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Italy Driving Guide 2019

Driving in Italy is not so different to driving in the USA, as long as you have an International Driving Permit and an understanding of the basic rules.

Lisa Brown

October 13, 2019

INTRODUCTION

Driving in Italy conjures up images of tiny cars being driven chaotically through narrow cobbled streets in cities like Turin and Milan. However, this image has more to do with the Hollywood movie industry than real life. Nevertheless, it’s only natural to approach the idea of driving in any foreign country with a certain amount of trepidation, and the concept of driving in Italy with a US license is no different.

Every country has its own driving laws, and just important, those unwritten rules and conventions that are second nature to locals but can take visiting drivers by surprise. If you don’t understand Italian, you might be concerned about interpreting road signs, and then there are those famous toll roads that are becoming increasingly popular across Europe.

The good news is that an American driving in Italy will not find it anything like as big a culture shock as you might be expecting.

In the majority of ways, it is not significantly different to driving in other popular European destinations such as Spain, France, Portugal or Switzerland. It certainly requires far less adjustment than driving in the UK, where the road signs might be in English, but the driving is a mirror image to the US.

With a total area of more than 300,000 square kilometers (about 116,000 square miles), Italy is one of the ten largest European countries. That famous boot shape might look narrow, but it is also long, and Italy has approximately the same total surface area as Colorado. The key cities of Rome, Milan, Venice, and Naples are spread out across the country, and while you can travel between them by plane or train, that’s no way to really get to know a country.

Renting a car will allow you to explore not just the big cities but also those all-important towns, villages and landmarks in between, whether you are driving in Northern Italy or down in the south.

Is an International Driving Permit required in Italy?

Driving in Italy with a US license requires an International Driving Permit (IDP). This internationally recognized document provides exactly the same information as is on your US driver’s license, but is translated into 12 common languages, including Italian. If you intend to rent a car while visiting Italy, an IDP is absolutely essential for anyone holding a license or driver’s permit that was issued outside the European Union.

As well as needing an IDP to rent a car, you will also be asked to produce it if you have any interaction with the traffic police, for example if you are involved in an accident or you are subject to a random stop or check.

Does the IDP replace my US license?

The IDP is not a replacement for your official driver’s license. When driving in Italy, make sure both documents are with you on every trip. We will go into more detail later about what to do if you happen to be stopped by the police, but first and foremost, you will need to produce both of these documents for examination.

Who can apply for an IDP?

Anyone who is aged 18 or over and has held a US driver’s license for at least six months can apply for an IDP. It’s a straightforward process that can be done online in a matter of minutes.

When should I apply for my IDP?

In most cases, an IDP comes with a validity period of 12 months, so keep this in mind. In general, it makes sense to put in the application a few weeks before you plan to be driving in Italy, that way you will have it in time and there will be plenty of validity – maybe even enough for a second trip!

If you forget or make a last minute decision that you want to rent a car while you are in Italy, it is possible to get an IDP through a premium fast track service, and it will be sent to you electronically in just a few hours.

IS IT EASY TO RENT A CAR IN ITALY?

As long as you have your driver’s license, IDP, and payment card, you will find that the mechanics of renting a car in Italy are practically identical to renting in the US. You will even see the same companies, especially if you rent a car from the airport. These include Avis, Hertz, Budget and all the rest.

You will usually get the best car rental rates by booking in advance – that also gives you time to compare the different deals at your leisure. But if you are feeling adventurous, you could always walk up to the rental desk when you land and just see what is available. Sometimes this results in some great deals, with premium cars being offered at a discount if they would otherwise be standing idle. On another day, however, it might be a case that lack of availability pushes the prices up, so it all depends on whether you are feeling lucky.

Despite the similarities, there are some specifics relating to car rental in Italy that you need to keep in mind.

What is the driving age in Italy?

The driving license requirements in Italy give a minimum age of 18. This is the same as you will find in the majority of EU countries. However, younger drivers will find their choices are restricted and may face additional charges. Most of the major rental agencies insist that drivers must be over 21 and have held their license for at least a year. There is also a high probability of being charged a young driver surcharge if you are under 25. Having said that, some rental companies will consider a driver aged between 18 and 21, subject to certain fees and restrictions.

What sort of rental car is best for driving in Italy?

