The Paradoxes of Italian Driving

Every country you visit has a different overall “driving personality”. Italy has the reputation, amongst many Americans, as being an, intimidating, “every man for himself” type of driving environment. However, driving in Italy isn’t, in my opinion, something of which you should be afraid. The disclaimer here is driving in cities like Rome and Naples, where even many Italians are intimidated. I do believe it is important to be a defensive and patient driver in Italy, until you have learned the rules of the road – both the ones printed in the driver’s manual, and the “adopted”, unofficial rules of behavior.

Be prepared. Your brain may end up in a scramble trying to deal with the paradoxes of Italian driving. You may also become frustrated, especially if you insist on bringing an American mindset to the roads and drivers of Italy. Leave all that behind, have a sense of humor, have patience, and breathe…..

Tops on the list, for me at least, was the paradox of a rather arduous process of studying for and actually passing the driver’s license exam (a nine month process for me). With the knowledge and skills requirement, you’d think abiding by the rules of the road (as defined in the manual) is something that is taken pretty damn seriously. Yet, there is the actual experience of being on the roads, and observing the style and behaviors that are prevalent.

Beppe Severgnini expresses it best in his book An Italian in Italy – particularly in the chapter “Day One: From Malpensa to Milan – The highway, or the psychopathology of the stoplight”. Nowhere else have I seen it so perfectly and accurately expressed. Be sure to check out this and other books by Beppe Severgnini. Not only does he have the credentials, to speak about the Italian mind, spirit and culture, but he does it with great humor and entertainment value.

My driving experience grows daily, especially now that we are mostly in Rome for the winter months. Based on my experience so far, the “biggies” for which I’d advise you to be prepared are:

Traffic lights and stop signs being subject to interpretation by many drivers. This is based on the time of day, and circumstances (is there a traffic camera?). I’ve heard stories of people being rear-ended (and then yelled at) because they stopped at a stop sign when there was no oncoming traffic from another direction. Repeat advice: Be a defensive driver.

Cells phones and more cell phones. As in the U.S., point deductions and fines are hefty if you are busted for driving with a cellphone glued to your ear (hands-free is fine). And here it looks as though the cell phone is yet another body part. I see this so often that I’m a bit perplexed as to why the penalties and fines are haven’t been an effective a deterrent. But the U.S. isn’t a shining example either of compliance in this regard. Glass houses….right?

Drifting in and out of lanes. Many drivers here seem to have commitment issues..to a choosing a lane. On the highways and in cities, many drivers just can’t (or won’t) make up their minds, so instead they straddle two lanes to extend their options – frustrating the drivers following and creating a traffic hazard. In Rome, where it really feels “dog eat dog”, people seem loathe to let anyone get ahead of them or to have their maneuverability limited. I’ve also seen plenty of this behavior on the rural roads when a car is coming around a bend – often with the left wheels well over the center line (and the driver fully engaged with his or her cell phone). Sure, they eventually make a correction, but usually much too close for my comfort, and I’m not a big fan of the sensation of adrenaline flooding my body.

Being tailgated. This happens WAY more than I’ve been used to in the States. Driver’s don’t seem to be timid about signaling their intention and impatience to pass you. You see this by how close they get to you, and how they flash their lights insistently. They are often so close (just inches from my rear bumper) that I can tell you the color of their eyes – scary. My advice, just make it easy for them to pass. Don’t get huffy and by all means don’t tap your brake lights, because you’ll either end up in a nasty accident or you’ll royally piss off the other driver.

