Driving in Italy is not for the unadventurous. While most forgo driving in the cities and rely on public transportation, driving is the main way to access and explore remote areas and small towns and is most often the only way to take in the beauty of the Italian countryside.
Learning when to use a GPS, understanding Italian traffic laws, and knowing how to avoid being caught speeding will help you navigate the roads on your vacation in Italy.
If your driver's license is from the U.S. or other countries outside the European Union, you should carry an International Driving Permit (IDP) along with your local license. You'll need to show your IDP if you get stopped by the police for any reason, including if you're in an accident. It's not a license, requires no test, and is basically a translation of your driver's license.
The legal driving age in Italy is 18 years old, but you must have had your license for at least a year to rent a car, and many car rental companies will charge you an extra fee if you’re under 25. Civil liability insurance is mandatory, and visitors have the option of purchasing a Green Card insurance policy, sold at the border, that is valid for 15, 30, or 45 days.
Checklist for Driving in Italy
- Driver's license (required)
- IDP (recommended)
- Proof of liability insurance (required)
- ID/passport (required)
- Reflective safety vest (required)
- Reflective triangle (required)
- Spare tire (recommended)
- Fire extinguisher (recommended)
Rules of the Road
If you know Italian law, you can avoid being stopped by police or photographed by speed and red-light cameras, and return home without incurring a traffic fine. While some of the rules are similar to driving laws in the U.S., some, like the Zona Traffico Limitado, are particular to Italy.
- Seatbelts: According to Italian law, any time you ride in a vehicle that has seat belts, it is compulsory to wear them.
- Children and car seats: Children who are under 36 kilograms (97 pounds) or 150 centimeters (4 feet, 9 inches) must use appropriate car seats or booster seats and must ride in the back of the car.
- Distracted driving: You cannot text or talk and drive while holding a phone. Recent changes to Italy's highway code include stricter penalties for anyone caught using a mobile phone while driving. Fines for drivers caught texting or talking on the phone are hefty, and drivers could also face a suspension of driving privileges of up to two months.
- Alcohol: A blood-alcohol level of more than 0.05 percent is considered legally intoxicated in Italy. Drivers with a level of 0.05 to 0.08 face fines, up to one month in jail, and a community service requirement.
- Zona Traffico Limitato (ZTL): Do not drive in an area with a ZTL sign or one marked Area Pedonale (limited traffic or pedestrian zones). Most cities have these zones, and even in small towns, you may find them in the historic center, or centro storico. A special permit is needed to drive in a limited traffic zone (which your hotel can usually provide if it's within one). There is usually a camera that takes a photo of your license plate as you enter and you may get a fine in the mail, sometimes months later, even if you don't get stopped right away. Look for a parking lot outside the center—you'll often find one within walking distance or with a shuttle to take you to the center of a town.
- Speed limits: Except when posted otherwise, speed limits apply throughout Italy, including 130 kilometers per hour (80 miles per hour) on highways, 110 kph (68 mph) on non-major highways outside of major urban areas, and 90 kph (56 mph) on local roads.
- Traffic lights: In Italy, it is illegal to make a right turn on a red light even if you stop first. Italy has a three-light system like in the U.S., although there are not many traffic lights.
- School buses: You must stop when a school bus is stopped and unloading and loading passengers.
- Right of way: Yield to traffic on the right when you are at a junction or crossroads. In reality, drivers will not wait for you to proceed if you are hesitant.
- Roundabouts: At roundabouts, yield to traffic that is already in the roundabout. The driver in the roundabout always has the right of way. To exit the roundabout, use your turn indicator signal.
- Parking: When parking on an urban street, park on the right-hand side. In marked "blue zone" areas, you must display a parking disc, valid for one hour, which can be obtained in tourist offices.
- Headlights: Even on sunny days, the law requires you to drive with your headlights on outside of urban areas. Always drive with your headlights on while on the autostrada.
- In case of emergency: Emergency numbers in Italy are 113 for police, 115 for the fire department, and 118 for an ambulance.
Driving on the Autostrada or Toll Road
The autostrada is Italy's system of toll roads. Autostrada highways are designated with an A in front of a number (such as A1, the major autostrada that connects Milan and Rome) and signs pointing toward them are green.
The maximum speed limit is 130 kilometers per hour but on some parts slows to 110 and can be as low as 60 on some curvy stretches, so watch for posted speed limit signs. You'll take a ticket as you enter the autostrada and pay a toll when you exit, and credit cards do not always work at the toll booth so have cash with you.
Italian drivers tend to drive fast, especially on the autostrada, but are generally not aggressive. But unless you're planning to race in the fast lane, just leave the left lane for passing and stick to the right-hand lanes.
Italy has two main devices for catching speeders, Autovelox and Sistema Tutor. Always be on the lookout for Autovelox, which can be found on the autostrada, regular highways, and even in some towns. The Autovelox looks like a big box with a sign but inside is a camera that takes a photo of your license plate. You could receive a ticket as late as a year after the incident even if you were driving a rental car. You should also see a warning sign in advance that says Polizia Stradale, controllo electronico della velocita.
Sistema Tutor is a new system used on some stretches of the autostrada. An overhead camera takes a photo of your license plate as you pass under it. When you pass under the next camera, your speed is averaged between the two points and the average should not exceed 130 kph (81 mph), or 110 kph (68 mph) if raining. You may receive a ticket in the mail or through your rental car company.
Streets in historic city centers are often narrow, winding, and congested and motor scooter drivers will dart in and out of traffic. Riders of bicycles, motorcycles, and other vehicles may ignore traffic signals and traffic flow.
Italy has over 5,600 kilometers (3,480 miles) of autostrada. In rural areas, roads are often narrow and often have no guardrails. In northern Italy in winter, you may encounter fog and low visibility, and most cars in Italy are equipped with fog lamps.
Tips When Renting a Car
When looking for a car rental, don't be fooled by a company whose prices are much lower than others. It's likely that they will add on additional costs either when you pick up the car or when you return it. Go through a company such as Auto Europe that shows all costs upfront, provides 24-hour assistance in English, and includes insurance.
If you are driving a gasoline-fueled car, order benzina, not gasolio, at the pump. Gasoline/Petrol stations are usually open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and you will find 24-hour stations along the autostrada.
Don't Rely Too Heavily on GPS
While a GPS will come in handy for navigation, don't rely on it exclusively. In Italy, it is common to find two (or more) towns with the same name in different regions so be sure to look at your map to see if you are heading the right way.
In addition, a navigator may direct you into a ZTL or to turn the wrong direction on a one-way street or even into an alley that ends in stairs. GPS systems do not always reflect the latest road openings and closings, so it's always good to travel armed with a map and an appeal to your sense of direction.
According to Italian law, if a resident of a non-European Union country such as the U.S. violates a traffic law, the violator must pay the fine at the time the ticket is issued. If you do not pay the fine, the police officer may confiscate the car.
Driving on Sundays
Sunday is a good day for long-distance driving on the autostrada because trucks are prohibited on Sundays. Be aware that in summer, coast roads become very congested, especially on Sundays. Roads around the northern lakes are often congested on weekends, too.