The Hollywood image might be an exaggeration, but there are reasons why cars like the Fiat 500 are so popular in Italy. Part of it comes down to the narrow roads and tight parking spots in cities like Naples and Rome. But another consideration to bear in mind is the price of fuel. The average American driving in Italy is in danger of heart failure when topping up for the first time. Prices have recently risen to around €1.60 per liter. That translates to well over $6.00 per gallon. Choose the smallest car that will seat everyone in comfort, and opt for diesel instead of gasoline for additional fuel economy. Also, be aware that most rental cars in Europe come with a manual transmission (stick shift). Automatics are available at additional cost, but to get one, it is definitely best to book in advance.

Can I take my rental car outside Italy?

It is usually fine to take your rental car across the border into neighboring Switzerland or into another EU country such as France or Slovenia. However, check with the rental agency at the time of booking and again when you collect the car, just to make 100 percent sure. If you do visit Switzerland, make sure you have plenty of fuel for the trip, as prices there are even more expensive than Italy.

What about insurance for my rental car?

The rules governing insurance for rental cars in Italy are similar to those across the world. The car will come with standard minimum cover for theft or damage, but be aware that this will carry a significant excess or deductible. This is the amount you will have to pay if there is a claim, and it might well run to four figures. The rental company will be eager to offer you a higher level of cover, but whether or not you take it is a decision that only you can make. Just bear in mind that you might be able to get a better deal from your own car insurance company or credit card provider. If comprehensive insurance coverage is important to you, check out these options before you even leave the US.

Should I return it full or empty?

This is one of the great questions of car rental. The simple answer is that each agency does this differently. Some provide the car full and expect it to be returned full, others provide it empty and still more give you the option of buying the tank of gas in advance at a reduced rate, so you take it with a full tank and return it empty. Pay attention when you collect the car, and if you agree to return it with a full tank of fuel, make sure you do so. Otherwise, you will be charged a price per liter that even makes the Swiss filling stations look like a good deal.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

WHEN DRIVING IN ITALY WHICH SIDE OF THE ROAD SHOULD I USE?

One of the reasons that driving in Italy with a US license is less daunting that other countries is that they drive on the right, just the same as in the US. This is the case throughout mainland Europe, and the only exceptions are if you venture across to island nations such as the United Kingdom or Malta. With that in mind, there is really no reason for the illogical terror that rotaries (known as rotundas or rotarias in Italy) can instil in even the most travel-hardened American driving in Italy. Perhaps it is the fact that they often have so many exits – five or six is nothing unusual. However, the rules are simple and easy to follow. Drivers entering the rotary are required to yield to those who are already on it, and you must use your right indicator to let other drivers know when you are leaving it. The other small detail about rotaries is that Italian drivers have a tendency to treat them as two-lane even if they have only one. Which brings us to the most common question of them all.

ARE DRIVING STANDARDS IN ITALY AS BAD AS I HAVE HEARD?

That depends on what you have heard. It’s true that many Italian drivers drive faster and seem more aggressive than those you might experience in, for example, the UK or Netherlands. Tailgating is common and some drivers are liable to swerve from lane to lane with little or no warning. That, however, is the bad news. The good news is that everything is relative, and if you have ever driven in New York or even London, the average Italian driver will seem like the personification of patience and good manners.

Furthermore, it soon becomes apparent that the outward impatience is more to do with the Latin temperament than genuine anger or aggression. Use of the horn is common, but it is more in the sense of a warning that the driver is coming through than any sort of road rage. The same applies with flashing of lights, which could mean anything from hurry up, the lights have changed to Juventus have won again!

WILL I UNDERSTAND TRAFFIC SIGNS DRIVING IN ITALY?

If you make the mistake of looking at a resource like Wikipedia to check out driving in Italy advice relating to road signs, you could be forgiven for wanting to forget the whole idea. Stop, relax and take a step back, they are really not as complicated as people like to pretend.

First of all, the shape gives you an immediate clue as to the type of sign you are looking at. These follow the Europe-wide convention in that circular signs give instructions or regulations, such as speed limits, triangles give warnings, including intersections, twisty roads and the like, while square and rectangular signs provide information and directions.

