Driving in Italy is undoubtedly not for the faint-hearted. With its aggressive and notorious drivers, driving in Italy can be chaotic but at the same time adventurous. The transport system in Italy does not give you much choice if you wish to explore the sights and sounds of the countryside. Many may forego driving in the cities and prefer public transport and rightfully so since traffic snarl-ups and congestion in the cities can make driving a bad experience. However, the only way to access some rural towns or the mountains is by driving. Public transport may not get you to some of these towns. Italian roads are relatively good across the country. The urban centers have well tarmacked and marked roads. The rural areas may have narrower roads, but the surface is well tarmacked. Driving in Italy is an experience like no other. Sometimes it is quite amazing when you drive in some narrow streets in a historic town where horse carriages were the primary transport vehicles. Motorbikes and bicycles hardly obey any traffic rules and can confuse and lead you to cause an accident. Be careful around them.
Using Google maps or GPS navigation, a basic understanding of Italian traffic laws and maintenance of speed limits should make your driving experience in Italy seamless. Do not rely on only one navigation system because it can be misleading. Some Italian towns have similar names, whereas some roads may not be updated on the digital navigation system. Sometimes your sense of direction and the old school maps may be your best bet.
Here are some tips to help you getting started with driving in Italy:
If you have a driving license that is American or from a Non-EU country, then you need to apply for an International Drivers Permit or what is commonly referred to as an IDP. The permit should always be together with your driving license. You will be required to produce it should you be stopped or are involved in an accident. The IDP is not necessarily a license, and there is no test to acquire it. It is essentially an interpretation of your driver’s license. It is possible to rent a car with only your driving license. This means it is common to forget to acquire an International Driver’s Permit. Many tourists forget this and only remember or are made aware of it once they have been stopped.
In Italy, the driving age is 18 years. Though you must have a license that is valid for at least one year for you to be allowed to hire or rent a car. Insurance companies deny insurance to drivers above the age of 70 or 75, depending on the company. If you are by any chance below the age of 25, then car rental companies are likely to charge you an extra fee. Liability Insurance is a legal requirement, and tourists are given the option of buying a Green card insurance policy that is usually available at the border entry points, which is usable for 15, 30, or 45 days.
Checklist of Driving items in Italy
- ID/Passport (required)
- A Driver’s license(mandatory)
- IDP (recommended)
- Fire extinguisher (recommended)
- A Spare tire (required)
- Reflective safety vest (required)
- Proof of Liability Insurance( required)
Rules and laws of the Road
If you familiarize yourself and follow Italian traffic laws, then you can avoid running into trouble or getting photographed by traffic cameras. These cameras identify those driving in restricted zones or speedsters, but by following the laws, you can get to your destination without attracting a fine. While several laws are similar to those in other countries, others like the Zona Traffico Limitato are unique to Italy.
- Seatbelts: The traffic law in Italy says, if you are driving a vehicle, then you must wear seat belts at all times when driving. This includes short commutes where you may easily forget to wear your seatbelt
- Car seats and children: Children under 150 centimeters or 36 kilograms must sit in the back row of the car and must use car seats or booster.
- Distracted Driving: Use of a phone in such things as texting or talking is strictly forbidden. Recent changes to the traffic law have increased fines for anyone who breaks this law. The Italian authorities take this offense very seriously and can lead to hefty fines and penalties that may include suspension of your driving license for up to two months.
- Alcohol: Driving while arguably intoxicated is not only dangerous but also illegal in Italy, as is the rest of the world. A level of more than 0.05 of your blood alcohol is considered illegal for driving. Offenders whose blood alcohol level is more than 0.05 but less than 0.08 incur fines and may attract a community service requirement. In extreme drunken driving, you can attract a two-month jail sentence.
- Zona Traffico Limitato (ZTL): This loosely translates to Limited Traffic Zone. Area Pedonale means Pedestrian Zones. Therefore, drivers are restricted from driving in these zones. Most cities and towns have these zones, and distinctive traffic signs are displayed all over the urban centers, so be on the lookout for them. A special permit is required for you to drive in these zones, which your hotel can provide if they are within the zones. If you enter these zones, you may not necessarily be stopped immediately, but some cameras will spot you, and you will receive a fine that is sent in the mail. Sometimes the fine is sent late. In many instances, Italians have received their fines in the mail one year after committing the crime.
- Speed limits: Speed limits apply throughout Italy. 130 Kilometres per hour on major highways, 110 kilometers per hour on non-major highways, and 90 kilometers per hour on local roads. You may notice other drivers exceeding the limit. Being a foreigner, I advise you to stick to the rules.
- Traffic lights: In Italy, just like other European countries, it is forbidden to turn right on a traffic red light. The traffic lights are in 3 colors, just like in other countries though they are few.
