The ultimate guide to the insanity of driving in Italy

Driving in Italy might be notoriously crazy, but if you're brave enough, it can also be a wonderful adventure. An American who took the plunge, Michael Ballaban, explains why.

The ultimate guide to the insanity of driving in Italy
Are you brave enough to tackle Italy's roads? Photo: Jun/Flickr

I spent two weeks in Italy, all of which was really quite lovely. I ate much delicious pasta, saw many beautiful sights, and learned the true meaning of public transportation frustration when the driver of Campania’s Circumvesuviana train, which goes all around a live volcano, stopped in the middle of the route just to have a nice little cigarette break.

But I also learned a few things while I was there, and since I wasn’t the first clueless American to show up looking to drive on Italian shores, I figured I’d help us all become a little less clueless, with a simple guide to driving through the heart of the former Roman Empire.

Read more: Why are Italians such crazy drivers?

(Full Disclosure: Italy wanted me to drive through Italy so badly that I paid for all my own airfare, hotels, food, and really everything else I needed or wanted in Italy. Fiat was kind enough to loan me an Alfa Romeo Giulietta Quadrifoglio, which I picked up from a garage on the outskirts of Rome).

Before heading to Europe, I made sure to fill my mind with plenty of expectations, hopes and fears. Italy was “God’s race track,” I’d heard somewhere, so that was bound to be good. Italy was also full of crazy drivers, so that was bound to be bad.

The Stelvio pass in the Italian Alps. Photo: Damian Morys

But ahead of everyone driving in Italy for the first time lies the Autostrada, the twisty switchback mountain roads that descend deep into majestic valleys, and a carbohydrate-induced food coma to balance out the adrenaline of desperately trying to avoid hitting anything like a repulsive magnet in a pinball machine.

And therein lies great driving. So with a AAA-issued International Driving Permit in hand, which really doesn’t seem to do anything except translate your already-existing license into a few languages, you’ll be ready to go.

As long as you know a few simple rules first.

1) Don’t drive In Rome

Real simple. Don’t drive in Rome.

2) Don’t drive In Rome

Photo: Matthew H Howarth/Flickr

Legit, even a Roman taxi driver told me not to drive in Rome. Streets that are way too narrow for one-way traffic to somehow allow two-way traffic, street signs aren’t so much street signs as they are engravings on buildings, and even then, only sometimes, because other times they’re not there at all, not like that would matter since streets often change names for no reason at all.

Photo: Sarah Sampsell/Flickr

Oh, also, everyone drives more aggressively than any New York City taxi driver you’ve ever encountered, and you might die.

I don’t actually know about that last part, but, you know, keep it in mind, just to be safe. And if you’re really going to be safe, follow tip three.

3) You know what, just don’t drive In Italy at all

Photo: Chriscom/Flickr

I told one of the kindly hotel owners I met that I actually drove to that particular hotel. At first she looked at me wide-eyed in shock that I would ever attempt such a thing, and then she looked at me wide-eyed in horror as if I had just told her I only feast on the faces of bugs.

4) But if you do drive In Italy, know that you’re going on a wonderful adventure

Photo: Giorgio Raffaeli/Flickr

And treat it as such. Adventures can be fun, bringing you new experiences and filling you with a sense of personal exploration. Or they can be hellish, as you recognize you don’t know where you’re going, what you’re doing, or have any idea what the road signs mean. But you’re going to want to put yourself in the mindset that you aren’t going for a lovely weekend drive in your neighbourhood. You’re going to be heading into unfamiliar territory, and that’s okay.

5) Make sure your mode of transport comes with a navigation system

All of you are probably going to dump on me for wanting a nav system, but it really can be a lifesaver in Italy specifically, and in Europe generally. Streets, especially narrow ones in cities, can often be poorly marked. That is, if they’re marked at all. When you’re on an adventure, missing a turn becomes an inevitability. What’s worse is when you don’t even know you’ve missed a turn, and you’re halfway into Austria before you realize all the road signs are now in German. So bring a GPS system, either by using the one integrated into whatever car you’re using, bringing along a separate device, or using a navigation app on your phone.

