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Driving in Italy? Are Italian drivers a little scary?

What’s it like to mix it with Italian drivers in Rome? This is a question that I often get asked. The Italians are a wonderful, kind, generous, loving people (so much so that I married one) but their reputation as drivers does go before them.

The common expectation of driving in Italy seems to be one of high-speed crazy driving, with lots of horn honking, fist shaking, and cries of “Mamma Mia!” at every turn, but is this reputation deserved, and should us regular non-Italians even dream of driving in Italy as a tourist?

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DRIVING IN ROME

My wife Clotilde, aka the Princess, is an Italian from Rome, so we have been traveling together in Italy for almost 10 years now. Initially we would move around Rome on a borrowed scooter, I insist that the best way to see Rome is from the pillion seat of a scooter and it’s also a great way to confuse the locals with a large man riding pillion with a small lady! Circumstances changed however and it became more practical to rent a car in Italy, which was a challenge that landed at my slightly shaky feet.

I learned to drive in my hometown in N. Ireland, so driving in London was already a chunky jump in driving terms, but even here the rules are broadly followed, and you might even be waved out at a junction! Having experienced the roads and traffic of Rome at first hand I felt my nervousness was justified, but I screwed my courage to the sticking point.

Now with 6+ years of Italian driving experience from North to South (and on both major islands) I have learned to drive in Italy and can share some of the delights and frustrations I have met as a driver in Italy.

HOW HARD IS IT TO DRIVE IN ITALY?

In my experience the reputation Italian drivers have gained is not fully deserved, but there is quite a lot to support it. However, it is perfectly possible for a competent driver to drive safely and happily in Italy and in Rome with a little mental and practical preparation.

To help your mental preparation I will share my experiences and my tips for driving in Italy so you will know what to expect when you hit the road!

WHAT SIDE OF THE ROAD DOES ITALY DRIVE ON?

Just in case you had any doubt, in Italy you must drive on the right, they are quite keen on this!

ITALIAN ROAD RULES

When driving in Italy, rules always seem to be open to interpretation. The most challenging for me has always been lane discipline and signaling, it basically does not exist. The two most pointless jobs in Italy are installing indicators on cars and painting road markings, in fact I think they are punishment tasks for forgetting your turn to bring the biscuits.

This is particularly evident when driving in the city where a 2-lane road will have 3 cars abreast and even 4 plus a scooter at a junction. Lanes will be changed often, undertaking is as common as overtaking, and not one turn signal will be used (or mirror) unless by accident.

DRIVING TIPS FOR ITALY No. 1: The trick to dealing with this however is to realise that you cannot trust one single car to do what it is “supposed” to do, therefore you drive defensively expecting every car to do its own thing. This is probably the most important of all the driving in Italy tips!

The Italians have never made peace with queuing, they desperately want to be first. Italian drivers epitomise this, so the only thing to be relied upon is for each car, scooter, and motorbike to be pushing its way to the front. Therefore, at traffic lights and junctions, unlike the Spice Girls, you will see 2 become 4 as they squeeze forward where there is, and sometimes isn’t, a gap.

When you are less accustomed to this, it is important to expect it and to let it go, becoming frustrated will not change anyone’s behaviour other than your own, and you need a clear head!

Driving in Italy: road signs

Within Rome, and pretty much everywhere else, the road markings are almost non-existent. Interestingly where they are newer/clearer the driving seems to be better but that is rare.

This brings its own challenges as you try to navigate around but the really frustrating part is the frequent Bus/Taxi lanes which pop up without warning and are extremely poorly marked but you will be fined for driving in them.

This is where a GPS or Sat Nav is a massive help allowing you to focus on the road and the signage whilst listening to directions.

DRIVING TIPS FOR ITALY No. 2: When driving in Rome, and throughout Italy, it is highly recommended to have a good Sat Nav, particularly one that can show which lane you should be in at any given moment.

Driving in Italy for a tourist could be tricky: signage in Italy is not particularly clear and often comes quite late making it a challenge to adjust speed and make timely lane changes. Slip roads on and off motorways and carriageways also tend to be a lot shorter than you would expect, so having a good quality Sat Nav will help you to drive safely as well as in the right direction!

Of course you could use your smartphone, but that’s better if you have someone that could help you zooming in and out to check details and overview.

