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‘Expect the unexpected’: What you need to know about driving in Italy

The essential info you'll need for navigating Italy's roads.

'Expect the unexpected': What you need to know about driving in Italy
Driving a vintage car in Italy. Photo: oneinchpunch/Depositphotos

Driving in Italy can be a daunting prospect. No doubt you’ve heard all about the ‘crazy Italian drivers’ already. And then there are new road rules to follow, and signs in a foreign language.

Add the extra challenge of driving on the other side of the road, if you’re coming from the UK, Ireland, Australia or other left-hand countries, and you might just decide not to bother driving in Italy at all.

READ ALSO: Italian roads 'more dangerous in north than south': study

But when you get out into the countryside, driving here is definitely worthwhile – and it’s essential if you want to explore rural areas.

And once you've got the hang of driving Italian style, you might even enjoy it.

So to help you on your way, here are some practical tips based on readers’ experiences of driving in Italy, as well as my tens of thousands of kilometres of travelling up and down the country by road.

 

Driving in the Dolomites. Photo: pljvv1/Depositphotos

Unwritten rules

In fact much Italian driving etiquette is dictated by unwritten rules, which unlucky foreigners usually have to learn the hard way.Friends from Florence joke that road signs are “just there for decoration” and it does seem like no one pays much attention to the written road rules in Italy.

Flashing, for example, means 'Get out of the way' or 'Don't pull out because I'm not stopping for you'. But if an approaching car flashes you, it's warning you that there's a police check ahead.

And although you can't expect people to actually use their indicators, you’ll quickly notice that Italians love to blast the car horn at any opportunity.

Here it’s a bit of fun. It can mean anything from “get out of my way” or “use your indicator!” to “Ciao!' or “Let's celebrate, the light has turned green!”

And then there’s the unofficial third, middle lane on Italian two-lane roads.

“Using the broken white line in middle of the road to overtake, whether traffic is coming in the opposite direction or not, is very common,” says Sonya Boardman, who lives in Milan. “It’s not for the faint-hearted!”


Photo: jonson/Depositphoto

So when someone roars up behind you at high speed, shift over to the right and let them pass in their imaginary “middle” passing lane. And don’t be surprised to see people trying to pass on turns, narrow stretches or bends. Just get out of the way.

Car hire

“If you’re going to drive a hire car in Italy make sure you get the waiver insurance, then you’re not worried about bumping the car,” said Shelly Evans from Lancashire, England, who hired a car in Bari when she drove in Italy for the first time this year.

“Another thing to remember is how Italian roads are not really made for the bigger car, so getting the smallest car you can cope with may be an idea.”

And bear in mind that few Italians drive automatic cars. The majority of cars here are manual (stick-shift), not automatic. That means automatics aren’t always available to hire, and usually cost more.

Motorway driving

The autostrada is Italy's system of pedaggio or toll roads, designed for travelling more quickly than on the superstrada (non-toll motorway). Autostrada motorways are marked with an A in front of a number, such as A1, the major artery connecting Milan and Rome.

When you’re entering the autostrada you’ll take a ticket at the gate, then follow signs for the direction you want to go, usually indicated by a major city. You pay when you exit the toll road, but make sure to have cash with you as foreign credit cards don’t always work.

Austostrada sign. Photo: Paco Serinelli/AFP

Not all of Italy’s toll roads are the same price, but you can use this Autostrada toll calculator to find out the cost of travelling between two points.

These toll roads are generally clean and free from traffic jams, and most stretches have plenty of rest stops with edible food, clean bathrooms, and even toilet paper. There are several rest stop companies; Autogrill is considered the best.

The maximum speed limit is 130 kilometres per hour but on some parts of the autostrada the maximum speed is 110, and can be as low as 60 on some stretches (more on speed limits later.)

Sunday is a good day for long distance driving on the autostrada because trucks are prohibited on Sundays except with special permission.

READ ALSO: Italian gran drives wrong way along motorway… for 7km

Unless you're planning to race in the fast lane, leave the left lane for passing.

“Motorway slip roads are much shorter in Italy than in the UK and you’ll need to accelerate sharply to join motorways,” points out Gill Furlong.

“And gaps between cars are much shorter, due to Italians’ tailgating habit, so be prepared to accelerate fast to get into the traffic flow. Don't expect courtesy, concentration is needed… and develop eyes in the back of your head!”

