Driving in Italy isn’t the scary and crazy endeavor that Hollywood (or sometimes fellow travelers) make it out to be. As a seven year car owning resident of Italy, I realized just how different my adopted country’s laws of the road are when Leah Travels and I embarked on an epic road trip around the entire boot. Leah kept telling me she’d wished she known about this or that when she rented a car in Italy a few months before, so I’ve compiled these 10 things to know before renting a car and driving in Italy:
1. You need an International Driver’s License.
This is one the top question I get. Well, technically it is “Do I need an IDL to rent a car in Italy?” No, many car rental companies won’t require to see your IDL in order to rent you a car. Like so many things in Italy, the law is long, confusing and in Italian. The important thing to know though, is that the law for American tourists driving in Italy DOES require that you have an IDL. If you are pulled over, which you very well may be even if you’re not doing anything against the law (see number 2), if you do not have an IDL or an official translation, you risk a fine of €78 up to €311.
Getting an IDL or IDP is really easy and only costs $15, so there’s no reason to risk not having it. Just print out this application form from AAA and visit their nearest office with two passport photos, your application, your valid US driver’s license and your payment. Congratulations! You will receive your IDL on the spot.
If you don’t have access to a AAA office, you can mail in your application with two passport photos each signed on the back, a copy front and back of your valid US driver’s license and a check or money order for $15. Mail it to this address. It takes 4-6 weeks to receive it when submitting your application by mail.
2. Don’t ignore the Lollipop Guild
The Lollipop Guild may exist in Munchkin Country in the Wizard of Oz, but don’t expect the Italian version to hand out lollipops to welcome you to Italy. No, here in The Boot residents and expats like me know that a policeman sticking out his lollipop (actually called a paletta del poliziotto) means you better stop.
To anyone who doesn’t live here, that red circle on a stick might go unnoticed. Or you might just brush it off as another crazy Italian risking his life by walking out into oncoming traffic. And they can signal you to pull over for absolutely no reason at all other than to check that your insurance and registration are in order (and if you’re an American tourist, that you have an IDL).
Just like in the US where some criminals use lights to make them look like they are driving an unmarked car, some criminals use counterfeit lollipops. An official lollipop is red with a white reflective circle and writing to identify the municipality of the Carabineri or Polizia.
3. Italy has speed limits and loves speed cameras.
When I tell people that I live in Italy and own a car, I hear exclamations of “It must be crazy to drive without speed limits!” Folks, that is Germany and not even all of it. Italy has speed limits and they’re pretty strictly enforced.
We had a reader email us that they received a ticket in the mail and asking if it was legitimate. You better believe it is legitimate. The best part is that I’ve yet to meet an Italian that can do anything on time, but if that speed ticket isn’t returned following every instruction to a tee and on time, they start tacking on additional fines for late fees. So don’t do as the Romans do; pay on time.
Like other countries, speed camera detectors are illegal and you can be fined if caught with one. Some GPS, like our Garmin Nuvi with European Maps, are very smart and know and alert you to where speed cameras are. But new cameras are added all the time, so if a lot of traffic slows down suddenly you can bet that there is a speed camera.
There are several kinds of speed cameras, so let’s take a look at each kind so that you are aware and can go home without worrying that the rental car company will send along your speeding ticket several months later.
This is my least favorite kind of speed camera and they are only found on the autostradas (freeways). Sistema Tutor are cameras attached to the signage that crosses all the lanes of the freeway. You have two kinds of Sistema Tudor: one that photographs your car and takes the speed as you enter a monitored stretch of the freeway and again as you leave the stretch to determine your average speed, and the other that instantaneously detects your speed. The information is sent to a central server and if you were speeding, voila! you can expect a ticket in the mail.
Fixed Roadside Cameras
Another kind of speed cameras are fixed cameras on the roadside and these can be found in both towns and on the autostrada. They take a picture of you if you’re speeding from both the front and the back and send the information to a central server so that your speeding ticket can be mailed off to you.
We very rarely see them with all the fixed cameras and Sistema Tutor, but Italy does also use good old fashioned polizia or carabinieri that decide to set up in a somewhat hidden spot and use a radar gun or mobile speed camera to clock your speed. Often times, oncoming motorists will signal that a speed trap is coming up by flashing their headlights at you.
4. Never, ever pass on the right.
If the road has multiple lanes going in the same direction, like on the autostrada, the left lane is for passing only. If you’re not actively passing other vehicles, move over to the rightmost lane. If someone behind you is flashing their lights, it means you’re in their way; move over to the right. Passing on the right is absolutely forbidden because it is believed to cause accidents. Passing on the right actually isn’t done anywhere in Europe.
5. Use your turn signal.
Italy is a culture that religiously uses turn signals. If you don’t, you’re just asking for an accident to happen.
6. You can’t make a right turn on a red light.
In the US, unless indicated that it is not okay, you can make a right turn on red. So naturally, you might think that is okay in Italy. You would be wrong. Though Italy has far fewer traffic lights than roundabouts, there are traffic lights and it is illegal to make a right turn on red. And remember how Italy loves its’ speed cameras? It loves red light cameras too.
7. Fines are paid on the spot.
If you are pulled over for committing some sort of infraction like speeding or running a red light, you’ll have to pay your fine on the spot. In cash. If you don’t have enough cash on you, the polizia or carabinieri will kindly escort you to the nearest bank or ATM so you can withdraw the funds. Ask me how I know…
8. You must drive with your headlights on.
Even on the sunniest of days, the law requires you to drive with your headlights on outside of urban areas. This means always drive with your headlights on while driving on the autostrada.
9. Be sure to sport your fashionable reflective vest.
If you have to get out of the car on a roadway for any reason, you must be wearing a reflective vest. This is so that other motorists can easily see you and avoid hitting you.
10. Cellphones can only be used with hands free devices.
Northern Italians mostly abide by this law; Southern Italians mostly don’t abide by this law. But you especially need to be alert when driving in Italy and I strongly suggest you pull off safely to the side of the road or in to a rest stop to use the phone. If you must use a cell phone while driving, this bluetooth hands free device works with many of today’s smartphones.
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Our car rental was provided by Carrentals.co.uk in order to bring you this story. However, Luxe Adventure Traveler maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site. As always, all thoughts, opinions, and enthusiasm for travel are entirely our own. This article also contains affiliate links. When you purchase anything on Amazon through our affiliate site, we earn a small commission at no additional cost to you.