- School buses: You are required to stop when a school bus has stopped to pick or drop passengers.
- Right of way: You are required to give way to vehicles on the right when at a crossroads or junction. In reality, cars will not stop for you if you are unsure of yourself or hesitant.
- Roundabouts: Give way to traffic that is already in the roundabout. Also, ensure to use your indicator when exiting a roundabout.
- Parking: You should always park on the right side, especially when in an urban area. In marked blue zones, you will be required to produce a parking disc, usually valid for an hour. It can be acquired from your hotel.
- Headlights: In Italy, you are required to always have your lights on even on sunny days when driving outside the urban centers
- In Emergencies: Emergency phone numbers in Italy are 118 for an ambulance, 113 for police, and 115 for fire emergencies.
Driving laws on the Autostrada or Toll road
The system of toll roads in Italy is called the autostrada. They are marked with an A then a number. For instance, the toll road between Milan and Rome is known as A1, and directions pointing towards them are usually in green.
The maximum speed limit in Italy is 130 kph, though, on some roads, it may reduce to 110kph. On some other roads, it can go to as low as 60, especially where the roads are curvy. Always carry cash with you since some of the toll stations do not accept credit cards
Italians tend to drive at high speeds on the autostrada but are not usually aggressive or careless. Unless you want to get into a race in the fast lane, just stick to the right side lanes and leave the left lanes to passing cars.
Speed traps: In Italy, there are two primary systems for identifying speedsters. Sistema Tutor and Autovelox. Autovelox is used on the autostrada, major highways, and some towns. It takes a photo of your car and captures the license plate if you are speeding. A fine is mailed to you, and this can be done even a year later. The Autovelox resembles a big box with a sign on it, and its camera is housed inside it.
Sistema Tutor is relatively new and is utilized in some parts of the autostrada. A mounted camera photographs your car and captures your license plate as you pass underneath. It averages the speed between two given points, which should always be below 130kph or 110 in bad weather. Failure to obey speed limits will attract a fine that you will receive through the mail.
How do you pay tolls in Italy?
You can use a prepaid card, Viacard, which can be purchased at most retail outlets such as petrol stations, supermarkets, snack auto grills, tobacconists, and some banks. Viacards can be used for payments of toll fees in toll stations and are available in denominations of 25, 50 and 75 Euros.
Streets in rural cities are usually congested and narrow, and motor scooters may randomly enter and exit traffic. Motorcycles and bicycles may not obey traffic laws and may confuse you on the road.
Italian roads are quite good. There are over 5600 kilometers of the autostrada. In rural areas, the roads may be narrow and lack guard rails. In the north of Italy, you may encounter low visibility caused by fog though most cars come with fog lights.
Is it cheaper to rent a car or take a train?
If your visit is only to the cities, then you do not need a car. Most cities have exceptional public transport systems. Italy’s trains can also help you move between cities and major urban centers. Parking fees and rules can be confusing in various cities, and parking in hotels can cost you up to 50 euros per night.
On the other hand, if you are looking to visit the rural areas and go to the mountains, then it may be cheaper to rent a car. Most rural towns are not accessible via the public transport system. Therefore, you will need a vehicle to access some of these areas.
Tips on car rentals
Don’t be fooled by lower prices from car rental companies. They are notorious for adding extra and hidden costs either when picking the car or when returning it. Consult a regular tourist or friend to recommend the best car rentals. I would recommend Auto Europe or rentalcars.com, which will show you all costs upfront and is a 24-hour service that assists in English.
If you have a petrol engine vehicle, ensure to order Benzina and not gasolio at the petrol station. Petrol stations remain open between 7 am and 7 pm. A 24-hour petrol station is only found on the autostrada.
Do not rely exclusively on GPS
While GPS may be handy, do not rely on it. It is unusually common for two towns in Italy that are in different regions to have the same name. Ensure to check your map to confirm you are headed in the right direction.
Furthermore, a navigator may direct you to a restricted zone such as the ZTL or have you turn wrongly on a one-way street. It may also guide you down an alley that ends in stairs or a dead end. GPS systems are not always updated with the latest road closings or new urban traffic laws. So ensure to carry an old school map to assist you with directions.
On the spot fines
Italian law states that, if a traffic offender is from a non-European country such as the US, the offender should settle the fine immediately the ticket is issued. Failure to honor the fine may lead to the confiscation of the car.
Driving on Sundays
Trucks in Italy are prohibited on Sundays, so it is a great day to drive on the autostrada. Most Italians do long-distance driving on Sundays. Therefore beware that in the summer, coastal roads, and roads around lakes can be congested even on the weekends.