Motorway driving in Italy was “an experience”, adds Shelly. “As cars don’t move over to let you in, you have to find your space and go for it. And when passing a junction where cars are joining, either speed up or slow down.”

“Stick to your decision and you’ll be fine.”

Speeding

Italian drivers are famous for their apparent need to speed, and many seem convinced that speed limits are more of a general guideline than a rule, with drivers regularly exceeding the official limits.

Shelly says she found that “going with the majority was the best way” while driving in Italy.

Scenic roads in northern Italy. Photo: wastesoul/Depositphotos

But always be on the lookout for speed cameras – and speeding drivers slamming on the brakes.

Autovelox or sistema tutor speed cameras are found on the autostrada, regular motorways, and in some towns. You should see a warning sign in advance that says Polizia Stradale, controllo electronico della velocita' (Road police, electronic speed check).

As well as the large black camera boxes you may also see a police car parked up by the side of the road.

READ ALSO: Tiny Italian town issues 58,000 speeding fines in ten days

You can receive a speeding ticket as much as a year later, and if you’re in a rental car the cost will be deducted from your credit card.

Some drivers say these speed traps cause more accidents than they prevent in Italy, as drivers tend to slam on the brakes a few feet before the camera or police car, crawl through the speed trap, and then whiz off at high speed.  More than once I’ve seen a pileup after a driver has braked sharply before a speed trap – so be wary.

Driving in cities

When asked for advice on driving in Italian cities, most people just said “don’t.”

And they have a point. City driving here involves confusing one-way systems, high speeds, blaring horns, scooters appearing out of nowhere, and narrow, bumpy streets better suited to horse-drawn chariots than modern cars. Not to mention Rome’s pothole problem – and even terrifying sinkholes appearing out of nowhere.

But if you really must, then to escape the worst city driving mayhem you should drive in the early afternoons when traffic is lighter and parking is slightly easier.

Avoid ring roads, such as Rome’s grande raccordo annulare, and basically the whole of Naples (especially La Tangenziale, which is a kind of unofficial race track.) Insurance rates are highest in Naples for a reason.

Parking

Parking is a headache everywhere from major cities to small towns. There’s never enough of it, and Italian parking wardens are surprisingly efficient.

Car parks fill up quickly, as do white-line parking spaces, which are free.

If you park on a blue line, get a ticket from the nearest meter (coins only) and display it on your dashboard. Yellow lines can sometimes be parked on for short periods, but the rules vary.

Photo: AlexGukBo/Depositphotos

Charges don't apply overnight, usually between 8pm and 8am, but check the signs to be sure.

These signs can however be tiny, obscured or missing altogether. Parking on unfamiliar piazzas is a risk, even if they’re full of other cars – savvy locals will know if their cars need to be removed by 6am the next morning before a market starts, but you won’t – especially if the one and only sign telling you so is hidden behind a bush.

And if your car is somewhere it shouldn’t be, it gets towed and you have to pay a €100 fine.

International Driving Permit

If your driving licence is from the US or another country outside the EU, you need one of these. It’s basically a translation of your existing licence.

When you rent a car, you probably won’t be asked for it. But if you’re stopped by the police for anything (including an accident) you might be. Or you might not. There’s no way of knowing. But technically, you’re meant to have it (along with your normal licence) when you drive, and it’s easy to get; applications are open through the AAA website, and permits are valid for one year.

Important words and phrases

Unless you speak Italian, the road signs are another challenge when driving in Italy. Luckily, most are fairly obvious. But there are a few important things to be aware of.

Zona Traffico Limitato (ZTL) means restricted traffic zone and you can get fined if you’re stopped or caught on camera driving around in one without a permit. You’ll find these zones everywhere from big cities to small villages, usually in the old town or centro storico.

Zona pedonale means pedestrian streets not open to cars.

Some other useful words to know include destra (right), sinistra (left), dritto (straight), uscita (exit) and pedaggio (toll), and senso unico (one way).

And an inverted red and white triangle means that you do not have right of way at the junction.

Beware the GPS

While a GPS or Google Maps can come in useful, don't rely on it exclusively. In Italy, it’s common to find two (or more) towns with the same name in different regions, so double-check the map to make sure you’re going the right way.

Fiat 500 on Italian street

A Fiat 500 on an Italian street. Photo: angelos/Depositphotos

And navigators are notorious for directing drivers onto unsuitable roads – including dirt tracks or, in cities, into a ZTL (restricted traffic zone).

