Traffic fines get tougher to avoid in Italy
December 15, 2003
Thousands of American servicemembers and civilians stationed in Italy over the years apparently have been able to avoid paying traffic tickets they’ve accrued before leaving the country.
Just how many? No one — including Italian law enforcement authorities — can say for sure. The numbers aren’t kept by American military communities and until recently there hasn’t been much in the way of a centralized tracking system in Italy.
But in a recent article by Il Gazzettino, a newspaper in Pordenone, the city’s prefect estimated that Americans stationed at Aviano Air Base owe 500,000 euros, about $625,000, in unpaid tickets and associated fees that have piled up over the years.
In fact, the article said a recent study of the records indicated that only about 16 of every 100 Americans ticketed in the area had paid.
Base officials, who learned about the situation through the article, have no way of verifying those numbers, because the base generally is not informed when individual servicemembers are pulled over for minor violations.
“I’m sure there are some people who haven’t paid, but as to an amount, I just don’t know,” said Capt. Chris Ferretti, chief of international law at the base’s legal office.
And that’s basically the same case at other U.S. installations around the country. In serious cases, American law enforcement and legal personnel get involved. The United States routinely asks for jurisdiction in cases where an American is charged with causing a serious accident or driving while intoxicated.
But traffic tickets?
“Those should be taken care of in a member’s personal capacity,” Ferretti said.
That’s not always easy, though, even for those willing to pay. The Italian system for notifying offenders can take months. For example, a U.S. civilian was nabbed by a camera for going too fast along a road near the Swiss border in early May. But a ticket wasn’t received in the mail until mid-November.
With a largely transient American military population in the country, it’s likely that many violators never received notification before being transferred.
“You have a constant turnover here, just like any other installation overseas,” Ferretti said.
Lt. Arcangelo La Marca, Carabinieri commander for the base in Aviano, agrees that the old system — changed somewhat by new traffic laws — took too long.
Through a translator, he said it isn’t always a case of not knowing, though. Sometimes, cars are impounded after serious violations. In order to get the car back, a servicemember would have to pay hefty fees, sometimes more than the car is worth. So the fees are never paid, leaving the local government with the vehicle.
The series of new Italian driving laws probably won’t have much of an impact on those cases. But the laws might have a large impact on Americans currently driving in Italy, especially those prone to accumulating tickets.
One provision of the laws, which largely went into effect in the summer, requires non-Italians to pay fines for traffic violations on the spot. Those driving too quickly, not turning on headlights during all hours except when driving in city limits or talking on the cell phone can expect to receive fines that might reach hundreds of euros. If they can’t pay immediately, the car can be impounded.
Ferretti said there’s also an option of paying half the potential fine and appealing. But it might cost more money later if the appeal is rejected.
La Marca said it isn’t official policy, but sometimes law enforcement officers will escort violators to a nearby automated cash machine to get money for the fines.
Another new rule is aimed primarily at people who live in the country.
Italy established a point system for the first time, with those who accumulate 20 or more points losing their license for a variable amount of time. It’s an expensive proposition for Italians, who will have to pay the equivalent of hundreds of dollars to obtain new licenses.
What impact it might have on Americans isn’t as clear. Attempts to contact Italian authorities were unsuccessful.
La Marca said American violators are being put into the system along with Italians. He said he’s not sure what the result will be if an American reaches 20 points.
But he asserts that local authorities have the power to pull any and all driver’s licenses, regardless of nationality.
American bases haven’t issued any definitive word on the subject. A message in the base newspaper in Naples a few months ago came the closest, stating that the issue was still uncertain.
A spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Rome said Friday that inquiries are being made to the appropriate Italian authorities to see how Americans might be affected.
Ferretti said it’s probably a good idea to assume that American licenses are in jeopardy.
“If the law says you can have your license taken away if you have 20 points accumulate against you, that’s certainly a possibility,” he said.
La Marca hesitated when asked for his interpretation, then answered with a smile:
“Don’t make violations.”