You might be ready to scream at me about how pricey your phone-based navigation is when overseas, as it’s constantly downloading new maps on something like Google Maps. Google Maps can save some offline maps in a pinch, but what really saved my bacon a few times was Nokia’s HERE maps. I was able to download the maps for the entire country over WiFi, and it still provided turn-by-turn navigation.

6) Get some real maps as well

Your GPS is going to screw up at some point, so you’re going to want to be able to double-check it. Also, it might be British, saying things like “turn half-right.” Anyone have any idea what that jumble of letters means? Of course not. Half-right is for half-people. You’re not a half-person. You’re a WHOLE PERSON.

What I’m saying is, bring some back-up maps.

7) Arrange for a car

You’re not going to be shipping your Fox-body Mustang halfway across the world just to go driving in Europe. You’re going to want to borrow a car, and likely some sort of rental. Do yourself and the rest of humanity a favour by renting something small and weird, because that’s what Europe is about. A Fiat Panda, an Alfa Giulietta, or even a Volkswagen GTD are all the right amount of small and weird.

If you end up renting a Renault Twizy, you’ve gone too small and weird. Try again.

8) Familiarize yourself with local regulations and road signs

Photo: Henri Sivonen/Flickr

I can’t stress this one enough. You’ll see things that look like a red circle, which means no vehicles allowed, or resident’s vehicles only, or no parking at all, or a sign telling you that there are speed cameras, or a sign saying “Sistema Tutor,” which you’ll think is a really great way to have one-on-one instruction in calculus or something but is actually the most nefarious speed trap of them all, the average speed camera. Some signs will make sense to you, and some signs will simply tell you to quit with all the bugling.

Memorize all of them, as you’ll see them frequently.

9) Prepare to ignore and forget every single thing in the previous rule

Rome’s traffic police. Photo: Gerard Queen/Flickr

Okay, this is the one thing I didn’t understand about Italy, and the one thing I still don’t understand. Native Italians please, for the love of all that is holy, feel free to chime in. But every single driving regulation in Italy was more a vague suggestion than enforced law.

And we’re talking the vaguest of vague here.

The speed limit on the Autostrada tends to be aboue 130 kilometres an hour, or about 80 MPH. And that’s great. Super great. You know how rare it is to find a speed limit that high outside of the middle of nowhere in Texas? Incredibly rare. And with all the speed cameras smothering the entire highway network, I expected everyone to be totally satisfied with that nicely quick speed limit.

And yet, I found myself dumbfounded. Here I was, tootling along at 80, in the right hand lane, when a Smart car with a wheezy diesel engine would come blasting past me at what seemed like 100 MPH, likely taxing that wheezy diesel to the absolute limits.

Speed cameras? Tutor system? Actual caribinieri? None of these things seemed to matter. Apparently you just floor the gas pedal to your heart’s content, and that’s fine.

And as for all those “no vehicles” or “resident vehicles only” signs, I remember asking a hotel proprietor where to park, at which point they told me to just park right outside. When I meekly informed them that I couldn’t, because I wasn’t a resident, they stared at me like I just told them I forgot how to chew oatmeal, along with a sigh and the only English words they seemed to be able to annunciate perfectly:


10) Find A Route

Screengrab: Google Maps

And make it a good one. Italy is so chock-a-block full of undulating topography, that if you don’t come back ranting and raving about how you, and only you, found the One True Greatest Driving Road in the world, then you did it wrong.

11) Get Lost

Photo: David Clow/Flickr

Let your GPS freak out for a while, it’s fine. You’ll see stuff off the beaten path you’ll never see otherwise.

I saw some cows.

12) Don’t worry about people driving aggressively

It’s not like in the US, where if a guy is tailgating you it can quickly turn into a blind bloodlust of road rage. Tailgating is a way of life. When you see an eight-car pileup on the side of the road, with all the drivers involved in good physical condition and looking slightly bored as I did outside of Pescara, you’ll understand how it’s all just a part of the landscape.

13) Don’t hang out in the left lane

I don’t care if you’ve burned every Tutor System camera in the entire country, someone will always be going faster than you. Use the left lane to pass, and for nothing else.