GPS systems might tell you to turn the wrong way on a one-way street or into an alley that ends in stairs. Or even, like these tourists, down the Grand Canal in Venice.

Driving style

Italians are fast and aggressive drivers, but they’re also very skilful.

“Be bold, fast acting, assertive and decisive. Don't dither at junctions,” says Gill.

Instead, seize the moment. As soon as you see a gap, go for it. Italians are used to it. They expect the unexpected and they’ll react swiftly.

If you come from a country where things like indicating, slowing down and letting people out are seen as normal and considerate, it’s time to forget everything you know.

“When in Italy drive like the Italians, but with a little more caution,” Shelly advises. “Don’t expect other road users to move over. Remember you’re the visitor who needs to fit in.”

But most of all, she says: “Have fun and enjoy, it really isn’t that bad!”

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DRIVING

EXPLAINED: The traffic signs you need to know about when driving in Italy

When you start driving on Italy's roads, you'll need to get to grips with a host of new signs and symbols. Here are some of the most common ones you should know about.

EXPLAINED: The traffic signs you need to know about when driving in Italy

If you’re a visitor to Italy or are new to the country, you might be confused by the various traffic signs and what all the different symbols mean.

People who get their Italian driving licence have studied all these in-depth, but if you’re driving on holiday or you haven’t the need to sit the Italian driving test, you can easily get into trouble if you don’t understand the country’s particular rules of the road.

Here, we decode some of the most common traffic road signs you’ll come across.

Parking

Not knowing where you can park and for how long can land you with numerous types of fines.

Generally, if you’re not using a dedicated car park, you’ll need to take care and watch out for the colour of lines you see on the road and the signs you see on the street.

Blue lines mean you have to pay to leave your car there, usually via a parking metre.

Take care with yellow lines, as they are reserved for certain users, such as residents, workers or for going to the pharmacy. 

READ ALSO: How visitors to Italy can avoid driving penalties

If you see parking spots indicated by white lines, anyone can use those and they are usually free – but always check the roadside for any signs or instructions in case.

As you may expect, parking spaces are indicated with the letter ‘P’ (for parcheggio in Italian). In Italy, this is usually displayed on a blue background.

On the photo below, there are a few symbols you need to understand.

Starting from the left, this icon denotes a parking metre and means you’ll have to pay for a parking ticket to leave your car in that zone.

This is valid on workdays – demonstrated by the crossed pick-axes, while the cross means the rules also apply on ‘giorni festivi‘, which covers national holidays, as well as Sundays.

The dates and times below the symbols show when these rules are valid – here, it means from April, 25th to September, 30th, from 8am – 8pm, therefore.

Italian traffic sign showing when and how you can park. Photo: Karli Drinkwater
 
There is much more information in the following parking sign, including the changing tariffs for the days of the week and the weeks of the year.
 
We see the parking metre symbol again, with 8-20 written underneath – meaning you need to pay for a parking ticket between 8am-8pm.
 
 
Below that, there are different sections of the year where the rules on parking change.
 
The first part concerns ‘prefestivo di Pasqua‘, which means the day before Easter marks the start of this tariff, and it runs until May, 31st.
 
On holidays (festivi) or the day before a holiday (prefestivi), the tariff is 80 cents an hour or €4 for the whole day.
 
Feriali‘ means workdays (not to be confused with the similar sounding word, ‘ferie‘, meaning holidays), so from Monday to Friday in this period, parking is free (gratuito).
 
The next one down is valid from June, 1st to June, 30th and from September, 1st to September, 15th. The holiday and eves of holidays are the same tariff, but this time, workdays are also paid parking – 50 cents an hour or €2.50 for the day.
 
Below that are the rates for peak season, defined here as July, 1st to August, 31st. The cross and pick-axes can be seen again, meaning that this applies to all days and there are no free parking days in this timeframe.
 
Finally, this sign indicates some extra instructions for camper vans – in this case, the tariff is 50 percent higher.

In the following parking sign, it’s indicated that only 30 minutes of a stop are allowed and the man pushing goods means that parking for this reason is only allowed for loading and unloading.
Photo: Karli Drinkwater

In the following sign, the red circle with a line through a blue circle indicates that parking is prohibited.

In the absence of any other symbols, the parking ban is valid 24 hours a day on roads outside of urban areas.