Unusual road signs you might see while driving in Italy

Most road signs have meanings that are obvious – for example, crossroads, bends in the road, speed limits and not least the stop sign, which even has the word STOP written in English. Still, there are a few that are less clear:

Right of way – this is signified by a yellow diamond with a white border. It means you have priority over other vehicles joining, and they must yield to you. The same sign with a black line through it means the end of the “right of way” zone.

Yield – this is the opposite, and is usually situated at or approaching an intersection. It is signified by an inverted triangle in white with a red border, and means vehicles on the road you are approaching have priority.

City Center – this sign is impossible to miss, as it looks a little like a black bullseye on a white background. Follow signs like this to get to the center of the city – but when you do so, you’re on your own when it comes to finding a parking spot.

Learning about Italian speed limits

Italian speed limits are indicated using a black number on a white background, contained in a red circle. Like the right of way signs, Italian roads use the same sign with a strikethrough to indicate that you are leaving a speed restricted zone. In the absence of other posted limits, the maximum speeds for driving in Italy are as follows:

  • Autostradas: 130 kph (80 mph)
  • Major roads: 110 kph (68 mph)
  • Minor roads: 90 kph (55mph)
  • Built-up areas: 50 kph (30 mph)

As is the case in most countries, driving in Italy rules state that these are subject to specific limits that are posted. Also, they presuppose good weather conditions and visibility. If this is not the case, drive more slowly as stopping distances are likely to increase.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

HOW IS DRIVING IN ITALY FOR TOURISTS DIFFERENT TO DRIVING IN THE US?

As you might have worked out by now, there is really not such a big difference between driving in Italy and driving at home. Sure, the Italian drivers can get a little excitable, but as long as you remember all those defensive driving strategies your instructor taught you, there’s no reason to let that bother you.

There are really only a handful of differences that can catch out the unwary American driving in Italy, so let’s run through them.

Flashing lights – we touched on this earlier, but the main thing to keep in mind is that if a driver flashes his or her lights, it is a warning that they are coming through, not an invitation to you to go first. If the flash comes from a vehicle coming the other way, it most likely means there is a police speed check up ahead.

Motorcycles – you will see scooters, mopeds and larger bikes in abundance, particularly in the major cities. They will cut between vehicles in busy traffic, so keep a close eye on your mirrors, particularly when changing lane.

Keep right – the left lane of the autostrada is for overtaking only, so do not hang around there any longer than you have to.

No right turn on red – even if the road is clear, you must wait for a green light before you can proceed.

Lights on – this is a requirement while driving in Italy, day or night. new cars in Italy have daytime running lights as standard, but it is a point worth bearing in mind if you have rented a car elsewhere in Europe and driven it across the border.

WHAT DRIVING RULES IN ITALY DO I NEED TO KNOW ABOUT?

As well as the above specifics that have caught out many unwary visitors, there are some more general driving in Italy rules that you need to understand before you get behind the wheel. Most of these are common sense, but the consequences of ignoring them could prove to be expensive.

Seat belts

Italian law demands that the driver and all passengers must wear seat belts. The only exceptions are if there are none fitted, for example in a classic or vintage car, or if someone has medical exemption. In the latter case, this needs to be in the form of a letter from a doctor or gynecologist and you will need to have it officially translated into Italian. The local police are expert at spotting people who ignore the seat belt law, especially back seat passengers.

Children in the car

Children under 12 are prohibited from sitting in the front seat. They must also be securely fastened in using either a child seat or booster that is appropriate for their age and size. This should go without saying, as no responsible parent would transport their children unless they were safely secured. But do keep in mind that if a police officer should spot a child riding in the car without a suitable restraint, he will not only fine the driver. He will also prohibit you from continuing on your journey until you have everyone properly buckled up.

Cell phones

No big surprise here. There are more than 3,000 deaths on Italy’s roads every year, and more than 40 percent of these are a result of distracted driving. The number one distraction is the cell phone, and Italian police have joined with other European forces to crack down on people using their phones behind the wheel. Follow the rules, or you will face a stiff on the spot fine as well as a dressing down from the police officer. Hands-free devices are allowed as long as they are genuinely hands-free – having the phone on loudspeaker while it is precariously balanced on your knees will still get you a ticket and a fine.

Use of the horn

Avoid using the horn in built-up areas, especially during hours of darkness. As a general rule, it must only be used to warn other motorists of your presence.