Driving in Italy: Zebra crossings

Tourists driving (or walking) in Italy should be aware that Zebra crossings are similarly poorly marked out and something of a lottery, which has brought me to the conclusion that when in Rome I must do as the Romans do, at least where Zebra crossings are concerned.

Most drivers treat these crossings as decorations, pedestrians also seemed resigned to this, so if you stop as normal to allow a pedestrian across then you create huge confusion for everyone and potentially an accident.

If there is sufficient gap to the next car I will stop for a pedestrian on a crossing, but as there often is not and I can tell the pedestrian has very low expectations, it is often safer to keep going and ask for forgiveness.

Driving in Italy: ZTL (Limited Traffic Zone)

In most large Italian cities and also small, but famous, villages you will face the ZTL sign. This road sign means the traffic in that area is limited to people with a special permit on certain days/times, so if it wasn’t already confusing…..

ZTL are probably the most difficult thing to manage from a tourist’s point of view. There are no rules, each city establishes how they work and the same area could have different entry rules on different days and different times. As an example, here are the Rome ZTL rules:

  • ZTL Historical Center on Monday to Friday from 06:30 – 18:00, on Saturdays from 14:00 – 18:00
    • Tridente (an area within the Historical Centre, with tougher restrictions) Monday to Friday from 06:30 – 19:00, on Saturday 10-19.
  • Trastevere on Monday to Friday from 06:30 – 19:00 and on Saturdays from 10:00 – 19:00
  • Some areas even have ZTLs active during the night:
    ZTL Historical Centre, San Lorenzo, Testaccio, Tridente, and Monti on Friday and Saturday from 23:00 – 03:00. From May to October also on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 23:00 – 03:00.

Some times you will find an electronic sign over the road sign showing “ZTL attivo” or “ZTL non attiva”. They are there to help:

  • ZTL ATTIVA = YOU CAN’T ENTER
  • ZTL NON ATTIVA = YOU CAN ENTER

DRIVING TIPS FOR ITALY No. 3: The best thing to do is to check in advance the rules of the city you are visiting to have an awareness of their ZTL rules. While driving don’t be afraid to slow down and check the sign (ignore the horns, they’ll survive!). If you enter in the wrong time/day you will get a fine, there are cameras at each ZTL entry point.

Italian driver ztl rome
ZTL sign. Credit A. Valentinetti

Friendly Italian drivers

Our Italian friends are very friendly, so much so that it seems they are trying to drive into your backseat for a chat.

My driving instructor’s maxim of tyres and tarmac never reached Italy it seems, so you will have to make peace with there often being a car much closer to your tail than you would like.

From experience they are rather good on the brakes, but particularly at higher speeds I will try to warn a car off with my hazards or a flick of the fog lights and they usually back off a bit.

DRIVING LAWS IN ITALY

A reasonable question at this point would be where are the Police, do they look to enforce the Italian driving laws? I have seen little evidence of any attempt to enforce driving standards in Rome despite quite a large police presence.

In fact most Police cars themselves are being driven with disregard for the rules of the road. There are however plenty of cameras enforcing some rules particularly ZTL compliance, Bus/Taxi routes etc. and of course speed, so be careful or you will get an unpleasant surprise in the post.

Regarding the Police and other emergency services such as ambulances, they almost always drive with their flashing emergency lights on but without a siren unless it is an actual emergency. This took a little getting used to for me as I am used to emergency lights only in an emergency and I got a bit flustered the first few times.

Italian laws to be aware of

  • SPEED LIMIT: they are in Km/h. Usually
    • 50 Km/h Urban road
    • 90 Km/h Extra-urban road
    • 130 Km/h Motorway
  • DOCUMENTS: Always carry them with you, but never leave them in the car:
    • your driving licence
    • all the documents the rental company will give you: vehicle registration document, mandatory inspection certificate (MOT equivalent), compulsory insurance, and the car tax receipt.
  • DRINKING AND DRIVING IN ITALY: just don’t! (this is not specific to Italy)
    • the legal limit is a blood alcohol level of 0.5 g / litre
    • if you are found driving with a higher level you will face a hefty fine and your driving license will be withdrawn from 3 months to 2 years
  • HEADLIGHTS: always keep the front low beam lights on. In the city centre you shouldn’t really need them but it is much easier to just keep them on. Adjust them as necessary at night of course.
  • HIGH VIZ VEST AND A RED WARNING TRIANGLE: always keep them in the car. Any hire care should have them already but double check.

