Driving in Italy: Laws & Rules of the Road

Italian traffic || creative commons photo by Larry

Italian traffic || creative commons photo by Larry

So, you’ve decided you’re not content with just taking trains and buses to get around in Italy, and you’re going to rent a car. It’s a great way to see parts of the country many visitors miss, and can be an economical way to transport a family or other group – but it’s important to understand Italian driving laws before you get behind the wheel.

Don’t miss my other articles in this series: Driving in Italy 101 and Italian Road Signs 101

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Before You Go: Getting an International Driving Permit

Italian law requires foreign visitors who get behind the wheel to carry an International Priving permit (IDP). There’s no test to complete, don’t worry – it basically tells non-English speakers that you’re licensed to drive in your home country. You’ll need to bring your regular driver’s license with you, too, as the two documents work in tandem. Licensed drivers age 18 and up can get an IDP at AAA in the United States for $15 or AA in the UK for £8.50. Find out more, including what’s on the application and what you need to bring, on the AAA website for U.S. drivers and AA website for UK drivers.

Truth be told, I know many people who have never bothered to get an IDP for an Italy trip. Rental car companies don’t ask if you have one, so you won’t be denied a car. I’d still recommend getting one, though, so that if you get pulled over by the Italian police you’ll have all your proverbial ducks in their rows. It’s not a huge expense, and an IDP is valid for one year, so you may be able to get even more use out of it.

Italian Driving Laws

No parking in Milan || creative commons photo by Evan Blaser

No parking in Milan || creative commons photo by Evan Blaser

For the most part, driving laws in Italy are probably quite similar to driving laws in your country (provided you’re not in the UK or Australia or Japan or another place where driving on the left side of the road is the norm). There are a few rules of the road that are more strictly enforced in Italy than in the United States, for instance, so it’s important to be aware of them.

  • Seat belts are to be worn at all times.
  • Drinking and driving in Italy is illegal.
  • Speed limits in Italy are strictly enforced, and being a foreign driver who “doesn’t know any better” won’t get you out of paying hefty fines. Unless you see a sign indicating otherwise, the speed limits in Italy are 130kmph (80mph) on highways like the Autostrada and range from 50kmph to 110kmph on other roads. Some highways have much lower speed limits than you’d expect due to their proximity to an urban center, so keep your eyes peeled for speed limit changes.
  • If you’re driving, mobile phones can only be used hands-free device.
  • Driving in a bike lane or bus lane is illegal.
  • Children under age 12 aren’t allowed to ride in the front seat of cars, and children up to age four have to be in proper child safety seats.
  • Italy, along with many other European countries, requires all cars to carry reflective safety vests. This is in case you need to pull over to the side of the road; putting on the vests before you get out to fix a flat tire makes you more visible to other drivers. Technically, the vests can’t be stored in the trunk, either, since you’d need to get out of the car (without a vest on) in order to get the vest. Check with the rental car company about the location of safety vests before you drive away.
  • Headlights must be turned on whenever you’re driving in Italy, whether it’s dark or light out. Daytime running lights is a pretty common feature on newer cars, but if your rental car doesn’t have headlights that automatically turn on you’ll want to remember to do that manually.
  • The left lanes of any multi-lane road are really only for passing. You won’t see drivers cruising along in the left lane in Italy with the same regularity you probably do in the U.S. Not only that, Italian drivers tend to keep their turn signals on until they’ve passed the car in front of them. It’s a good way of showing the cars behind you that you’re only using the left lane for passing, and will get back over to the right when you’re done. Don’t just tootle along in the left lane, or you’ll quickly end up with a surly Italian on your tail. Stay to the right unless you’re passing. Period.
  • This isn’t so much a law as it is a courtesy to other drivers, but if you’re on a smaller country road and a car comes up behind you and flashes its headlights, that means, “Hey, would you mind terribly scooting over to the right a bit and slowing down to make it easier for me to pass you?” It’s not a sign that they’re angry… Unless you ignore them.

Violations of Italian driving laws means getting a ticket and a pretty sizable fine. Those fines just get worse when you’re late in paying them, which you’ll certainly be since the ticket goes to the rental car company first before it eventually makes its way to you. And the rental car company will likely add a fee for their troubles, too.

In other words? Follow the rules and everyone goes home happy.

Parking Rules in Italy

Car parked in middle of intersection (& crosswalk) in Milan || photo by Jessica Spiegel, all rights reserved

Car parked in middle of intersection (& crosswalk) in Milan || photo by Jessica Spiegel, all rights reserved

Parking a car in any of Italy’s city centers can be a big hassle. Historic towns weren’t designed with wide streets or space for parking lots, so Italians have had to get creative with where and how they park. That’s not always a good thing, but it’s often amusing. Take, for instance, this story of a few locals repainting a recently-designated bus-only zone.

If you’re staying in a hotel, ask if they’ve got a dedicated parking lot somewhere nearby. If they don’t, ask them where they recommend you look for parking, and whether you’ll need a permit for that area. If you know what to look for, you’ll see indications of parking regulations on streets and curbs.

  • Areas painted white are available for anyone to park for free.
  • Areas painted blue are pay-to-park. There will be an automated machine somewhere nearby, which will give you a ticket that you’ll put face-up on your dashboard so it can be seen from outside the car. Blue areas offer special residential permits for parking, which some hotels may offer guests. These are time-limited spaces, though, so be aware of how long you’re allowed to stay in a parking spot.
  • Areas painted yellow are for handicapped parking and require the appropriate permit displayed in the car. Yellow areas may also be loading/unloading zones.

Some cities and towns have parking lots or parking garages just outside city centers, too, which are easy to use if not always easy to find – some are underground. You can usually find out the location of parking lots and garages from hotels if you’re staying in one, or from the tourist information office.

Pollution Driving Restrictions

Some Italian cities now have restrictions on driving in their urban centers in an effort to reduce pollution levels. You’ll likely be notified of this if you’re renting a car and say that you’re planning to drive in one of the cities with such restrictions, but if you’re not sure you should ask the rental car company.

What these restrictions often mean are surcharges for driving in the city center (called “congestion charges”), though sometimes they prevent some cars from being used on certain days. License plates ending in odd numbers, for instance, would be allowed one day and even-numbered plates the next. Sometimes it’s on an as-needed basis, and some cities have restrictions in place at all times.

I recommend not driving in Italy’s big cities anyway, for a number of reasons, and this just adds another reason to my list.

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