Q: My wife and I were in Italy recently and twice as we drove along a road we saw heavily armed policemen standing at the side of the road watching traffic. What’s up with that?

A: Those were Carabinieri officers, and yes, they can be heavily armed. Carabinieri forces these days are actually part of the Italian military. Units or small groups of officers have deployed to places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Kosovo and Bosnia in recent years. But when they’re in Italy many perform duties similar to policemen. The officers you saw were probably just conducting routine traffic operations. That involves stopping the occasional vehicle and looking at paperwork to make sure the car isn’t stolen and proper certification has been maintained.

Carabinieri, sporting uniforms and cars that are dark blue, also perform escort duties for dignitaries (and U.S. troop movements in Italy). This sometimes involves stopping or diverting traffic.

They’re not the only Italian police who monitor roadside traffic either, though none of the others are likely to be toting submachine guns and some aren’t armed at all. Polizia and Vigili Urbani officers, with uniforms and vehicles of lighter blue and white, also enforce traffic laws and make occasional stops to check papers.

Regardless of who’s doing the stopping, pull over safely, follow directions and provide your paperwork.

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