  • WINTER TYRES: This is an unusual one: in Italy, the highway code requires that you have snow chains (or winter tyres) on board your vehicle from November 15th to April 15th. The validity of this obligation is decided according to the areas.

    If you rent a car in an area where the obligation is active, you will be informed and the hire car will be equipped with snow chains. If you are arriving in Italy with your car or are planning an extended road trip, inquire if you need them. You might be surprised to find that this obligation is active in Rome, despite it only snowing once every ten years.
  • DRIVING IN ITALY LICENSE REQUIREMENTS
    Do I need an international driver’s license in Italy? Well it depends
    • if you have a driving license from a EU country you can drive in Italy for a year with your license. This is valid if you decide to drive your own vehicle or to rent a car in Italy.
    • in any other case you need an international driving permit or an official translation of your license (this now includes UK licenses of course)

PARKING IN ROME AND GENERALLY IN THE CITY CENTRES


One thing that Italians drivers do not get flustered over is parking, which has reached an art form everywhere but particularly in Rome where it seems there are cars stacked everywhere.

Despite appearances, there are actually rules for parking but there are not enough legal parking spaces so once these are filled then things get creative.

Parking in second line seems the easiest way to solve the problem, they simply park in the street beside the cars that are parked legally, forming a second line of cars. When someone needs to leave from the legal spaces they simply stand on their horn until the relevant driver turns up to move their car.

On one memorable occasion, in quite a busy central area of ​​Rome, I watched a chap heading into a Bar having parked his car in third line… on a roundabout! I have also seen cars parked on Zebra crossings, as well as many scooters abandoned on the footpath.

Reverse parking is also not a thing for 95% of the population, but of course this means reversing to leave a parking space which is often achieved without resorting to modern practices such as mirrors or the turning of the head. So be careful when passing long lines of parked cars and look out for reversing lights.

DRIVING TIPS FOR ITALY No. 4: Finding a parking spot in an Italian city centre can sometimes be a real challenge. If you just need to park for 3/4 hours and you see a private parking garage just go there. They are generally not much more expensive than street parking, and are usually cleverly located in the right spots. Also don’t forget the following rules:

  • Blue lines indicate a paid parking space (costs vary according to the municipality and also within the same municipality) It is usually necessary to display the payment receipt.
  • White lines indicate a free parking space, the parking time varies for each municipality. Sometimes it is required to report the arrival time.
  • Yellow stripes indicate that parking space is reserved for certain categories of people or operators (disabled, law enforcement, deliveries …)

DRIVING TIPS FOR ITALY No. 5: Carry Coins, Notes, and Cards for parking charges, payment options vary widely across areas.

SCOOTER DRIVERS OF ROME

When the scooters are not parked on the pavement, they can be a bit of a menace on the roads. With a good climate, narrow streets, and difficult parking, Rome is a city for scooters, and they are great, but in my experience probably the most stressful element of driving in Rome.

If every car driver dreams of being the next Lewis Hamilton, then every scooter driver is convinced that Valentino Rossi is just keeping their seat warm.

There are many thousands of scooters buzzing through Rome all trying to be first, so it can feel a bit intimidating as they filter passed on both sides. The scooters are nimble and nippy so focus on holding your line on the road and try not to give the scooter riders any surprises and you will be fine, let them avoid you!

Do not be surprised to see a rider using their phone or smoking a cigarette as they whizz past but do keep an extra eye on them as they, unsurprisingly, tend to be more erratic.

DRIVING THROUGH ITALY: THE MOTORWAY

Thankfully, scooters are less common on the motorways but here we welcome a new driver, the Cannon Ball Runner!

Contrary to the general perception most Italians drivers do not drive particularly fast, especially in cities, but on the motorways a significant minority do their best to make up for the rest.

Most motorways in my experience have 3 lanes with the inside lane being used by lorries and pretty much no-one else, the middle lane is therefore very busy, and the outside lane is the racetrack.

The idea of driving on the inside and using the outer lanes for overtaking has not arrived in Italy, in general if a driver is above the minimum speed for the middle lane they will happily sit there for the entire journey. It is hard not to get frustrated by this, but it also means you must venture into the racing lane to overtake slower vehicles where you must be careful.

Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear, they are also moving faster, very expensive, and being driven by lunatics with unbelievable arrogance. You are guaranteed to develop a desire to extract them from their expensive German cars and share your well-considered opinion of them, but alas you must avoid this temptation and focus on looking out for them.

