Starting with the most basic fact: Italy drives on the right-hand side of the road. If you normally drive on the left (as I do), this is terrifying for the first hour or so. For the first few days, concentration is needed to avoid drifting to the left. After that, it starts to be easy. The pedals are the same way round, so you brake and accelerate with the right foot, and change gear with the left. The gear lever is still in the centre of the car, with the same shift pattern. If you do not drive a European car, you will find that the controls on the steering column are the other way round: direction indicators on left, windscreen wipers on right. You may find yourself trying to indicate turns with the wipers.
International Driving Permit
To drive in Italy, you must have an International Driving Permit as well as your driving license, unless your driving license is issued by an EU country. The car rental company may or may not ask to see your IDP, but the Police certainly will if you are involved in an accident or stopped for a routine check. The IDP is usually issued by motoring organisations: the AAA in the USA, or NRMA, RACV, etc., in Australia.
Kinds of roads
Autostrade are motorways: divided roads with two or three lanes in each direction, no at-grade intersections and limited access. Many of them are toll roads. Usually you take a ticket from a machine as you enter a toll road. When you leave the toll road, look for a lane that does not have signs indicating that it takes only cards. Give the ticket to an attendant or put it into a machine, and pay the toll. Both will give change. When driving on an autostrada, stay in the right lane unless you are actually overtaking.
Other roads vary greatly in standard from really good wide roads to narrow winding mountain roads. Most of them are perfectly adequate two-lane country roads.
Most autostrade (motorways) in Italy have tolls, and these can add up to a substantial amount. You can get toll costs from ViaMichelin. There is always a free alternative to a toll autostrada, but it may take much longer to drive. Usually when you enter a toll road, you take a ticket from a machine. Some of the gates are reserved for people with an electronic tag, so you need to use a gate that has a sign reading Bigliette (tickets). The illustrations below show a gate with one of these signs, and an example of a ticket, which is about the size of a standard airline boarding pass.
When you leave the tollway, there are three ways of making payment. Telepass is an electronic tag that has to be associated with a European bank account or card, and so is not useful for tourists. Payment can be made by credit or debit card at gates marked Carte, but there is always doubt about the acceptance of a card issued outside Europe. I always head for the gates where I can pay with cash. The illustration shows the signs used for each kind of payment. Although it is not very obvious in the photo, each gate has a red or green light to indicate whether that gate is in use. If you look closely, the leftmost gate has a red light, so you cannot use that gate.
At the gate you will usually find a machine. Put the ticket into the obvious slot in the machine, and the amount of toll will be shown on a display level with the driver's head. Pay with notes and/or coins. The machine will give change if necessary. You will sometimes find a human attendant.
There are a few toll autostrade that do not use tickets: they have toll plazas across the road charging a flat rate of tolls. One is the link between the A11 and A12 just west of Lucca, and another is the A9 between the A8 and Como.
There is a lot of nonsense around about Italian drivers. It is true that in major cities, they drive too fast, pay little attention to lane markings, and generally play by local rules; but tourists should not try to drive into major cities anyway. Outside towns, they will generally drive as fast as road conditions allow or a little faster. If you find you are being followed too closely, just look for somewhere to pull right and let the car get past. In the narrow streets of old towns, Italian drivers slow right down and are very courteous.
Driving in major cities
It is a very bad idea to try to drive into any major city in Italy. Quite apart from the hazards of Limited Traffic Zones, traffic is fast and heavy, and parking is expensive. If you are travelling by car and want to visit a major city, leave the car in a nearby small town and take a bus or train into the city.
Driving outside major cities
Outside built-up areas, vehicles should use dipped headlamps at all times. There are many speed cameras in Italy, so do not exceed the posted limit; even if a 50 km/h limit seems unnecessary.
General road signs
|Italy uses European standard signs to give warnings and instructions. These are illustrated on a separate page.|
Road direction signs
Italy has fairly good signage telling you which road to take, but it follows Italian conventions. People from UK complain that the signs do not show road numbers (apart from autostrade). People from USA complain that they do not show the compass point followed by the road. Instead, the signs show the places that the road will take you to. Quite logical, when you think about it.
Autostrada direction signs
Some people have expressed concern about taking the correct autostrada exit. There is good directional signage, as shown in these pictures.
Limited Traffic Zones (ZTLs)Almost every settlement in Italy has in its centre a Zona Traffico Limitato (Limited Traffic Zone). Only authorised vehicles are allowed into this area, making it more pleasant and safer for pedestrians. These areas are clearly indicated with the standard European "No vehicles" sign of a red circle with white centre, like an Italian speed limit sign with no numbers. Do not drive past such a sign. Except perhaps in Rome, there is always a way to make a turn and avoid the ZTL.
Note that using a GPS device will not guarantee that you avoid ZTLs, nor will planning a route using Google Maps or ViaMichelin. As you drive into any settlement, be prepared to see a ZTL sign and make a turn.
This excellent collection of signs is at the entrance to the ZTL in Mantova, and illustrates a number of points. Let's look at each sign in turn.
Copyright © 2011-15 by Nick Booth. Please contact me if you have any comment.