Automobile use in Italy
Driving in Italy can be a very adventurous way to see the country, but on the other hand, driving in Italy is highly discouraged, due to the fact of very limited parking and expensive gasoline (somewhere in the neighborhood of $US 8 per gallon). The street signs can be confusing, and the traffic can be atrocious. Italians tend to drive aggressively, so it is not for the faint of heart.
However there is a lot to see in Italy that is inaccessible by bus or train. Unlike the United States, there is so much art and history in every little town. You can easily stumble across some pleasant surprises driving through the countryside.
Therefore, if your itinerary is mainly the big cities (Rome, Florence, Venice), you should rely on public transportation, walking, cabs, etc. The public transportation in Italy is very good to excellent. Another thing to keep in mind is that many of the historic town centers are not accessible by car. And some require the citizens to pay a tax if they want to drive inside certain zones. This is to help curtail pollution. These are called Zona a Traffico Limitato (ZTL) - Limited Traffic Zones. Pay attention to these signs, and the hours they are in effect. You could end up with a big traffic ticket. Many of these areas are now monitored by CCTV.
If your itinerary is outside the major cities, in the countryside, or perhaps staying at a farmhouse (agriturismo), then renting a car in Italy may make sense. Here is a file (pdf) that shows the major driving distances in Italy (km and miles).
So if you are feeling adventurous enough to try driving, here are the major road classifications and the typical speed limits in Italy:
- Autostrada - Major highway / expressway (usually a toll-road) - 130 km/hr
- Strada statale (S.S.) - State road, first class main road - 110 km/hr
- Strada Provinciale (S.P.) - second class through road - 90 km/hr
- Residential roads are typically 50 km/hr
Licenses for driving in Italy
You will not need a special driver's license if you are renting an automobile through an agency. However, US and Canadian citizens will need to secure an international driver's license if you will be driving a private vehicle. These can be secured at your local AAA (Automobile Association of America) office.
Rules for driving in Italy
In Italy, you drive on the right side of the road as you do in the US or Canada. You are not allowed to make a right on red (even though it may appear that it is legal). When driving on the highway, the left lane is used strictly for passing. The use of a seatbelt is mandatory. It surprises me how many Italians do not follow this law. The use of hand-held cellular phones (without ear phone, or a hands-free device) is also prohibited while in motion! Children under the age of 12 are not allowed to sit in the front seat of the car.
Drunk Driving in Italy
This should go without saying, but please use a designated driver if you intend on drinking. Especially with all the great wine in Italy. It is easy to get carried away. However, with a blood alcohol level of .05, drunk driving laws in Italy are tougher than the United States, Canada, and the U.K, which typically require a blood alcohol level of .08.
Check with your automobile insurance carrier to ensure that you'll have the proper coverage. In the United States, you can waive the collision damage premium, and be covered by your insurance company. However, in Italy, you are not allowed to waive that charge.