If you do end up in-front of one of these delightful people they will try to intimidate you by driving uncomfortably close and flashing their lights; stay calm, complete your maneuver, and give a 2-fingered salute as they roar past (they won’t understand but you will feel better!).

DRIVING IN ITALY: ROAD SAFETY

So, if all this is true then why are the roads and highways not littered with wreckage? The unfortunate truth is that Italy does have one of the poorer road safety performances in Europe, much worse than the UK, Germany, Spain, Ireland, and Scandinavia, but it still does not seem to fully add up with the reality.

From my experience this is because in Italy, and especially in Rome, everyone drives expecting everyone else to do whatever seems right to them. This means when another car stops suddenly or perhaps switches lane it is expected, readily avoided, and crucially does not upset anyone.

In fact, when I see another car indicating in Rome, I am immediately suspicious of its intentions! Compare this to the UK where everyone drives expecting everyone else to follow the rules, so when a driver does something unexpected we are less prepared to deal with it.

When I combine this with my experience that Italian drivers actually drive relatively slowly, then this frankly chaotic system seems to work and does not hurt as many people as you might expect.

Having said that you will struggle to find a car in Rome with a full set of straight panels, so make sure your insurance covers you fully!

RENTING A CAR IN ITALY

So, after all this do you still want to mix it with Italian drivers? As I mentioned it is perfectly possible to drive happily in Italy, but it does require a degree of competence and confidence. If you prefer not to drive then public transport in Italy is good, but not as widespread to allow you to easily reach all the lovely small villages scattered around.

If your plan is to visit Venice, Florence, and Rome then the train is your best choice. The connections are great, prices ok, and it is really fast and comfortable. If instead you are planning to spend some time exploring the Tuscan Vineyards, then you would be much more independent with a car.

DRIVING TIPS FOR ITALY No. 6: Smaller is better! Reduce your luggage and pick a small car. If your Italian driving holiday includes visiting many of the enchanting little Italian villages, you will be pleased with your decision to refuse that upgrade and be able to maneuver through twist roads, narrow streets, and into tight parking spots

Tips for renting a car in Italy

Hiring a car in Italy is not much different to many other places, the key advice points are the same:

  • Try to pick your car at the airport, they usually have cheaper rates.
  • Always double check the car for any minor scratches, dents etc and report it immediately if not highlighted in the contract.
  • If you need a one way trip, make sure that the cost is clearly stated at the time of booking.
  • If your booking states that there is an out of hours fee, but it doesn’t specify the opening time of the office, or the fee, then make another booking with another firm.
  • If you often hire cars then it is usually more cost effective to take out an Annual Excess Insurance from a third party instead of taking full insurance from the Hire company. You must do your own research of course, but essentially, in the event of an incident, you would have to pay the excess in your hire contract, but then claim that back from your Excess Insurance provider.

DRIVING TIPS FOR ITALY No. 7: Be careful at the Fuel Station; choose “Servito”, and you can chill while your car is filled for you, but it will cost a lot more!

Best place to rent a car in Italy

We have rented cars all over the world: Rome is a regular place for us but also Venice, to go skiing in Northern Italy, to drive in the Sacred Valley in Peru, to explore Montenegro, Dubrovnik, Malta and many other places.

Yes we have had problems over the years like finding offices closed and being left without a car, or having the hire car smashed while parked etc, but it helped us to learn more:

  • Unless you can pay the premium price for the bigger rental companies like Avis, then book your car with a good third party broker. If something goes wrong they will help you to solve the problem.

    Once in Venice we arrived in front of the rental office to find it closed (they clearly had it wrong in their system). The car broker booked us another car at the airport, reimbursed the price difference and the taxi journey to reach the airport. Of course this was an inconvenience but it was solved. Similar happened recently when we needed to pick a car from a Rome airport, but the office changed operating time due to COVID19, so they made a last minute booking with another firm.

    We generally use ECONOMY CAR RENTAL and even if you need a bit of back and forth to solve these issues, in the end they always helped. I also particularly like:
    • They always include the cost of one way fees (if needed) and deal directly with providers that challenged this (yes we also had this issue)
    • They always include the out of hours fee (if any)

I hope this collection of driving in Italy advice and experience has created a bit of clarity on driving rules in Italy and prepared you for an open approach to this experience. Please leave a comment if I forgot something or if you can share your experiences!

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