Driving in Italy
You may have noticed it the first time you tentatively stepped on a pedestrian crossing and naively expected traffic to stop for you. Let’s face it, driving around Italy can be an exhilarating way of seeing Il Bel Paese. But for the uninitiated foreign motorist it can frequently seem bewildering and can on occasion call for no little skill, courage and speed.
The first thing to ask is if you really need a vehicle. Driving through and parking in congested cities like Rome, Florence and Naples, especially on Friday and Sunday evenings, can be a nightmare. In southern cities such as Naples, for instance, traffic lights are often ignored, so beware, especially at busy junctions.
If you must have a car, leave it in a supervised car park, in particular if you are leaving luggage inside.
You are often better advised to rely on buses, trains and taxis.
But if, perhaps, you plan to buy a countryside property in Italy and need to explore rural Italy, then a car becomes less of a luxury and more of a necessity. Be prepared, though.
If you are hiring a vehicle you will usually need to be over 19 and to have held a full licence for 12 months. If you have been a licensed driver for less than three years, strictly speaking you must not drive cars that can go over about 90mph. That’s the law, anyway. Ensure your policy covers you for breakdowns and basic insurance. Some rental firms may ask you for a deposit.
You’ll be driving on the right, which most foreign visitors will be used to, except those from Britain, who can find it tricky. Ensure you always carry your driving licence, insurance papers and vehicle registration documents. Most modern licences will have your photo, but if you have an old green licence that doesn’t, take along your passport just in case. It’s also illegal not to have a warning triangle in your boot.
Kids are only allowed in the front seat if taller than about 4ft 11ins. When driving on motorways, dual carriageways and any out-of-town road, always have dipped headlamps on. That applies at dusk in midwinter or at 3pm on a blazing hot summer day. Naturally, there are compulsory in reduced visibility, such as in rain or snow. If you’re on a motorbike, the rules apply regardless of the type of road you’re on and the prevailing conditions.
Seatbelts, front and rear, are compulsory, although that did not become fully enshrined in law until 2003. And in common with most Western countries, using a handheld mobile phone at the wheel is strictly forbidden.
Many filling stations shut for what can seem an inordinately long lunch (12.30pm-3pm), although the majority will have at least one self-service pump available. On motorways, however petrol stops tend to remain open around the clock.
Most motorways have manned and automated tollbooths that accept credit and debit card payments. You can also buy a Viacard prepayment card from petrol stations and tourist offices.
Alternatively, you can ask for a bill to be sent to you so you pay later. Ensure you do, though.
Because many visiting drivers aren’t aware what Italian speed cameras look like, some think they don’t exist. Very wrong. They do. They’re grey, about 3ft 3ins high and could pass – appropriately, perhaps – for rubbish bins. They’re often hidden away too to catch the unwary.
Speed limits are 130kph (80mph) on the motorway, 110kph (68) on dual carriageways, 90kph (55mph), on the open road and 50kph (31mph) in built-up areas. Breaking the limits can fetch heavy on-the-spot fines. But using speed camera radar detectors is strictly outlawed and can fetch a fine of more than €2,800 as well as having the device seized.
Finally, drink-driving. Italy has a limit of 50mg per 100ml of blood, as opposed to 80mg/100ml in the UK, and it is imposed strictly. Stray over it even slightly and you risk a fine, having your car seized and a possible jail term.
Perhaps the strictness of the Italian authorities is understandable given that Italian roads aren’t the safest and claim some 6,000 lives a year. A few years ago the Vatican was so concerned that it issued a 60-page document, Orientations for the Pastoral of the Road that intoned, among other things: “The road must not be an instrument of death, but one of communion.”
Italy’s a wonderful country to discover by road, as long as you do it safely. Useful emergency numbers: Carabinieri 112; Police 113; Fire Brigade 115; Vehicle breakdowns 116; Ambulance 118. Let’s hope you never need them.