Driving in Italy for Tourists
To enlighten us on this topic, we sought the help of our friend and blog contributor Giovanni Nivino, a native Californian with decades of experience visiting Italy. In Signore Nivino’s words…
Driving in a foreign country can be either one of life’s most frightening and intimidating experiences or one of its most rewarding and pleasant experiences. I know people who refuse to drive overseas. They take the plane or train; and if planes and trains don’t go there, they simply won’t go. No question but that roadway customs and etiquette are different and often unfathomable once you leave the U S of A.
But driving in Italy is mandatory if you are to achieve the full benefits of the trip. So much of the real personality and beauty of a country are in the rural areas off the motorways and far from airports and train lines. Missing them would be a sin.
Anyone who has ever visited Italy will never forget his or her first impression of the Autostrada. It seems that you must have accidentally happened upon the Indianapolis Speedway not only inhabited by turbo-charged race cars, but now also full of giant, lumbering, smoke belching trucks that must have at least a dozen axles and hundreds of wheels; and you’re caught in the middle. Driving in the cities appears to be even worse. NASCAR looks like a little old ladies convention compared to the streets of Rome or Milan. You would have to be crazy to stick your nose out of the rent-a-car garage.
Imagine what your first impression might have been of our galactic universe and solar system. Such randomness and chaos with no apparent rules or regulations. Yet underlying all of this are the never changing laws of physics. They are uniform, consistent and universal no matter where or how applied. Such is the case for driving in Italy. There is an unwritten “Code” (perhaps passed on through Italian hereditary genes) that provides structure to what otherwise appears to be pandemonium. As a non-Italian you are not blessed with these genes so you have to learn the Code the hard way (something akin to baptism by fire).
The whole secret is consistent predictability (this must sound to you like I have lost my senses). Every driver knows how the other guy is going to react in any given situation. This allows you to push the envelope of aggressiveness and get away with it. Suddenly crossing three lanes of traffic to make a turn … no problem, it was anticipated. Running a red light … it was expected (stop lights are treated as mere suggestions in Italy). Unexpectedly changing lanes and squeezing in where there is no room … but of course, just normal behavior. Driving four abreast when there are only two lanes … doesn’t everybody? One-way streets and pedestrian only zones … such an inconvenience.
It is all covered by the unwritten Code. All Italians know the Code and adhere to it. So, suddenly room opens up to let you in where there was previously none; you accommodate the guy crossing the three lanes of traffic and let him through (although not by much); driving four abreast only inches apart is just fine, everybody knows not to make any sudden moves; stop lights and intersections are treated with awareness; and sidewalks, one way streets, pedestrian only areas and no parking zones are open game for all. It works beautifully because everybody plays by the exact same rules all of the time, no exceptions.
The guidebooks say that the right hand lanes of the Autostrada are for normal diving and the fast lane is for passing only. Nonsense, everybody is always passing in Italy. In reality, the right hand lanes are for little old ladies, donkey carts, trucks and bicycles. Get out there in the fast lane with the big boys but pay attention to what is going on.
Mother Nature has deleted hesitancy and indecision from the Italian genetic makeup and replaced it with aggressiveness. This helps explain why the Code works so smoothly. In nine times out of ten, hesitancy or indecision, not aggressive driving, will be the cause of your problems. Uniform and consistent aggressive behavior can be anticipated and prepared for. That’s why all of a sudden there is just enough room for your car to squeeze into where there was none before.
The Italians are the best drivers on the planet. I feel immeasurably more comfortable driving in Italy than I do in California. We have never had any problems and never seen one single multiple-car pileup. As long as you understand and respect the Code, you’ll be fine. Universal consistency is the key to survival.
The major Italian cities are no place for the meek and timid to be driving. I have developed a strategy over the years (an accumulation of lessons learned the hard way) that minimizes my exposure to the bedlam of the streets of Rome, Milan and other metropolitan demolition derbies. I always schedule these cities as the first or last stop on my trip. If it my first stop, I arrive by plane or train, take a taxi to my hotel and spend my time in the city without a car. On the last morning, I take a taxi back out to the airport and pick up my car. I am now miles away from the downtown traffic and can easily get onto the Autostrada and be on my way. If it is my last stop, the reverse works.
If one must drive in these cities, it is best to do so during the mid afternoon when all good Italians are napping (Sundays also work).
Everybody who drives in Italy should be aware of a relatively recent law enforcement innovation. The Italians (and most of the Europeans for that matter) have perfected the freestanding, unmanned, fully automatic photo-radar gun. They don’t make any effort to hide these as they are really quite visible along the highway if you know what to look for. Nor do they move them around much. These things are operative seven days a week during daylight hours (thankfully they haven’t gone to infrared cameras which could make them equally as effective at nighttime). They are merciless. If they tag you, it takes nearly 10 or 12 months for their system to catch up to you especially if you’re in a rented car. But they will eventually track you down and a very elaborate form letter will arrive in your mailbox. The whole system is very slick. The letter outlines in great detail the exact location and time of day of the infraction. It shows what the speed limit was and shows exactly what your speed was as measured by the radar gun. It then directs you to a website where you have the ability to pay the fine online using a credit card. Actually quite civilized. The website also includes a photo of your car and license plate just to make sure that you’re not thinking about whining about your innocence. At the conclusion of your online visit they even offer you a very gracious “thank you” and “we hope that your trip went well and please come back and visit us again soon”. All of this is in very precise and well constructed English. It is almost a pleasure to pay the fine!
To carry an International Driving Permit is purely a function of how much risk you want to take. If you never get stopped, you obviously don’t need it. The rental car agencies usually do not require it. However if you do run into trouble, especially with the Carabinieri (the macho highway patrol) you should have one. It only takes a few minutes to get from the local AAA office. Your call.
Virtually all major cities now have restricted traffic zones – ZTL. They are usually well marked. The zones are policed by remote cameras. If you’re caught driving in them it’s a pretty substantial fine. If your hotel is located within one of the zones they will report your vehicle’s license number to the local police using the Internet and you will be exempted from the restrictions (double check that they did so).
The blood-alcohol limits in Italy are tougher than they are in the United States (.05 vs .08). You might occasionally encounter a checkpoint (often at the exit from the Autostrada). This could be day or night in any random location and they can conduct mandatory breathalyzer tests. Why take the chance? I have a rule of thumb that says that during our day trips we use a designated driver system (I wouldn’t want to have to miss my wine at lunch). In the evenings I almost always schedule our dinners within walking distance to our hotel (or we stay home at the villa).
Enjoy the ride!