Driving in Italy

Driving in Italy

First thoughts…don’t do it. Public transit works just perfectly near the cities.

Second thought…nope, still not worth it.

Ok the fine print. I did (am) doing it a the moment and it’s not all bad…

First the good stuff. You truly do get to see a lot of things that perhaps you wouldn’t normally. Well my wife and Nacho would see more. I however am usually zoned in on the road and the GPS while attempting to decipher all the signs. In any case, there’s a lot more of the countryside than you could possibly imagine and the old buildings and rolling hills are a nice counterpoint to the ridiculous speed limits. But before I get there, let’s talk drivers.

The drivers have a reputation for being crazy. In my experience they aren’t so much crazy as they just know exactly where they’re going & since we don’t we slow them down. This would annoy anyone methinks (try driving in San Francisco with the myriad of barcode-stickered Fords and Toyotas…yeesh). As you cruise around, looking at the scenery or trying to figure out what that sign says or what the current speed limit is, they are off to work, school, shopping, etc, etc, etc simply trying to go about their day. Round-abouts confuse the normal American as it seems to be a complete free-for-all but just keep moving and everything works incredibly well. The country roads heading through the hills and even cruising around 80 mph on the AutoStrada can be actually quite nice.

Of course, being near the city is a whole different beast, especially anytime around rush hour. The movies paint a picture of masses of metal, swearing, and honking; this appears to be mostly true. The honking seems to be more of an indicator that someone is near you or that you’re doing something wrong (for instance entering a driveway going the wrong way. Yes. Experience) as opposed to the use of the horn back in the States where it’s a way to express just how angry you are with that other moron behind the wheel. This could still happen if you do indeed drive like a moron, but more often than not, it’s just a notification. Like those annoying pop ups on your iPhone. Just keep your nose clean, stay to the right unless you’re passing and don’t get in the wrong lane when entering or exiting the autostrada (More on that below)

Now for the downsides.

The speed limits. Around town anyway. Though the 130km/h on the toll highway and even the 100 or 90 on the standard highways make perfect sense and are very easy to cruise at, the 50/60/30 switches when around town make no sense. Most sites say that 50 is the limit in the developed portions but there will inevitably be a sign saying 30 all of a sudden which requires a slam of the breaks for you & everyone behind you. Why? Because of the second nitpick I have with driving here.

The speed cameras. Since apparently Italy has a problem with not having enough police to monitor the roads, they use cameras to catch speeders. No officer is needed; it’s just a picture of your license plate, your speed and the cost that you receive in the mail a month or more later on. I’m pretty sure I will have a bunch of them waiting for me when we get back.

The zones are always after a warning sign that it’s coming up which helps but as a foreigner it’s difficult to know exactly what they look like where they are & how quickly you have to slow down to avoid a major ticket & fine. It seems like most of the other Italians just cruise around without caring or maybe they just instinctively know where they are all at – must be nice to have such a carefree attitude. Not a luxury I can afford.

It doesn’t help when the other driver is right behind me and when I have to break hard to get to the appropriate speed to pass the camera, the driver behind me slams on his brakes and then throws his hands up in frustration with me. I don’t mind them being close; I’m more frustrated with the cameras and speed limits that don’t make any sense. But of course this isn’t the only hard part about driving in Italy.

The ZTL. Disclaimer: with a bit of diligent research you can pretty easily avoid driving through these areas. Most GPS units seem to guide you around the areas you aren’t allowed to be in and looking ahead of time at a map of the ZTL and comparing it with a Google Map of the area to see where the parking lot is, you should be fine.

However, the reason it’s a bit of a frustration to me is not for the actual ZTL which servers a great purpose of preserving the historical center, but the signage that is posted around in other, supposed non-ZTL areas. For instance, we exited the highway nowhere near the historical center only to come upon a “Zona Trafffico Limiterio” sign at the end of the off-ramp before a merge. There was literally no other way to turn or place to go to avoid driving into it. Think of driving down a one-way street and about halfway through it, bam, a sign and a camera. This feels like too much of a trap to be real but here we are. Can’t wait to see what that fine will be, especially since we took that off-ramp 3-4 times over the last week.

Another similar one was at the start of a particular round-about that we had to use to head towards the proper freeway. If I follow the rules of the round-about (going all the way around it to get to my “3rd exit”) I pass a ZTL sign & camera. Essentially I entered the zone for about 10 ft then circle around and leave but the fact that I still crossed that barrier on camera means I will likely get a fine. While I may have been able to avoid it by going completely in the other direction in the first place, if the authorities know people have to go around it, why not put it on the other side to catch those entering & continuing into the restricted area instead of just catching everyone regardless of where they are headed…just feels too much like a trap to me.

Nacho agrees:

So yeah. Here’s the cliff-notes version of some tips. In a future post, I’ll make some notes about how we got the car & the service used.

⁃ Utilize the car’s GPS, Waze, Google Maps, etc as much as possible. But remember this isn’t a substitute for point #2 especially since these devices will only give you the fastest or shortest distance, potentially ignoring areas you won’t be allowed

⁃ Try to familiarize yourself with the basic signs ahead of time. Speed limit, no entry, one way, the blue/white arrow ones that show you where you lane is, no parking, no stopping, etc, etc, etc

⁃ Gas is expensive, especially since it’s by the Liter. Spring for the diesel IMO which will still be expensive but at least you’ll go farther on a tank. Self-service is cheaper than full-service, just remember to press the button for the amount you want it to dispense after getting approval on the card reader

⁃ Make sure you use the “Biglietto” (entering) and “Carte” (exiting) lanes for the tolls. When exiting, I like the combo Carte/cash & coin lane(s) just in case the card reader doesn’t work.

If you can afford it, the costs of staying nearer to public transit (in any form, bus, train or tram) can far outweigh the freedoms of the car & it’s costs. Our use case was very specific but in the future, I would likely just rent a car for a few days at a time, as needed & pay more to stay nearer the city center.

Any tips you want to share or horror stories about driving in Italy?


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