8 essential tips for driving in Italy

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When my husband and I first moved to a small village north of Rome, I was initially afraid to drive the 10 kilometers down the hill from our house to the neighboring village. The winding road consisted of a series of corkscrew bends that the Italians appeared to be traversing as if practicing for the Grand Prix. After a while I stopped looking in my rearview mirror because, with few exceptions, an Alfa Romeo usually filled him with anxious doom. Taped to my tailgate, the rear car would swerve in and out of our shared lane, hoping to get around every blind corner. I was just too slow. And worse! I even had the nerve to stop at stop signs.

As I braved the descent into the village, I became alert that imminent danger lurked around every corner. Cars nonchalantly double parked at the bar so Antonio and Giuseppe could walk in and have a quick espresso. Horns honk Ciao when Maria passed the cousin of her husband’s friend’s sister-in-law. Motorbikes roared past me on a single lane road. And Rosita pulled to an abrupt stop (ignoring her right turn signal) only to jump into traffic and run to the bakery to do some fresh shopping field Per Pranzo.

The whole car culture in Italy is inescapable. Italy has more cars per person than any other country in the world. (It overtook the United States by the late 1990s.) Cars slalom in and out of slower traffic, leaving little space between themselves and the cars they are passing.

Anyone driving in Italy for the first time might think that there seem to be only two basic rules in road traffic:

  1. If you can go, go!
  2. If you want to quit, STOP!

But of course that’s just an illusion. In fact, there are no less than 724 (!) traffic signs, markings and right-of-way in the Italian driver’s manual. But don’t worry, you don’t have to conquer them all, just a few of the basics. To get you started, here are eight tips for driving in Italy:

Sights of Italy (Image credit: Catherine Ann Lombard)

1. Go with the flow and enjoy the scenery

You’ll probably notice right away that speed limits don’t seem to matter – except where you see green cylinder speed cameras on the side of the road. Then Italians will slow it down. It’s always best to drive at a comfortable pace (which can mean at least 20km/h over the speed limit) and enjoy the beautiful Italian countryside.

But don’t be surprised if the cars pull up behind you. You can either stop and let them pass or ignore them and let them pass. Whatever you do, try not to get excited and always keep your focus on the road ahead!

When I got my Italian driving license I had to practice on part of a motorway under construction. The speed limit sign said 40 km/h, but my driving instructor was actually horrified when I maintained that speed. “Accelerate!” he said. “You’re driving too slowly!” In fact, the slow lane on the Autobahn is even called la corsia della vergogna (the alley of shame).

2. Expect the unexpected

This tip is especially true when parking. Be careful when backing in and out of parking spaces as Italian drivers don’t slow down. They often don’t use their turn signals, and when you use yours, they hardly seem to care where you’re trying to go.

You’ll also likely find that crossing the street — even at a crosswalk — can be dangerous for pedestrians. Of course, while driving, you can extend the courtesy of letting them cross the road, but don’t expect the Italians to slow down.

Street sign in Italian.
Catherine Ann Lombard

3. Traffic signs can read like hieroglyphs

If you’ve driven in Europe before, you know that road signs don’t always correspond to those in the US or Canada. Some road signs in Italy also have their own distinctive features – such as in Italian! Before you arrive on the peninsula and set off, do some homework and familiarize yourself with basic road signs.

Note that road signs may be misplaced, appear and disappear, or simply not exist. There was a sign on the road to my house saying “Road Works” for five years, but I never saw a man (or woman) at work. More than once, especially in the countryside, I have ridden roads that lead to nowhere without any sign of a dead end.

Did my GPS bring me here?!
half-finished Italian road leading to some steps (photo credit: Catherine Ann Lombard)

4. Driving can surprise you – even with GPS

Some Italian roads are only half finished; others have suffered mudslides and still show up as passable on your GPS. Your GPS might even lead you to a street that ends in a staircase! That happened to me once. Before I knew it, I was descending three steps onto the main street! I was lucky the car wasn’t damaged – maybe Italian angels were carrying me through the air?!

In the countryside, don’t be surprised if you encounter sheep and cowherds crossing mountain passes and even – if you drive at dusk – a wild boar or two! Many country roads are steep gravel roads, so be prepared to drive slowly, even in first gear. If it’s snowing, the highway where you parked for the night may not be cleared in time for you to reach your next destination. This leads me to…

5. Don’t get stuck in the snow

If you are visiting Italy in winter and leasing a car, you are legally responsible for the car having snow chains or fitted with car tyres. But there’s a catch – none of the car rental companies in Italy fit their cars with winter tires! So be sure to rent snow chains and learn how to put them on and take them off in a dry, warm garage, not on a snowy mountaintop.

Parking can be difficult.
elusive parking lots (photo credit: Catherine Ann Lombard)

6. In city centers, pay attention to the areas marked “ZTL” – Zona A Traffico Limitato

These are areas where only residents are entitled to free entry. I had a friend who just wanted to walk into a store in Rome, so she let her husband drive around the block a few times while she walked in. Not long after, they received an expensive speeding ticket. Every time he drove around the block, he entered and exited the resident zone, so he had to pay the fine eight times!

In addition, parking in the cities is almost impossible. Many streets are one-way and you need to keep an eye out for speeding Vespas appearing out of nowhere.

Your GPS may lead you to a street with stairs.
Road leading to steps (Image credit: Catherine Ann Lombard)

7. Travel during a quiet hour

If you’re uncomfortable with nervous Italian drivers frantically trying to overtake you, then try to travel during the quieter hours. Most offices and shops are closed between 1pm and 3pm, allowing the streets to quiet down. Even on Sunday, trucks are not allowed to drive on the major freeways.

at the top of the stairs, guided there by GPS.
at the top of the stairs (Image credit: Catherine Ann Lombard)

8. Don’t panic

If you are on the freeway (Autobahn) in trouble, make sure you have the roadside assistance number 116 to hand. This is the number of the Italian Automobile Club (ACI).

You can also seek help at the SOS pillars placed approximately every 2 kilometers along the emergency lane. These SOS pillars have a button that you press to send a signal via GSM technology to an information radio center operator who will ask you for information about your situation. They then send the help you need. It’s important to stay close to the pillar while waiting for help.

Not long after I received my Italian driver’s license, a police car sped past me on a solid double line down the winding road into town. But no problem. I caught myself running stop signs and even double parking to rush to the bakery.

Italians seem to have all of these laws, but they also seem to know how to get around them. Their laws are mostly for show, their way of life is mastered by those who are furbi (cunning) enough to look like they obey, but really do what they want all the time. Despite everything, in Italy if you want to stop stop; and if you want to go walk. The rules may be complex, but the game… it’s simple.

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