Some people are terrified of the idea of driving in Italy. With all the horror stories around the web, anyone would think twice before hitting the road. But what makes driving in Italy so hard? Why are tourists afraid to do it?
Driving in Italy can be difficult and stressful in large cities. Strict traffic laws, inadequate signage, aggressive drivers, poor road conditions, traffic congestion, parking, and other factors make driving hard for tourists. However, most people will find it relatively easy to navigate on highways and back roads.
In this article, I’ll go through all the obstacles most foreigners face when driving in Italy. If you are unsure about your Italian road trip, I encourage you to keep reading to know what to expect on your first car journey.
1. Strict Traffic Laws
Italy has one of the most complex highway codes in Europe. In fact, it consists of 245 articles and an Implementing Regulation that includes 408 articles and 19 appendices. On top of that, each town hall has its own set of rules and restrictions.
When driving in historical centers, you may find some areas called Zona Traffico Limitato (ZTL). Basically, you need to display a special permit to enter these restricted zones. If you are not familiarized with ZTLs, you are very likely to drive into one by accident. In this case, a camera will take a picture of your vehicle’s plate and send you a traffic ticket.
ZTL fines are pretty expensive and can range from €84 to €335, depending on the severity of the infraction.
Also, you must be careful not to drive on lanes dedicated to public transportation. These lanes are marked with yellow stripes and text indicating what types of vehicles are allowed. For example, you may see the word BUS, TAXI, or TRAM written on the asphalt. You will notice a vertical sign with vehicles exempt from the norm at the entrance. Fast tracks can be one-way, two-way, and on the sides of the road.
Tourists often struggle to learn traffic signs as well. While some signals are very intuitive, some are trickier than you think. You can’t always rely on the design and shape to interpret them. Traffic signs can be vertical, illuminated, manual, and horizontal.
If you are from the UK or Australia, you will have to get used to driving in the right lane. This shouldn’t be a problem for American and European drivers, though.
You will have to do extensive research if you don’t want a hefty fine at home. Or you can just check out my ultimate guide about Italian traffic fines by clicking on this link.
2. Heavy Traffic Congestion
Traffic congestion in large cities is probably the worst thing about driving in Italy. According to a TomTom report, drivers in Rome alone lost 75 hours due to traffic jams. Likewise, people in Naples and Milan lost 66 and 64 hours, respectively. While those statistics are alarming, the situation is getting worse every year.
In most cases, traffic jams occur due to careless drivers. For example, the car in front of you may change lanes all at once. As a result, you may have to wait for hours until traffic clears to continue your trip. Other reasons that often cause traffic congestion in Italy are:
- Road construction sites.
- Random people stop in the middle of the street.
- Poorly timed traffic lights.
I recommend driving at lunchtime if you want to avoid traffic congestion. Usually, there is little to no traffic from 12:30 PM to 2:00 PM. Also, it is better to travel on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Thursdays (avoid weekends at all costs). You could use Google Maps, Waze, or the Autostrade website to check real-time traffic data.
3. Inadequate Road Signage
It is common to hear people complain about inadequate road signage in Italy. You may see signs covered by tree branches, faded, or vandalized. Also, some municipalities locate signals in hidden spots to earn money from traffic tickets. Be aware that speed limit signs are often not posted on Highways, but they are still imposed.
The Italian Highway Code (CdS) prohibits creating and using illegal signs. In this sense, traffic signals must be authorized first to be valid.
However, locals impose parking restrictions without any permission at all. Usually, they buy a sign from the grocery store and stick it on the door. This can lead to drivers getting confused and entering prohibited places.
4. Aggressive Drivers
Italian drivers are known for being aggressive, fast, and egotistic. Some common driving behaviors include tailgating, speeding, not using turn signals, overtaking on curves, and constantly honking horns. Furthermore, drivers in Italy usually don’t respect roundabouts and pedestrian crossings.
Keeping a safe distance is not a common practice in Italy. So, expect other cars to drive adhered to your rear at all times. Your best bet would be to stay calm and pay attention to the driver behind you. They often try to overtake you or use the safety distance to zigzag between lanes.
A large number of road accidents occur due to tailgating. According to ISTAT, there were 13.148 cases of rear-end collisions in 2020. This number represented 8,7% of all traffic accidents in Italy. Fines for not respecting the safety distance range from €42 to €173, but drivers don’t care.
Not Using Turn Signals
Little to no people use the turn signal in Italy. Most of the time, you will have to guess where the car in front of you is going.
In a 2015 study, only 36% of 1.000 drivers regularly used turn signals when needed. This means that 2 out of 3 Italians forget to activate them on a daily basis. Furthermore, of the 300 cars tracked on the highway, only 32% used turn signals to change lanes.