14) Don’t drive in Rome

Photo: Peter1/Flickr

Don’t drive in Rome.

And there you have it. You’re all set to begin your Italian roadtrip.

As long as, you know, you remember not to drive in Rome.

This article originally appeared on the automotive website Jalopnik on April 6th, 2015, and was republished with permission.

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COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?

Certain countries around Europe have stricter policies than others regarding drinking and driving and harsher punishments for those caught exceeding legal limits. Here's what you need to know.

COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?

European countries set their own driving laws and speed limits and it’s no different when it comes to legal drink-drive limits.

While the safest thing to do of course, is to drink no alcohol at all before driving it is useful to know what the limit is in the country you are driving in whether as a tourist or as someone who frequently crosses European borders by car for work.

While some countries, such as the Czech Republic, have zero tolerance for drinking and driving, in others people are allowed to have a certain amount of alcohol in their blood while driving.

However, not only can the rules be different between countries, they are usually stricter for commercial (or bus) drivers and novice drivers as well. Besides that, the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is extremely difficult to estimate, so the old “one beer is ok” standards no longer safely apply.

In the end, the only way to be safe is to avoid consuming alcohol before driving. Any amount will slow reflexes while giving you dangerous higher confidence. According to the UK’s National Health Service, there is no ‘safe’ drinking level.

How is blood alcohol level measured?

European countries mostly measure blood alcohol concentration (BAC), which is the amount, in grams, of alcohol in one litre of blood.

After alcohol is consumed, it will be absorbed fast from the stomach and intestine to the bloodstream. There, it is broken down by a liver-produced enzyme.

Each person will absorb alcohol at their own speed, and the enzyme will also work differently in each one.

The BAC will depend on these metabolic particularities as well as body weight, gender, how fast and how much the person drank, their age and whether or not (and how much) they have eaten, and even stress levels at the time.

In other words there are many things that may influence the alcohol concentration.

The only way to effectively measure BAC is by taking a blood test – even a breathalyser test could show different results. Still, this is the measuring unit used by many EU countries when deciding on drinking limits and penalties for drivers.

Here are the latest rules and limits.

Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Greece, Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, and Croatia

In most EU countries, the limit is just under 0.5g/l for standard drivers (stricter rules could be in place for novice or professional drivers).

This could be exceeded by a man with average weight who consumed one pint of beer (containing 4.2% alcohol) and two glasses of red wine (13% alcohol) while having dinner.

If a person is caught driving with more than 0.8g/l of blood alcohol content in Austria, they can pay fines of up to € 5,900 and to have their license taken for one year in some cases.

In France, if BAC exceeds 0.8g/l, they could end up with a 2-year jail sentence and a € 4,500 fine. In Germany, penalties start at a € 500 fine and a one-month license suspension. In Greece, drunk drivers could face up to years of imprisonment.

In Denmark, first time offenders are likely to have their licences suspended and could be required to go on self-paid alcohol and traffic courses if BAC levels are low. Italy has penalties that vary depending on whether or not the driver has caused an accident and could lead to car apprehension, fines and prison sentences.

In Spain, going over a 1.2g/l limit is a criminal offence that could lead to imprisonment sentences and hefty fines. 

Norway, Sweden, and Poland

In Norway, Sweden, and Poland, the limit for standard drivers is 0.2g/l. It could take a woman with average weight one standard drink, or one can of beer, to reach that level.

Penalties in Norway can start at a one month salary fine and a criminal record. In Poland, fines are expected if you surpass the limit, and you could also have your license revoked and receive a prison sentence.

Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia

The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia have one of the strictest rules in the European Union. There is no allowed limit of alcohol in the blood for drivers.

In the Czech Republic, fines start at € 100 to € 800, and a driving ban of up to one year can be instituted for those driving with a 0.3 BAC level. However, the harshest penalties come if the BAC level surpasses 1 g/l, fines can be up to € 2,000, and drivers could be banned from driving for 10 years and imprisoned for up to three years.

This is intended to be a general guide and reference. Check the current and specific rules in the country you plan to travel to. The easiest and best way to be safe and protect yourself and others is to refrain from drinking alcohol and driving.