So you land at the Italian airport for your holiday, walk confidently to the car hire desk and pick up your car keys. You walk out to the car and then the sudden realisation hits that you are going to be driving in Italy. Yes, driving in Italy. And your first problem is getting out of the multi-story car park and avoiding the large number of Italian drivers who are also leaving having picked up their relatives at the airport and don’t believe in queuing or following directional arrows for flow of traffic.
Moments of Initial Panic
You lick your lips nervously but are relieved when you exit the car park. However, immediately you are faced with streams of traffic and road signs in a language you don’t understand. That is except the helpful one in English that reminds you that you drive on the right in Italy. Driving in Italy for the first time can be a white knuckle ride. Unfortunately the airports for the main cities throw you straight into the thick of it. Never mind, as a veteran of driving in Italy (and having got stuck in tricky situations on more occasions than I care to remember) I am here to provide you with a few tips that I hope will help you.
Ten Things You Should Know About Driving in Italy
Tolls on Motorways (Autostrada).
You need to have changed some money before you get into the car as you will have to pay tolls on the main motorways. You also have to make sure you get in the right lane to pay cash, by credit card or by Telepass (an automated transponder which I guess you are unlikely to have unless you live in Italy). Slow down and pay attention as if you get in the wrong one you may end up creating mayhem. You should see the chaos caused by drivers trying to reverse back from being in the wrong place and all the drivers behind trying to get out of their way – and all with traffic still arriving at speed at the toll! Follow the white signs (sometimes with images of coins) for cash, the blue signs for credit cards and the yellow signs for Telepass.
You should have dipped headlights on at all times.
It used to be the case that you just had to have them on for tunnels but since 2002 it is a requirement that they are on at all times. Lots of people forget and you can get fined for not using them.
Use of a mobile phone is prohibited unless using a hands free device.
You will find this hard to believe when you see the number of Italians driving with their phones to their ears but that is the law and you can get fined if stopped.
Exits and entrances from motorways and roads generally are very short with quite tight corners.
You have little opportunity to get up to speed before entering traffic from another road so be warned and be prepared to slow down and use your brake! Don’t expect people to slow down and let you out, it is not going to happen, if you see a gap you go for it.
You will be tailgated.
It is an Italian standard, tailgating will happen and it is scary. They drive fast and close and when overtaking will get very close to the back of your car. They also see it as a challenge to fill the space in front of you if you don’t. The important thing is to keep calm and let them get on with it!
Use of car horns.
You will be tooted if you are a split second slow in moving off when the traffic lights change. They change quickly from red to green in a blink so you have to be ready. Be careful not to use your car horn in restricted areas such as the middle of towns (or, you guessed it, you could be fined). Oh, and if they win the football they all toot their horns like crazy (which can be deafening if you are in a tunnel with them)!
Be clear on the words for petrol and diesel in Italian and know which one your car needs.
The Italian for unleaded petrol is ‘benzina’ and for diesel is ‘gasolio’. I would strongly recommend you don’t get them muddled as sorting it out if you use the wrong one is not pretty!
Flashing a headlight at someone probably means something different from your home country.
If the car is coming towards you and they flash their headlights they are often warning you that there is a police check ahead (incidentally you are not supposed to flash your lights and, guess what, it can lead to a fine). This is where you can be pulled over arbitrarily by the police to have your documents checked. The police are armed (you may see machine guns) but that is standard and nothing to worry about. It is important that you carry your documents with you in case of a stop. Otherwise if someone flashes their lights at you it means they are coming through so you get out of their way. That is particularly confusing for those of us brought up on British roads where flashing lights means ‘come on I will wait for you’.
Parking can be problematic.
Car parks fill up fast and Italians take no prisoners if a space appears they will go for it and fast! You need a parking meter (probably provided with the hire car) that you need to set if you are in a limited time parking zone. You set the time you actually parked the car. In some places you buy parking tickets from the local Tabacchi (tobacconist) which you leave on the dashboard. Otherwise you should always keep some loose change for parking meters (and shopping trolleys by the way, you need a one euro coin to release them, but I digress).
Driving in and around cities and towns.
Be careful as many towns and cities have areas that are off limits (zona traffico limitato) and if you are caught driving in one you can be fined (surely not I hear you cry!). Seriously, there are good reasons to pay attention as you could end up jammed in narrow streets or in the middle of a street market!
I hope that little list helps you, you can read more information about driving in Italy here. – oh, and when you are driving at full speed on a motorway with an Italian on the telephone tailgating you … welcome to my world! I love it!
Before you go
My name is Dorothy Berry-Lound an artist and writer. You can find out more about my art and writing at https://dorothyberryloundart.com.
Thank you for reading!