Extreme speed differences. We’ve all heard that excessive speed can kill. So can cars moving at a snail’s pace. The extremes of the speed spectrum really stand out to me here. Seeing someone clocking over 150 kilometers per hour (93 miles per hour) isn’t at all unusual on the main highways (Autostrada) or secondary highways. Make no mistake, it is against the law to drive above defined and posted speed limits. Many Americans have the mistaken idea that there are stretches of highways in Italy (maybe in other parts of Europe) where there are no speed restrictions. WRONG. Now, on the other end of the specturm are the really, REALLY slow drivers. Thankfully laws here prevent certain types of vehicles from accessing the secondary and main highways (e.g. three-wheel Ape vehicles, lower powered motorcycles and mopeds). Yet that doesn’t stop some people in approved vehicles from driving at a complete crawl in these venues. You may think it’s extreme parody in Italian themed movies to see the little elderly Italian man or woman puttering along and barely able to see over the steering wheel. I’m here to tell you I see it all the time. I do see it more on the country roads, but I also see it on the highways. A dangerous scenario for me has been the following: I’m in process of passing, and one of the high speedsters races up behind me flashing their lights. I quickly move to complete my passing and return to the right hand lane, only to find a “slowster” ahead of me. This is a recipe for disaster, so once again, be defensive, and always look ahead.

In the rural parts of Italy frequently you will run into the three-wheel Ape vehicles slowing chugging along. Depending on the time of year, you’ll also run into tractors towing trailers with farm harvests (tobacco farming is huge in parts of Umbria) and firewood in late summer/early fall. Again, exercise patience.

Autovelox

The dreaded Autovelox measures and photo-captures vehicles driving at excessive speeds. Your fine will arrive by mail – up to 4 months later.

Autovelox and “Safety Tutors”. Italy has a rather extensive network of speed tracking cameras on highways and in cities and towns. Many tourists have returned home only to receive, many months later, a speeding violation and fine via their rental car company (yes, the rental car companies pass the driver information along to the authorities). Both the Autovelox and Safety Tutor are names for photographing and tracking your speed. So, be cognizant of speed zones and restrictions. Some GPS devices (like my TomTom) are programmed to alert you (audibly) when you are approaching one of these devices. However, these programs are not always completely up-to-date on the location of these devices, so still be on the lookout, and drive within the limits posted.

Autovelox machines come in a wide variety of colors and shapes, so you might want to research different images so you can be better prepared for spotting them. The Safety Tutors are usually found on the main highways, autostrada, and usually they are posted above the road.

There is yet another furtive method for catching speeding, and that is what seems to be an abandoned or unoccupied car next to the road or highway. These little tricksters have speed detection and camera devices within. Think of an Autovelox packaged as an old car.

Lastly, don’t be surprised if you are notified of your speed infraction four months after the fact, when you either don’t or barely remember the situation. This holds true for other traffic cameras in cities for zone, turning, and traffic light violations.

Parking on the wrong side of the street. I’ve just decided to grin and bear it. NOT parking on the wrong side of the street (i.e. parking in the direction against traffic on the opposite side of a two-way street) was hammered into my head in traffic school as a serious infraction. Yet, rarely have I witnessed this being enforced. In the closest town to which we live in Umbria we see about 30% of the cars parked this way. Still, I wouldn’t recommend chancing this.

Spontaneous checkpoints. I see this happening more and more. The polizia will flag down (using paddles with a red dot) random cars to check documents including, license, registration and insurance documents. If you are within your first year of residency here, you will be okay showing your U.S. driver’s license as long as it is paired with an International Driver’s license (which basically translates your license). It will depend on the mood of the officer doing the check as to whether not having the international license will be a problem. They are certainly within their rights to make it a problem for you. It is less likely if you are simply on vacation and not a resident. Also, be advised that you can be breathalyzed, and the threshold for blood alcohol level is significantly lower (0.5) in Italy vs. the States (0.8). And, if you are driving with a new Italian driver’s license, you are required to be at 0.0 for the first three years of your license. Otherwise, your license will be revoked.

Also, in many places the financial police (Guarda di finanza) do random checks – mainly to compare the driver’s financial information (tax returns, reported income, etc.) against the value of the car. This is to catch people who have very expensive cars yet have no demonstrated financial ability to support their owning such a car (meaning they may have been operating “in the black”.)

Lots and lots of roundabouts. Be prepared for these “traffic circles”. Entering and exiting them can be a little stressful and confusing. Most of the time they’re no big deal, but in some places, especially if you don’t know exactly where you’re going and you’re simultaneously looking at directional signs and/or following GPS guidance, you may start getting a little freaked out. Have no fear, you can always keep going in circles and buy yourself a more time to make sure you take the right road. The important thing to remember is the right of way when you are entering the roundabout. Generally, a car already in the roundabout and coming from your left has the right of way. When in doubt, exercise caution.

