[This is an excerpt from our ebook Driving in Italy. Download it for free, here.]
Italians have a reputation for being crazy drivers, and sure, you may see some crazy drivers especially in cities. But I would argue that in general, Italians are some of the best drivers in the world. It’s a matter of understanding their driving habits. I learned one important habit the hard way! Below that, I’ve listed 10 Italy driving tips for anyone who wants to drive like an Italian.
Learning the hard way: my Car Accident with an Italian Policeman
The Carabiniere had pulled up next to my white van in his brand-new Alfa Romeo. We were at a T-intersection, both turning left, and he had squeezed himself in to my right – which is perfectly normal in Italy. But since I was in the left lane, I had the right of way for the left turn. Then, my mistake: I hesitated, trying to decide whether my 20-foot long Renault van had enough torque to propel itself into the approaching gap in traffic. I concluded it did, and released the clutch, but a second too late: the Carabiniere had already started to turn left in front of me. There was a scraping of metal, a slamming of brakes, and then I learned some new Italian swear words.
He was a little taken aback when I responded assertively, in Italian, that actually the accident was his fault, since he was not actually allowed to make a left turn in front of me. I handed over my insurance information while he muttered under his breath about damn French women who can’t drive (my van had French plates, and I didn’t see the need to clarify that I was Canadian), and moved along, with no further consequences except one: I am no longer indecisive when driving in Italy.
And now, 10 Italy driving tips if you are planning to drive (or trying to decide whether to drive) in Italy.
1) Drive with confidence. Be decisive. I’m not saying propel yourself into traffic without making sure it’s safe. Just be aware that Italian drivers assume hesitation means you are not going. They will go around you, which makes it even more difficult to eventually insert yourself into traffic. I know driving confidently is easier said than done; how many of us who have been driving for years can become confident drivers overnight? My usual recommendation to anyone who is not already a confident or a somewhat aggressive and safe driver is to avoid driving in Italy.
2) Remember that the left lane of the highway (autostrada) is only for passing. If you need to pass the car in front of you, by all means, move into the left lane. Then, once you’ve passed, move back over to the right immediately. Never, ever pass on the right: it’s dangerous because many Italian drivers don’t shoulder check when changing lanes to the right. They know that any car in a lane to their right is by default moving more slowly than they are, so there’s no need to look back and check for approaching cars.
3) Unlike in other parts of the world, where stop signs mean drivers should come to a complete stop, stop signs in Italy mean make sure the coast is clear before proceeding. There may be no need to stop, or even slow down. And if you do stop when it’s not necessary, you may get rear-ended. So slow down enough to make sure it’s safe to go, then proceed. Note: this applies only to stop signs, not to red traffic lights – at those you must stop and wait until the light turns green.
4) Adopt the habit of folding in your side mirrors when you park on the street, so that they’re still there when you return to your car.
5) Horns are a useful mode of communication. Practice hitting the horn lightly, because in addition to the lean-on-the-horn angry beeping you may be more familiar with, it can mean “here I come, around a blind corner” (as in this video of a bus in the Amalfi Coast), or “on your right/left” to a cyclist. If you get beeped at, don’t assume the other driver is angry.
6) A well-known Italian saying about driving is “You watch your front, let everyone else watch your back”. And this is actually how they drive. Consquences: very little shoulder-checking; aggressively driving forward to fit into gaps in traffic.
7) Know that there are speed cameras everywhere. Speed cameras in Italy track average speed, not just your speed while you’re passing a camera. You’ll get a ticket in the mail, or sent to your car rental company, if your average speed is above the limit. Here’s a good blog post about speed cameras, complete with photos, so you know what to look for. (Note: at the time I first published this, speed cameras in Italy tracked speed only at the time the car was in front of the camera. I used to recommend just slowing down in front of the speed camera and then speeding up again like Italians do, but that no longer works, so I’ve updated the information.)
8) A turn signal means “Here I go”, not “I want to go”, or “I’m waiting to see if you let me go”. Think about the combination of #1 (be decisive) and #6 (only watch your front): when a car in front of you indicates that they are changing lanes, it doesn’t mean they are hoping you will yield, it means you should get out of the way. Similarly, when you indicate that you’re changing lanes, you should swiftly change. If you hesitate, other drivers will assume you’re not going.
9) If there’s a mirror on the road, use it. Winding roads with little visibility and narrow streets in historic city centers often have mirrors in strategic places to help you see around corners. They are there for a reason, so get in to the habit of looking for them.
10) Keep your eye out at all times for scooters (aka motorinos or Vespas): they weave in and out of traffic, will come very close to your car, and sometimes seem to come out of nowhere.
Driving in Italy is not for everyone. In addition to driving habits you also need to think about road signs (which are different), parking (in narrow spaces with different rules), traffic (avoid summer Saturdays if possible), and automatic fines such as those in Limited Traffic Zones. If you’ve read through these tips and are feeling stressed at the thought of driving, don’t rent a car. Italian trains are incredibly comfortable, pretty clean, run frequently, and are relatively inexpensive, making them an extremely efficient transportation solution.
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