On urban roads, without any other instructions, the ban is in force from 8am to 8pm. Supplementary signs with figures, symbols or short inscriptions may limit the scope of this.

In this case, we can see a parking symbol next to an icon denoting the police. This indicates an exception to the rule for police vehicles.

The image below that showing a car being towed indicates that parking constitutes a serious obstruction or danger and that any vehicle parked there may be removed and transported to the municipal depot.

Photo: Karli Drinkwater

This parking ban sign is 24 hours a day, indicated by the numbers below the ‘no parking’ symbol.

Again, we can see that any vehicle found parked there may be removed.

Photo: Karli Drinkwater

In this example of a parking sign, you are allowed to park your car for 15 minutes, indicated by the 15′.

The symbol to the left of the number represents a parking disc, which you must display in the window of your car at your time of arrival.

If the time on the disc shows that you have been parked longer than 15 minutes, you could incur a fine.

Photo: Karli Drinkwater

You may come across so-called ‘pink parking’ (parcheggio rosa)while driving in Italy.

Be aware that these are reserved for pregnant women and parents with children under two-years-old, so don’t park there unless that applies to you.

Since Italy’s Highway Code was updated, you’ll also need a permit to prove you’re eligible for these priority parking spaces.

Find out more about Italy’s pink parking here.

Italys pink parking permit allows pregnant women and parents with children under two years old to park in priority spots. Photo: Karli Drinkwater

ZTLs

Beware of the ZTL – this is one sign you’ll need to learn before driving anywhere in Italy, as there are a lot of them and infringing the rules can sting.

They catch out the best of us; they can be easy to miss as you may not even know what they are.

If you see a round road sign, a red circle containing the letters ‘ZTL’, don’t drive down that street unless you have a special permit.

If you’re just visiting Italy, it’s unlikely you will.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Can I buy a car in Italy if I’m not a resident?

ZTL stands for Zona Traffico Limitato (Restricted Traffic Zone) and you’re most likely to find them around congested areas and inner cities. The government introduced them to reduce pollution and so the only vehicles allowed to enter a ZTL are residents or businesses in the area.

If you unwittingly sail past one, the camera will take a shot of your registration number and you’ll get a fine of between €83 and €332, plus administrative costs, according to article 7 of the Highway Code.

In this road sign, we see that the ZTL applies 24 hours a day (0-24), but the extra information below shows there are some exceptions – under ‘eccetto‘.

You can drive down that ZTL without a permit if you’re on a scooter or motorbike, are disabled, a taxi or in this example, travelling to the two streets specified for services only.

READ ALSO: Reader question: What are the longer-term alternatives to car hire in Italy?

You would need electronic access to reach these streets in any case, which is something you’d receive with a permit.

Generally, if you’re just visiting Italy, don’t drive down a ZTL.

The red cross over the blue circle below that means no parking or stopping. In the absence of additional information, the ban is permanent and 24 hours a day. Your vehicle will be removed if it’s found stopped in any area where this sign is displayed.

Photo: Karli Drinkwater

The following sign indicates that the ZTL has ended and you can drive beyond that point without needing a permit.

Photo: Karli Drinkwater

Residential areas

Take care when driving through residential areas, as the rules may differ compared to driving in a town centre.

The top traffic sign of a house and tree with children playing indicates the start of a street or residential area where special rules apply, which are shown on another sign. We can see them right below.

Driving through this area is restricted to a max speed of 30km/h, followed by a sign prohibiting the transit of goods transport vehicles with a gross vehicle weight of more than 3.5 tonnes – unless it’s for loading and unloading goods.

That is unlikely to apply to you but the sign below might. It informs you that, if parking, you must park in the provided spaces.

Photo: Karli Drinkwater

Pedestrian areas

You can’t drive down areas that are meant for pedestrians only, which is displayed with a round, blue sign containing a figure of a person walking.

It might also be accompanied by the description ‘area pedonale‘, meaning pedestrian area. Here, there are no times specified, so assume that it applies 24 hours a day.

There are exceptions in this sign, though. Cyclists may use that route, shown by the cycle symbol and the description ‘velocipiedi‘ (any form of pedalled vehicle with two or more wheels), as may authorised vehicles (veicoli autorizzati).

That could mean street sweepers or residents, for example. If you’re in doubt, it’s unlikely you can drive down that area.

Photo: Karli Drinkwater
 
See full details of Italy’s highway code here and visit our travel section for the latest updates.
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