Essential kit

Before driving off onto Italian roads, make sure you have the following essentials on board – it is a legal requirement:

  • Warning triangle
  • Fluorescent jacket
  • Spare wheel / tire
  • Fire extinguisher (not mandatory, but strongly recommended)

If you are in a rental car, these things should already be in place. However, as the driver, it is your responsibility to make certain, and you are the one who will face the on-the-spot fine if something is absent.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

WHAT IS A ZTL ZONE?

ZLT stands for Zona Traffico Limitato, or Limited Traffic Zones. These are being rolled out across all the major cities in Italy, including Rome, Milan and Florence. Zones are clearly marked with a red circle, the words Zona Traffico Limitato and times of operation. Legally entering a ZLT zone To enter a ZLT zone, you need a pass.

If you are determined to drive into a city center, speak to the car rental company and they might be able to arrange a temporary pass for you and your vehicle. However, the best advice is to avoid ZLT zones entirely. They have been set up with the objective of reducing congestion and pollution in Italy’s historic cities, so enter into the spirit and save yourself the aggravation of battling through traffic and searching for parking spaces by leaving your car outside the zone.

What are the penalties? The problem with these zones is that if you get too close, they can become impossible to avoid due to one-way systems. They are monitored by cameras that check the license plates of all vehicles entering, and these will automatically issue fines to drivers who enter without a pass. Fines range from €50 to €80 ($55 to $90) and are cumulative. In other words, they will send another fine for every infraction, so the costs can soon mount up.

HOW STRICT ARE THE DRINKING AND DRIVING RULES IN ITALY?

Italy is a country as renowned for its fine wines as its iconic car manufacturers. But there is one vital thing to remember when driving in Italy – never mix the two. If you have visited Italy in the past and seen a relatively relaxed attitude towards drinking a few glasses of wine and then driving a car, be aware that the laws changed in 2013. Today, the Italian authorities are as strict as any others in Europe.

Drivers caught behind the wheel over the legal blood alcohol level will face a severe fine at best. In the worst case, they could have the car impounded and even face a prison sentence. It all depends on the severity of the offence and whether it led to injury to others.

WHAT ABOUT DRIVING IN VENICE ITALY?

Venice is a city unlike any other, and is an essential stop on any trip to Italy. Of course, the city itself is made up of a network of canals, so there is nowhere to drive your car. Nevertheless, as you follow those signs for the center, you will experience the usual tell-tale signs of any city, as traffic gets busier and parking spots become harder to find.

Naturally, you will need to leave the car somewhere outside the City Center while you explore the sights and sounds of Venice. This can prove expensive and difficult, but the following tips will help:

  1. If you are staying overnight, choose a hotel on the edge of the city that provides parking. Once you are there, don’t touch the car again until it is time to check out and move on to the next location.

  2. If you are just visiting for the day, your best bet is to head for the ASM Venezia parking garage. This is Venice’s official parking facility and has enough spaces to accommodate almost 2,300 vehicles. The rate varies from €24 to €29 ($26 to $32) depending on the size of your car. That is for an entire day, and while you could try driving around to find somewhere cheaper, is it really worth the time and stress?

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

HOW DO I USE TOLL ROADS WHEN DRIVING IN ITALY?

Toll roads are increasingly common throughout Europe, but nowhere more so than when driving in Italy. In some respects, that makes it easier – all the autostrada are toll roads, so there is no way of getting confused.

Green means autostrada

If you are following green road signs, it means you are either on or rapidly approaching an autostrada, so get ready for the toll booths. If the road signs are blue, you are on a major road, but not an autostrada, so there will be no tolls to worry about.

Paying your way

When you enter the autostrada, take a ticket from one of the automatic machines and put it somewhere safe. On leaving the toll road, hand the ticket over at the booth and pay in cash. While some toll booths accept card payments, it is best to have some Euros with you, as some are cash only and others have tempramental machines that only accept certain cards.

Make sure you choose the correct lane when you leave the toll road. Specifically, avoid the ones marked Telepass as these are only for drivers who have registered their vehicles and receive a monthly invoice. If you inadvertently use a Telepass lane, you will receive a bill for using the toll road from your point of entry to its furthest point.

