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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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BREXIT

Q&A: What to know about the Italy-UK driving licence agreement

After the UK and Italy announced a deal meaning British residents can swap their driving licences in 2023, The Local answers your questions about how the process will work.

Q&A: What to know about the Italy-UK driving licence agreement

Following the British Embassy in Rome’s announcement on December 23rd that that the UK and Italian governments had signed a long-term agreement on the issue of driving licences post-Brexit, the British government has now published some further details about the deal in guidance published in an update to its ‘Living in Italy’ web page.

Once it comes into force, the agreement means residents in Italy will be able to exchange their UK-issued licence for an Italian one “without the need to take a test”, the British government confirmed.

READ ALSO: UK and Italy sign long-term agreement on driving licences

British ambassador to Rome Ed Llewellyn said the long-term agreement would come into force in “early 2023”, though no specific date has yet been confirmed.

The UK government also confirmed that the grace period had also been extended again to allow holders of UK licences to continue driving in Italy – which means you won’t need to take any action just yet.

In the meantime, we’ve received a number of questions at The Local from readers wondering how the rules might apply once in force.

Here are some of those questions answered based on the British government’s latest guidance.

Who will be able to exchange their licence?

The guidance states that the agreement “will apply to all holders of a valid UK licence provided that they have been resident in Italy for less than six years at the time of application for exchange,” but added: “UK licence holders who acquired residence in Italy on or before 31 December 2020 may exchange their licence even if they have been resident in Italy for more than six years.”

When should I start the exchange process?

It’s not clear when this will be possible yet – but UK licences will remain valid in Italy until the end of 2023.

As the government’s guidance says: “You can’t exchange your licence yet, as the agreement will need to enter into force.”

“We will provide an update on these proceedings in due course. In the meantime, we are pleased to announce that current arrangements on driving in Italy for those holding a UK licence remain in place. Valid UK driving licences held by those who are resident in Italy by 31 December 2022 will be recognised until 31 December 2023.”

What will the process involve?

Full details should come once the UK-Italy bilateral agreement come into force, but for now the requirements for conversion of licences from other countries which have similar agreements with Italy may give an idea of what you’ll need to do.

The Italian Ministry of Transport’s website states that applications must be made at your local Ufficio di Motorizazzione Civile (find yours here), and requirements currently include completing a form, paying a €32 fee, handing over your original licence, and providing copies of your Italian tax code and ID.

READ ALSO: Who needs to exchange their driving licence for an Italian one?

Italian police officers setting up a roadblock

Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP

Can all categories of driving licence be exchanged?

It looks like the deal covers most types of licence, but we’ll need to wait for confirmation for each category.

“Tables of equivalence have been included in the agreement and the majority of categories will be able to be carried over to an Italian licence,” the guidance reads.

Will I have to give up my UK licence?

If you were hoping to keep hold of your UK driving licence as well as getting a new Italian one, it seems you’re out of luck.

“It is not possible to hold licences issued by the UK and Italy at the same time,” the UK government’s guidance states.

“If you live in Italy, you can drive on your UK licence for the first twelve months of living here, during which time you must obtain an Italian licence,” it adds.

“If you return to live in the UK at any point, you will be able to exchange your Italian licence for a UK one without taking a test.”

If I previously swapped my Italian licence for a British one, can I now switch back?

It looks as if this will be possible once the deal comes into force, as the guidance says:

“You will be able to exchange your licence to an Italian one provided that the country where your licence was first issued has an agreement or understanding with Italy on licence exchange.”

See the UK government’s latest guidance on the deal in full here and find more information on their official Living in Italy page.

Please note that The Local is unable to advise on individual cases. For further information, we recommend speaking to your local Ufficio di Motorizazzione Civile in Italy. 

We will update this page with further information once it becomes available. Find our latest Brexit-related news updates for UK nationals in Italy here.

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