Monday, 19 January 2015

Driving in Italy

This is a collection of information about driving in Italy, based on what I have learned in driving some 10,000 km in that country. It does not try to cover every Italian road law.
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.

Autostrada tolls
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.

Italian drivers
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.

Typical advance direction sign although, as it is in a major city (Milan), it has graffiti. But still quite clear.
Unlike most other countries in Europe, Italy uses white on green signs for autostrade and white on blue for ordinary main roads.
Some advance direction signs are very graphic. This one seems to be showing a very strange road junction.
Typical direction sign at an intersection.
Just to be different, this sign shows the road numbers.
You will often find a sign like this in towns. "Tutti le direzioni" means "all directions", so the sign is pointing the way out of the town. Further along, there will be signs pointing to different destinations. In this case, the sign is not really necessary as the white-on-blue arrow indicates that all traffic must turn left. The bottom sign indicates that trucks are prohibited.
This sign is the opposite of the one above: it indicates the way to the town centre. It will usually have the text "Centro" or "Centro storico" next to it.
Italy sometimes uses far too many signs.
And sometimes gets a little confused. In this case, all roads lead to Perdifumo.

Autostrada direction signs

Some people have expressed concern about taking the correct autostrada exit. There is good directional signage, as shown in these pictures.

One kilometre before a junction, there is an advance information sign like this one, which shows that you take the exit to go to Catania or stay on the autostrada for Palermo.
Advance signs may also be suspended over the road, as shown here.
This sign tells you which lane you should be in: left three lanes for Naples and L'Aquila, right two lanes for Rome, airports, and Civitavecchia. Yes, I know there are only four lanes marked on the road (plus a breakdown lane at extreme right), but do not under-estimate Italian drivers.
When you intend to change from one autostrada to another, take note of the number of the autostrada that you want. As you can see, this sign is right before an exit. You want to go to Pisa. Do you take the exit or not?
You will also find illuminated signs over the autostrada, warning about hazards ahead. If you have no Italian, they will not help you very much. This one is just warning that there may be speed cameras ahead.

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.

This sign relates to a small off-street parking lot. The white P on blue background is the standard sign indicating that parking is permitted. On the next plate, the parking meter symbol indicates pay parking, the crossed hammers indicate that the rule applies on weekdays (i.e. not Sundays or public holidays), and the figures show the rule applies from 8 am to 1 pm and from 2.30 pm to 8 pm. The tiny print says cars must display a ticket obtained from the parking machine. "Nei limiti tracciati" means "In this area".
The parking lot provides the means of avoiding the ZTL. Turn left into the car park, circle around it, then out and back up the street.
This marks the entry to a zone with a speed limit of 30 km/h.
This is the sign to pay attention to.
The top two plates say that this is entry 7 to the Mantova ZTL. Note the "No vehicles" sign on the second plate.
The third plate lists exceptions: authorised vehicles, bicycles, motorised bicycles, and deliveries at any time. Trucks between 06.00 and 10.00 and between 15.00 and 16.30.
The bottom plate warns that access is monitored by a camera, and that disabled people can go through the ZTL by making an advance booking by phone.
On the main photo, note that there is a camera mounted above this sign. This camera notes the number plate of every vehicle going past, and the local police issue tickets to any unauthorised vehicles.
Finally, this sign on the right of the street says that no vehicles of any kind may enter between 06.00 and 14.00 on Thursdays, because of the weekly market.

For good measure, here are a few more signs relating to ZTLs.

From Vicenza: an advance direction sign warning that the turn to the right leads to the ZTL.
Here is one from Besenello with a lot of wording. You may not understand the words, but the "No vehicles" symbol is very clear.

Copyright © 2011-15 by Nick Booth. Please contact me if you have any comment.