Driving in Italy
Aaah ... italian driving... so many stereotypes.......

So, if you are looking for images, text or videos about stereotypical "italian driving", you are on the wrong page/website and may as well move on. On the other hand, if you are one of the countless number of tourists who are planning to visit Italy and are considering renting a car, well... then read on.

Italian drivers are not any better or worst than any other driver in any other country. Depending on where one is in Italy, traffic or drivers' behaviour may be comparable to what could be experienced in major metropolis all over, whether Paris, Amsterdam, Seattle, New York, Montreal or Toronto. I learned how to drive in Italy. I was a teenager and drove a Vespa as well as several cars. When in North America, I felt major apprehension driving for the first time in Toronto and Seattle. Not much different from the way a Canadian or American may feel when driving in Italy!

Everywhere, once you are behind the wheels of a moving vehicle, you have to be careful, even more when you are not familiar with the area you are driving in, and don't know drivers behaviour. If it is of any reassurance, when adjusted for population density, the rate of traffic accidents in Italy, both minor and with fatalities, is comparable to the rate in other countries (Source).

Indeed, in all major cities in Italy vehicular traffic can be chaotic, road signs are frequently ignored, vespas and motorcycles are all over, and one-way streets, combined with city center traffic restrictions, may drive a visitor crazy. But, how is that different from driving in Toronto, Montreal or Los Angeles. However, outside major cities, as long as you are careful, driving will not pose any major challenge, but will allow you to explore, at your own pace, the countryside and the myriads of small cities and towns, each with its own art, history and attractions.

Renting a car
Renting a car is fairly straightforward. We suggest you use an online reservation system in advance. We have used AutoEurope and found it to be hassle free, reliable and offering a large number of options where to pick up or drop off a vehicle. Others may be just as good, but we are not familiar with them. Remember: An International Drivers license is required to drive in Italy.

Insurance: Car rental rates normally include 1) Third Party insurance (compulsory, covers for other people’s injury and damage to their vehicle), 2) Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), 3) Theft (loss or theft of the rented vehicle) and 4) Fire and Liability. Rentals are normally subject to liability excess, which can be reduced at the time you collect your rental car. Check the Auto Europe website for more details.

Here are a few tips and suggestions when driving in Italy (and other continental Europe countries)
  • Unless you are used to drive in congested areas, avoid renting a car in a major city (e.g. Rome, Florence, Milan, etc.). If you do have to pick up or drop off a vehicle in any of these cities, find a location as close to the periphery as possible. The objective is to be able to leave the city as easily as possible and avoid traffic and congestion.

  • Consider pick up/drop off locations either at airports or in small cities which are just a short train ride away from the major cities you intend to visit (or where you may have landed).

  • Cars do speed, so be aware and apply basic defensive driving technique (these are basic driving skills taught by most Automobile Association in NA), i.e. be aware of what other drivers around you are doing and don't take anything for granted.

  • On highways, stay on the right lane AND don't simply look in front of you, but, AS WELL, use you rear view mirror (i.e. defensive driving)! Fast drivers may come upon you very quickly and may tail gate, while flashing their headlights. This may be unnerving, but it is of no consequence if you stay on the right lane or quickly move back there.

  • In Italy, drivers do not necessarily pay attentions to either traffic signs or street lanes markings (they are indeed seen as "suggestions"... :-) ). Don't be surprised if you see 4-5 cars beside each other while only two should have been.

Traffic violation and fines in Italy - The "famous" ZTL
If you plan to rent a car in Italy, remember that, in addition to your regular driver licence, you also need an International Driver licence. In Canada this can be easily obtained from your local Canadian Automobile Association.

Speeding. A visitor should familiarize itself
with the various speed limits that may vary depending on the type of road and its location. Checkout this Wikipedia website where a simple table summarizes speed limits in Italy. Roadside cameras are widely used to catch "speeders". They clock your speed and take a picture of your license plate if you are exceeding the limit. However, to facilitate people to respect traffic laws, these cameras are frequently preceded by a sign alerting of their presence (see picture). It is an effective approach since most italians quickly slow down as they see the sign. Those who don't will have to pay some hefty fines (e.g. 200 euros for a 20 km above the limit of 50).

Limited Traffic Zones (ZTL)
. These are areas where only vehicles with special authorization are allowed (and residents). ZTLs pose a major challenge
for tourists renting a car, either when they need to return the car to an agency located within a ZTL, or driving to their hotel within a ZTL or, simply when visiting one of the many Italian cities and towns that have established ZTLs. As soon as a car drives within the restricted traffic area, a camera will take a picture of its licence plate (Picture: note camera above sign).

One of the irritants with ZTLs is that fines duplicate every time the vehicle passes through the camera station, even if it is within few minutes. So, it could happen that a tourist may inadvertently accumulate several fines in one day. A second irritant is that fines may show on the Credit Card used to rent the car up to 12 months later. The Car rental agencies are required by law to provide the name and address of the individual that rented the car and they will charge handling fees for that. A few months later, the traffic authority (Municipal Police, etc.) will send by mail the traffic ticket. If it is not paid, the car Agency will end up paying, but then it will charge your card, plus additional handling fees.....

So, your best approach is to pay attention to ZTLs and speeding/parking regulations. For more details on Italian traffic tickets check out the outstanding page developed by
Una-Bella-Toscana website.
Taxi and other public transportation
Whether it is in Rome or Florence or in other city in Italy, most of the major attractions are within walking distance. However, there might be circumstances where you need to take a cab or a public transportation.

* If you take a cab, make sure that the meter is not already running. Before stepping in, ask how much it would cost to get to your destination (if you are heading back to your hotel, a business card of the hotel with the address will help communication with the driver).  Also carry small cash so not to expect change from large bills. By far, most people are honest, but there are always people who try to take advantage of a tourist, no matter where you are traveling.

** At train stations, airport arrival areas, etc. you may be approached by people offering you "taxi" services. They are quite good at identifying visitors, and are quite "pushy".... They are called "abusivi", car owners who have no license (AND NO Insurance), but are good at preying on visitors by charging higher rates. Do NOT accept their offer, even if you have to wait for a few minutes for a licensed operator......

*** A few years back you could wave a taxi and jump on where that was convenient. That is now frowned upon. You will have to find a taxi stand. Finally, if you tend to worry about the traffic, and the driving style overall, close your eyes.... It will be ok! If you take a bus, and if at all possible, avoid crowded ones....
see our #6 suggestion for enjoying Italy....

TIP: If you do have to take a crowded bus, try to wiggle to the back and position yourself with your back to the wall of the bus/subway/light transit. That will help you protect your valuables if you are carrying them along. Remember, the few petty criminals around will identify you as a tourist, hence you could be a target. Why be one?