Driving in Italy? Here’s advice from someone who does it every day: Keep both hands on the steering wheel and both eyes on the road. Use one foot lightly on the accelerator and be prepared to switch it heavily to the brakes. Don’t assume the driver of another vehicle will react as you would or even follow the country’s written laws. Stay calm.
In many ways, motoring through Italy isn’t much different from driving elsewhere in Europe. But there are a host of things a visitor planning to spend time on the road should know before getting behind the wheel.
• Obey the speed limit or be prepared to pay the consequences — literally. Regulations adopted in recent years have increased the fines that law enforcement officials can levy on those driving too fast. And police generally will require offenders to pay the fines on the spot. Speeding fines can range up to several hundred euros, and most travelers normally won’t want to carry that much money with them. If you can’t pay, you might get a ticket to take with you. Or you might have to find another means of transportation as the authorities impound your car. Unless otherwise posted, the limit on the autostrada is 130 kilometers per hour. On lesser highways, it’s 110. On rural roads the maximum is 90, and in towns or cities it’s 50.
• You’ll pay for the privilege of driving on the country’s best roads. Most of the autostrada network has a series of toll booths. Generally, motorists pick up a ticket at the first booth, then present it and pay at another booth. Costs have risen dramatically recently, meaning a trip across the north of the country, for example, could have a motorist paying more than the equivalent of $50 in road tolls. Don’t expect to use dollars, though. Pay in euros. Better yet, use a credit card by going to the blue lanes. Lines usually are much shorter there. Avoid the yellow lanes marked Telepass; they’re reserved for motorists who subscribe to a service.
• Look at a map and note the roads you’ll take before starting the trip. Italian highways are generally well marked. But there are far fewer exits than on U.S. highways and a wrong turn or missed exit will cause delays and likely involve going through another toll booth. Or two.
• You usually won’t have to leave the highway to fill up with gasoline. There are numerous stations — many with restaurants — located in turnouts along highways. Gasoline is expensive in Italy. Department of Defense ID card holders on TDY or officially approved leave can present the proper paperwork and receive an allotment of coupons at U.S. bases in the country that can be exchanged for gasoline at designated service stations. The ways to do this vary, and it’s possible you won’t be able to get enough coupons to cover your entire trip. If, however, you end up with too many, you can mail back the remainder for a refund. Call the base ahead of time — the base exchange is a good place to start — to find out details.
• Italians believe your hands are for driving. Or gesturing. Or holding a cigarette. But you can’t talk on a cell phone without a hands-free device. Or, technically, munch on a sandwich or drink a soda.
• Turn on your headlights. It’s required to keep them on while driving on the autostrada and most roads that aren’t in cities. If drivers in cars behind you are flashing their lights, that means they want to pass. Move over as soon as you’re able. If the driver of an oncoming car is flashing lights, that might mean your lights aren’t on. On smaller roads, it’s also often an indication that you’re approaching a spot where police are trying to catch speeders.
• If a policeman standing at the side of the road — often holding what looks like a table tennis paddle — signals you, pull over. It might mean you’ve done something wrong. Or it could just mean they’re randomly checking for paperwork to make sure you’re registered correctly and aren’t driving a stolen car.
• Part of the inspection those police make could involve looking in the vehicle to make sure you have the proper safety equipment. That includes a reflective vest for every person in the car (in case of an accident) and a warning triangle that’s to be put out behind the car as a signal for other drivers. A first-aid kit is also essential. You’re required to give aid to injured people if you’re involved in or come across an accident. Spare bulbs for your exterior lights are also a good idea. Police often will expect you to fix the problem promptly if they pull you over for a burned-out light.
• In the event of an accident, exchange insurance and contact information with the other drivers involved. Police might ask for more documentation. U.S. military personnel could respond to the scene if you’re close to a base. In other cases, translators working for military police are assigned to provide assistance over the phone. So carry a list with base contact numbers.
• To avoid an accident, pay careful attention to not only the driving conditions — roads can be narrow and sometimes don’t shed water well — but also to other drivers. Italians are notoriously aggressive drivers. Yield signs are often ignored. Stop signs are just a stronger "suggestion" for many. Patience is short for those who hesitate or hold up traffic. Many vehicles will pass regardless of what the painted lines indicate (or even if there’s oncoming traffic).
• Driving in large cities, especially Rome and Naples, is only for the experienced and courageous. Others might want to park in smaller cities and take the train in. Or at least park in a large garage on the outskirts and take public transportation to the city center. Several cities, such as Milan, have introduced limitations on driving in downtown areas anyway.
• Be prepared for obstructions in the road that might require you to slow down drastically or come to a complete stop. Pedestrians or bicyclists on narrow roads, slow-moving farm equipment, or buildings or bridges that suddenly create single-lane roads are common.
• Though many tourists enjoy sampling the country’s wine, don’t drive if you’ve had more than a glass or two. You’re considered drunk if your blood alcohol content is .05 or higher. And authorities can now levy heavy fines, take away driving privileges and seize cars as a result of new laws.