Be careful when you are approaching a roundabout as well. Italians usually don’t use turn signals when leaving one. Also, don’t expect them to give you priority when you are inside the roundabout. Someone might cut you off suddenly.
5. Careless Scooter Riders
As if car drivers were not enough, you need to watch out for scooters too. In recent years, shared e-scooters have become very popular among Italians. You will find one on every corner, especially in big cities.
Scooter riders are just as bad, if not worse, than car drivers. They simply think traffic rules don’t apply to them. For example, they often cross the street without looking both ways as if they were invincible. Electric scooters also tend to ignore traffic lights, drive on the sidewalk, and zigzag between lanes.
A 2021 study found that e-scooter collisions climbed from 564 to 2.101 in one year. This represented an increase of around 270% in traffic accidents.
Thankfully, the government is taking some measures to control e-scooter riders. For instance, the speed limit was reduced from 25 kph to 20 kph. Electric scooters must also have built-in turn and stop signals by law.
6. Poorly Maintained Roads
Very few Italian cities have roads in good condition. In most cases, you will have to deal with potholes, uneven surfaces, broken concrete, and cracks. While bad roads are more common in Southern Italy, you will still find some in the north.
It is not clear why the roads in Italy are in such bad condition. Some people blame the excessive traffic, while others blame the weather. But the reality is that mayors don’t give regular maintenance to the roads.
Let’s take the city of Rome as an example. Even though it is the capital of Italy, you will see potholes and cracks all over the place. Some of them are so large that they look like craters.
You may want to drive slower than usual if you have a small car. Otherwise, you will have to rent an SUV or a truck to tackle the bad roads. But remember that larger vehicles are always more expensive.
7. Parking is Problematic
Parking in Italy can be a challenge for inexperienced drivers. In urban areas, parking lots are usually pretty small and narrow. Thus, you may have to perform complex maneuvers to get out of one safely. Consider renting a smaller vehicle if you struggle with parallel parking.
It is tough to find a parking spot in large cities. On average, Italians spend at least 30 minutes a day searching for a place to leave their vehicle. That’s why you often see cars obstructing the streets or above the sidewalk. Some people may even park at intersections as well.
As the report suggests, you are unlikely to find a parking space after 7:00 PM. This is the time when people come home from work to eat dinner. Also, avoid looking for parking lots between 8:00 AM and 9:00 AM.
Moreover, parking signs can be tricky to understand. But don’t worry; I’ve got you covered on that. I wrote a complete guide on how parking in Italy works. You can check it out by clicking on this link now.
8. Extremely Narrow Streets
Narrow streets are a common problem when driving in Italy. In some situations, you may get stuck or scratch your vehicle if you are not attentive. This is especially true in old towns and neighborhoods, where people park on both sides of the road.
Roads in Europe were not built with cars in mind. Some centuries ago, people went by using animal-powered vehicles. The streets were primarily made to fit horses and carriages, not automobiles.
For this reason, you want to know how much space your car takes up beforehand. Sometimes your GPS navigator may bring you to narrow lanes to avoid traffic jams. And if your vehicle is too large, you may spend a lot of time finding another route to reach your destination. You could get a traffic ticket in the process.
9. Manual Transmission Is The Norm
Almost everyone drives manual cars in Italy. As a matter of fact, about 20% of the population uses vehicles with an automatic transmission. On the other hand, around 97% of all cars sold in the USA are automatic.
You can still rent an automatic car if you don’t feel comfortable driving a manual one. However, you have to make sure to book far in advance as they are pretty limited. You will also have to pay a lot more unless you get a special offer.
If you have experience with manual cars, go ahead and get one. The only downside is that you will have to press and release the clutch constantly. Thus, you might feel fatigued after a couple of miles when the traffic is too heavy.
Italians are very clever when it comes to using manual cars. To avoid messing up with the shifter, they often drive at a lower gear before a stop. For instance, you may see a car driving at 10 km/h in second gear when it should be at 20 km/h. If you come across one of those people, try to stay calm and be patient.
You could spend hundreds of dollars more on renting a car if you choose the wrong site. This is why many tourists from all over the world trust Auto Europe. Hurry up and make your reservartion now by clickling on this link before automatic cars are sold out!
10. GPS Is Not 100% Accurate
You probably won’t go anywhere without having a GPS device in Italy. It is easy to get lost since the streets look almost identical. For this reason, you may want to bring a GPS navigator or download the maps to your phone.
However, be careful when using mobile apps such as Google Maps and Waze. They might not be fully accurate if you don’t have a stable internet connection. The coverage in rural areas is terrible.
If the maps are not updated, your GPS may suggest the wrong route. For example, most small towns close their roads to have a weekly Mercato. Also, the speed limits are not always correct.
You risk spending a lot of money on a GPS unit without even needing one. So, don’t forget to read this post if you don’t want to be caught off guard with GPS prices.