’t be afraid of Driving in Italy. A Helpful Guide”
Given the number of touristy places I would be so scared of driving in Italy! Dont know why I just feel public transport would be so convenient there as compared to driving, though from your post it does sound like driving is just as simple as in another country.
Dear Vaisakhi, thank you for your comment. Public transport can be really useful, and often I too take train or bus, but if I need to be more independent of course I use my car. Believe me is not so much different than driving in other places in the world on my personal experience. I am sure that if you will drive in Italy, you will have not too many difficulties, especially if you will follow the 13 tips I wrote on the article.
haha, no. 12th is hilarious. I love it. very good description of italian traffic and its rules. Some of them I wasn’t´t aware of although I had a two weeks travel by car about 4 years ago. Thanks for sharing these information.
Yes Pia, some Italians feels like they are the owner of the road they are driving in, and consider the car their living room extension. And this it is also fun because if you observe them on a queue, they start an exciting booger hunts.
We are Italian so what you have written is pretty familiar to us haha
But for a tourist it could be very handy! ZTL are our favorite 🙂
Ciao 🙂 Thank you for your comment. I love ZTL too, it reminds me when I was a kid and it was possible walking in the downtown without being worried of the cars.
I don’t have a driver’s license, but I will save this post for when I have one. Very informative post, thank you 🙂
It is always helpful!! 🙂 🙂 And you know how to do as a pedestrian. 🙂
Hello, I’m as single mother planing to take my teenage son visit Tuscany. I really wanted to drive yet was afraid of it, so I googled about driving in Italy and your blog popped out. I’m so happy to discover it, hanks for all the information!
Hey Debbie, thanks for writing and for the nice message. I am happy our information may help you plan your trip to Tuscany. I am sure you will enjoy our region. 🙂
To be honest….After reading this article I am scared even more…
It seems like Italians don’t care about the rules but when you are a tourist you are surely gonna be fined by police 😀
🙂 First of all thanks for leaving a comment. As almost everywhere there are good drivers and bad drivers. The most of the people do respect rules and we get fines if we get something wrong. During this summer I saw many foreigner drivers did not respect the simple rules of the road, which mean that the world is the same wherever you go. As I always says, I am Italian but I would not drive my car in the very centre of cities like Rome, Naples or Palermo…they are just so overcrowded that for sure you find people that do not respect rules. But once out of the cities, there is nothing to be scared of of driving….and you will enjoy amazing sceneries. 🙂
Not if relaxation is on your list. Was tense all the way.
Hi Rudy, thanks for leaving a comment. I agree with you, especially if you have to drive in the big cities. I have never driven in the center of Rome or Naples for example!
I am finding that the drivers don’t seem to anticipate what is happening on the road ahead, they just suddenly make a manoeuvre. Leaving a little extra distance and taking a more relaxed pace is certainly a good idea, if you are obeying the speed limit they will just fly past you
Hi. I’m am American. Just wanted to confirm the need for an international license?
Dear Hassan, I do confirm you need an international license. According to US Embassy “Americans visiting Italy as tourists and intending to drive should obtain an International Driving Permit before leaving the U.S.
If the permit expires while abroad, you may apply for a new one by mail through the American Automobile Association (AAA). Tourists may also use their valid American driver’s license if accompanied by an official translation in Italian. Americans registered as residents with the local Vital Records Bureau (known as Anagrafe) must apply for an Italian license within one year of the date of registration.”
Thank you Edoardo for this super useful and humorous write up. My wife and live in Hong Kong which has almost 1 million cars for one small city, AND drivers are impatient too. But the rules and road systems are very clear for all to follow. We are on the way to Italy next month to visit your amazing country and will drive from Milan to Florence, Siena, Chianciano, Assissi, Montepulciano, Bergamo and back to Milan. Wish us luck!!! / Ciao. Subi
Dear Subi, Many thanks for writing. Let us know if you enjoy Italy at the end of your trip. I am Nicola, the other voice behind this website. I visited Hong Kong in 2017 and I loved it!! 🙂 Hope one day to go back. We wish you luck with your upcoming trip to Italy. 🙂
This is a very useful article, thank you for posting it. Whilst driving in Italy some years ago I came across some temporary traffic lights around road works on a quiet suburban road. The lights did not run the usual red/amber/green sequence but displayed a flashing red light (it may have been flashing amber). What is the rule here? I assume it was proceed with caution if the road was clear.
Hi Ken. happy you enjoyed the reading. You are right about flashing amber/orange. It means caution, driving slowly and carefully, and giving way to vehicles approaching from the right if you are near an intersection.