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Tony da Roma

Driving Tips for Driving in Italy

To an outsider, driving in Italy can appear to be chaotic. To use an overused cliché: it is organized chaos. Many countries in the world have strict driving laws and those laws are voraciously enforced. Despite the overwhelming police presence in Italy, traffic laws are just not a priority. It is not like it is in the States where traffic violations are a major source of income for a community (on a side note – maybe they should be! Could you imagine if Italian cops adopted the small town USA cop mentality?!?! Italy’s financial woes would be solved overnight!!!). Due to this, Italy has traffic laws and they also have the “way of the road”.

Things to know about the “way of the road”:

1. At a choke point everyone will try to get in front of everyone else. Sometimes the old adage applies: the biggest wins. But not always. More or less, whoever gets their bumper in front of the other wins. Not much different from Italians and queues. You can’t get mad. It’s just the way it is. You need to play the game.

2. When driving, be very careful when changing lanes, merging, moving slightly to the left or to the right, etc. Scooters are EVERYWHERE! They can be hard to see as they are zipping up a shoulder or between lanes of stopped traffic, etc. You just need to be extra cautious.

3. When pulling up to a traffic light, every single scooter and motorcycle will snake their way right to the front of the pack of cars. When that light turns green it is off to the races for them!

4. This one is from a pedestrian angle: by law all vehicles are supposed to stop for you in a crosswalk. In reality they swerve for you. So whatever you do, once you start walking, NEVER change your pace. If you speed up, slow down, or stop, that is when the accidents happen. They are judging your speed and will try and pass in front of or behind you.

5. When driving on the autostrada, DO NOT sit in the left lane. If you do, the faster drivers will sit right on your rear bumper and they might even flash their lights at you trying to tell you to get over. The left lane is only for those going significantly faster than the right lane and for those passing cars in the right lane. If you are passing that is fine, but pass at a good pace. None of this “well technically I am passing because I am going 2km/hr faster than the car on my right. NO! When you pass, you pass quickly! Otherwise you are once again just blocking up the left lane. Boy do I wish this was the mentality back home in the States!!! Entitled drivers sitting in the passing lane kills me when I am home!

6. If you are on the autostrada and see a bunch of cars braking, even if it is not affecting you and you don’t need to brake, BRAKE!!!! It probably means that an autovelox is coming up. These are automated speed traps. There are usually warning signs in advance so you know it is coming. Italians tend to drive well over the speed limit and then as soon as one is coming up they will slow all the way down for a bit as they pass the speed trap and then off they go again.

7. Stop signs are only suggestions!!!

8. If it is late at night and no traffic on the road and you come to a red light, many will treat it as a stop sign and not a traffic light.

9. One rule that they never really break is that a car in a roundabout has the right of way!

10. In the countryside, bike riders are respected! In the city, they are fair game.

P.S. – I am not advising that anyone should break the law. I am just explaining Italian mentality on the road. More or less everyone is an offensive driver and not a defensive driver. So as long as you understand that every scooter rider thinks they are Valentino Rossi and that every car driver thinks that they are Michael Schumacher, you will be fine.

Autostrada toll booths:

Italy has what is known as the Autostrada. This is a ticket toll-road highway system. The way that a ticket toll-road works, is that when you go to enter the autostrada, you have to pass through a toll booth where you get a ticket. You MUST NOT lose this ticket! This ticket determines your starting point so that when you go to exit, they know how far you have driven on the autostrada and how much to charge you. When you get to the exit toll booth, you then place the ticket into the booth and it will calculate your toll.

Here is an interesting side story regarding some clients of mine from about 5 years ago. When they told me the story, I was so baffled by it. To me, the concept of toll booths with tickets is so ordinary that I never thought about explaining this to a client before. I would explain the signs above the toll booth to a client that I knew was using the autostrada, but it never dawned on me that I had to explain how a ticket toll-road works. I am from Pennsylvania and the turnpike is just a way of life. What happened was, when they entered the autostrada, they got their ticket and just put it somewhere, not having a clue what it was. When it came time to exit the autostrada a couple of hours later they didn’t know what to do at the exit booth. When an operator came on to assist them, they were told to insert their ticket. They had no idea what he was talking about. They had completely forgotten all about the ticket they got as they entered 2 hours earlier! After going back and forth for a few minutes, the employee just gave up and opened the gate for them. These clients were from Washington/Oregon. I guess there are no ticket toll-roads there??? My clients were lucky! I have heard about similar tourists doing the same thing and being required to pay the maximum toll for that exit. Which means that you could easily pay multiple times more than you should!!!

When exiting the autostrada, you will find that there are 3 different kinds of booths, each kind is labeled differently and has an associated color for it.

Stay away from the booths that have the yellow signs above them! These signs say: Telepass. Or more technically they say: riservata clienti Telepass (reserved for Telepass clients). This is an electronic toll collection system similar to EZPass and others like it. Some car rental agencies do offer a Telepass rental. This will cost you a bit more money than paying with cash or card as you will have to pay a surcharge to the rental agency, but at least you won’t have any lines when exiting the autostrada. If you get a Telepass rental, then you may use the yellow Telepass booths. Otherwise, DO NOT use these lanes!

The next kind of booth has a blue-colored sign and it says “Carte”. Carte means: credit cards. But DO NOT automatically go to that booth unless you plan on paying by credit card, it is a credit card only lane!

The third type of booth has a white sign and has an image of a hand with paper and coin currency on it. This is for those who want to pay cash.

Technically, there are two more signs, but they are variations of the above. One of them is blue and says “carte”. But it also has a yellow & blue “T” in the corner. This is a combo lane for credit cards and telepass, either can be used in these lanes. The other is white with the paper/coin currency image on it (sans hand). This one has a blue corner and shows credit cards in that blue corner. This is a combo lane for cash and credit cards, either can be used in this lane.

The toll booths have a large display screen and by default are in Italian but you can use them in 5 different languages! You can choose between Italian, Spanish, English, German and French. When you arrive at the booth, if you are ok with it being in Italian, just stick your ticket in and it will automatically conduct the entire transaction in Italian. If you want one of the other languages, hold off on putting your ticket in. For you, the first step is choosing the appropriate flag on the touch screen, just like using an ATM in Italy. If you want English, select the British flag. From that point forward the entire transaction will be in English. You can now put your ticket into the slot below the green flashing arrow. By the way, this same slot where you put your ticket in, is also the slot for the credit card. It reads both the ticket plus the credit card. It should be noted that, the ticket/credit card slot, the bill slot, the coin chute, both change slots (one for bills and one for coins), receipt request button, and receipt slot are labeled in English and Italian so there should be no confusion as to which slot is which.

I hope this helps future first-timers on the autostrada!
About the Author
Tony Polzer is the owner of 3 Millennia Tours which specializes in Rome, but also provides tourism services throughout Italy. Tony is also the owner of Italy for Wine Lovers, which is a company that specializes in education, consulting, and tourism in the world of Italian Wine. He is also a certified Italian Wine Ambassador, one of only 150 in the world.
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