Watch your speed

The great thing about the autostrada is that it provides you with mile after mile of clear roads. It can be tempting to put your foot down, but that would be a big mistake. There are numerous speed cameras, and they will automatically send fines to those who break the speed limits. If you are in a rental car, you can expect the agency to add their own processing fee on top, too.

Similarly, however, make sure you don’t drive too slowly. The autostrada will dictate minimum speeds for each lane, signified by a white number on a blue circle. Be sure to stay between this and the maximum of 130 km/h.

WHAT HAPPENS IF I GET STOPPED BY THE POLICE IN ITALY?

Spend any amount of time driving in Italy and you will see police checkpoints from time to time along both major and minor roads. Manned by Italian police officers carrying large guns and wearing bullet-proof vests, these can look alarming to a family of tourists driving in Italy.

However, underneath it all, they are just regular people doing a difficult job to keep everyone safe. If you get stopped, either at a checkpoint or by a patrol car, the following tips will see you through.

1. Remain calm

Italian police officers do not need a reason to stop you, so getting pulled over does not mean you have done something wrong. It is most likely a routine stop to check your papers – remember, Italian police have an uncanny knack of sniffing out foreign tourists in rental cars!

2. Be nice

There’s a simple rule with police stops that applies the world over. If you are irritable, ill-mannered or aggressive, the stop will take twice as long and the officer will look extra hard to find something amiss. This could include a complete search of your vehicle. Think of a police officer as a mirror – if you are polite, friendly and cooperative, you will get exactly the same attitude in return.

3. Take a deep breath

If there is even the hint of alcohol on your breath, you will be breathalysed. We have already discussed the potential consequences of DUI, and it is worth noting that refusing to provide a sample of breath is treated with exactly the same seriousness as being over the limit.

4. Have your documents in order

The police officer will need to see your driver’s license, International Driving Permit, passport and documents relating to the vehicle, such as rental contract and insurance documents. Make sure you keep the latter in the vehicle glovebox, as they are no use to anyone sitting in your hotel room. In Italy, no documents means no car, and the officer has the right to confiscate your vehicle. Note that your passengers might also be asked for their identity documents, so make sure everyone has their passport on them at all times.

5. Check your equipment

This is the point at which you will be so glad you checked the fluorescent jacket, warning triangle and spare tire were in the trunk of the car before you drove away from the rental agent. If they are absent, you will be presented with an on-the-spot fine.

Penalties and fines

Italian police have the right to implement fines on the spot. These vary depending on the severity of the offence, but in most are discounted if you pay within five days. You can pay the police officer then and there to get it out of the way – if you choose this option, make sure you ask for a receipt.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

ENJOY DRIVING IN ITALY

From the people to the landscapes to the rich history to the cuisine, there is no country in the world that is quite like Italy. It has influenced every other western nation in every way imaginable, and the US is no exception.

Driving in Italy is the only real way to properly experience all that Italy has to offer, and by following the driving in Italy advice and tips that are outlined above, you will find it to be a straightforward and pleasurable experience.

As a final reminder, keep the following important points in mind every time you get behind the wheel of a car in Italy:

  1. Always carry your driver’s license, International Driver’s Permit and vehicle documentation in the car with you on every tip.

  2. Never drink and drive in Italy. As well as putting lives at risk, you could face a prison sentence.

  3. Watch the road signs closely, and be particularly careful to avoid the ZTL zones in the major cities.

  4. Carry plenty of Euros on you so that you can use the toll roads without incident.

Don’t believe everything you see in the movies. Italian drivers might have a few bad habits, but aggression is definitely not one of them, so drive with a smile on your face and enjoy the open road.

Sources:
Driving in Italy – Information for Foreign Tourists, Automobile Club d’Italia
The Largest Countries in the World, World Atlas
EU Member Countries, European Union
Driving in Italy, The RAC
Laws and Rules of the Road, Italy Explained
Annual Accident Report 2018, European Commission
Italy Car Rental FAQs, Auto Europe
Hiring a Car, Your Europe
How to Avoid a ZLT Fine, Îtaly Beyond the Obvious
How Long Does Alcohol Stay in your Body, Healthline 
Driving in Italy, Lazy Trips
Italian Road Signs, Italy Explained
Italy Gasoline Prices, GlobalPetrolPrices.com
Tips on Driving in Venice, Italy, Auto Europe
Don’t be Afraid of Driving in Italy, My Travel in Tuscany