Directional signs that are either confusing or lacking. I’ve often thought the folks designing and positioning the directional signs wanted to make sure a bit of mystery always remained part of finding your way to a new destination. Hence, inconsistent and missing directional signs. I recommend that you get into the habit of studying a map ahead of time in you are heading to a new destination, so that you can anticipate important turns. A GPS device is a great safety net, though in some very rural areas GPS doesn’t always work or is inaccurate. Sometimes there are plenty of directional signs. And, it isn’t uncommon that you come to a place where there are directional signs pointing in different directions for the same destination. Other times, you can be following directional signs, and you come to an intersection or roundabout and the signs disappear, leaving you dumbstruck as to which way to proceed.

Loads of passing in no-passing zones. Again, the laws seem to be subject to interpretation and circumstances. I see drivers blithely disregarding a solid “no passing” line. I also see the same happening on blind curves, and more than once I’ve been on the receiving end of that from the other direction.

Crosswalks garner very little respect. This may be improving slightly, but as a general rule I find that many drivers here resent pedestrian crosswalks and believe they still have the right of way. At a traffic light, it’s a different story, because you have the traffic light to enforce a stop.  But, for a crosswalk without any signals, you can be taking your life into your hands if you boldly step into the crosswalks and expect cars to stop. While pedestrians clearly have the right of way as defined by law, you can still read the timidity on pedestrians faces who are contemplating entering a crosswalk. I do my best, when I am a pedestrian, to gauge the speed and temperament of oncoming traffic. In Rome I find crosswalks safety significantly worse, and I certainly wouldn’t want to play chicken with any of the drivers there.

In addition to the specific topics above I’d like to share my perspective on the following:

Driving in Rome. Don’t do it if you’re tired and not alert. Driving here requires constant awareness of what is going on around you. It really can be a jungle as you get closer into central Rome. Lanes seems non-existent, and if there are lanes, they are often disregarded. Motorcycles and mopeds are constantly weaving in and out at the same time, add to the mayhem. And, people are aggressive with their cars. They hate to give an inch, and it does seem “every man for himself” here. Many people, who live outside of Rome, yet drive into the city, have two cars. One is a “nice” car, which is kept safely parked at home. The other is a “beater” that is used for driving in the city. I’d liken it to preparing for a game of “bumper cars”, knowing you are going to get knicked and scratched – or keyed by other annoyed drivers.

Also, don’t be surprised if another driver just parks IN the road, while he or she runs into have a coffee in a bar.

I’ve seen some of the craziest parking moves here. Imagine a car parked diagonally 2/3 into a space with the other 1/3 jutting into traffic.

And, finally, when you hear or see an ambulance trying to make it’s way through traffic, don’t be surprised if you don’t see significant moves to make passing possible for the ambulance. People here seem loathe to risk giving up their ability to get ahead or their space in line. I told my partner that I’d be afraid of being transported by ambulance to a hospital in Rome if I had a medical emergency. Surely the ambulance would be tied up in traffic and I’d die before reaching the hospital.

Making gestures or yelling at other drivers. One word, DON’T! Certainly the potential for conflict is worse in cities like Rome and Naples, but I’ve heard scary stories in “calmer” places. We know a couple (very good friends) who are expats from Great Britain and one of them flipped off a guy who was tailgating them. The guy started following and chasing them, and finally pulled ahead of them and blocked the road. They were able to extricate from the situation, but it was dicey.

Italians are passionate, and using hand gestures, strong words, or aggressive horn honking can be like lighting a fuse. Regardless of how “right” you feel in a situation, don’t do anything to provoke a confrontation.

I know this is a lot to take in, and I hope I haven’t roused extreme paranoia within you. But, I believe in being forewarned is being fore-armed. Even with all of the paradoxes of driving in Italy, I still very much enjoying being behind the wheel. Yes, I’ll pretty much leave Rome to other drivers, but otherwise I’m happy being a driver in Italy.

Disclaimer: These are my opinions based on my own experience, and in no way should be a substitute for you own research and education for following the rules of the road in Italy.