What to Show/Take it Slow: Getting off the beaten path to reach charming villages and visit vineyards generally requires a rental car. You can take advantage of Summer in Italy’s affiliation with AutoEurope to find a quality, economical car to suit your needs. But… then what? Italy’s driving culture differs a bit from other places; some may call it chaotic. Rest easy, in our series Rules of the Road, we’ll help familiarize you with some of the basic ins and outs of driving in Italy.
Lesson One – What to Show: First thing you’ll need is an Int Driving Permit (IDP), which is a translation of your official drivers’ license, and is required by Italian law. It is not a substitute of your valid license, which you’ll still need to carry.
Even though most rental agencies will not request it when you pick up your car, a police officer stopping you along the road will want to see it. Random stops without cause can be performed; if an officer holds up a plastic wand with a red dot in the middle, you will need to pull over and produce the proper documents, such as rental contract, car registration, your regular license and the IDP. The officer may want to see your passport as well.
IDPs can be obtained from the Automobile Association in your home country, or from the ACI (Automobile Club Italiano) in Italy.
Lesson Two – Take it Slow
Despite the publicity that Italians drive like Mario Andretti, there actually are speed limits and they are occasionally enforced. Increasingly, speed controls are being monitored by automated video cameras which track your speed – and then track you down through the snapshot of your license plate, sending you a costly multa (ticket) in the mail a few months after your vacation has ended.
Beware of the “Tutor” signs. They indicate highway tracts where average speed is monitored. The Tutor system will measure how long you take to drive between 2 points along the highway. The distance between the 2 points is then divided by your driving time to obtain your average speed. If your average speed surpasses the speed limit… guess what? Multa!
Better to stick close to the posted speed limits, despite that Mercedes riding your rear. Signs usually indicate when you are about to encounter a monitored zone.
Official speed limits:
50 km/h in town or as posted : 90 km/h outside town on most two-lane roads
110 km/h on divided highways: 130 km/h on the Autostrada
Staying close to the speed limits not only help you avoid the fines, it allows you to enjoy the view of the countryside out your window, as well.
Reading the Lines: In our continuing Rules of the Road series, we’re familiarizing your with the basics of driving in Italy. To navigate the back roads and byways of Italy you’ll need a decent map. Forget the four-square fold-out sketch that the rental car company gives you; it won’t guide you very far from the Autostrada onto roads less traveled. We recommend purchasing a regional map or an atlas book (called an Atlante Stradale) prior to arriving in Italy. They can also be purchased at Autogrill service areas and bookstores around the country. Like any roadmap, major highways are demarked by wider lines, with each subsequent narrowing of road surface corresponding with a skinnier line. Maps also provide convenient color-coding to make it easier to decipher the road types.
The wide green lines denote the highway system known as the Autostrada. They are limited-access, high-speed roads, similar to the Interstate Highway system or a turnpike. Tolls are charged, and service areas (area servizio) are provided at regular intervals. Superstradas are also colored green, and are limited-access highways but do not charge tolls and generally connect a metro area with a nearby Autostrada.
The ubiquitous red roads are known as Strade Statale (SS). For ex, the famous via Salaria is the SS4. They are state roads and can be 4 lanes or 2 lanes, depending on the geography of the landscape. Red roads are well-maintained and usually easily traversed.
Yellow lines indicate regional and provincial thoroughfares. Many smaller towns can only be reached on a strada provinciale (SP). Many are squiggly streets taking you up and down hillsides, but frequently offer beautiful views in the process. They are generally two lanes, sometimes a bit less, but are always paved.
The strada bianca is a white road — colored white on the map as well as on the ground; they are, literally, white gravel drives. White roads lead you to tiny hamlets and farms or villas. They are usually one-lane country tracks. They can become muddy and rutted so drive slowly and use them only for access to a specific place, not as a through route. It is mandatory to turn on your headlights while driving on all red and green roadways.Remembering the colors can help you plan your route, whether you are seeking out the fastest way between two points, or searching for a panoramic spot for a picnic. A good map can help you find both.
Life in the Fast Lane
Italy is criss-crossed with a high-speed road network called the autostrada. They are limited-access roads conducive to high speeds, sort of like a highway system on steroids. Autostradas form the backbone of the transportation structure and connect you quickly to secondary roads. Distinctive green signs with the Autostrada logo direct you to the closest entrance points.
The race begins at the onramp where you take a ticket. Be careful to avoid the Telepass lanes which are for subscribers, and watch carefully when exiting the ticket booth as the Telepass drivers whiz through their lane without stopping. Once you choose your direction, you merge into traffic like any other highway.
There is an official speed limit of 130 km/h, though you’ll quickly notice that many drivers consider the road to be a racecourse and will soar past you. The left lane is to be used exclusively for passing. Keep right, moving over only to overtake a slower vehicle. Cars flashing their lights at you mean business; move back to the right lane quickly if you don’t want the panic of an angry high-speed tailgater. On a three-lane highway avoid staying on the central lane if the right lane is free of traffic: you will avoid the unpleasant situation where you are being passed at the same times on both sides.
Exiting the Autostrada is fairly simple but there are a few things to remember. Again, avoid the Telepass lane (those marked by a big yellow T). Paying tolls can be done with credit card or cash. There are lanes demarked for payment to an employee (usually the most efficient). There are lanes that offer automated payment by credit card (Viacard), where you insert your toll ticket then your credit card and are on your way. Finally, there are lanes solely for automated pay machines. Insert the toll ticket, look at the monetary display showing the amount owed, then insert banknotes into the slot or coins into the metal cup. Pay machines give change.
Upon exiting the Autostrada you will find a veritable wall of signs pointing you in the direction of many nearby towns, where the race continues but at slower speeds.
The Autostrade website provides information on calculated toll costs, traffic tie-ups, weather, and even speed traps
Fill It Up: The full tank you received when you picked up your rental car will only get you so far. Eventually you will have to fuel up and figure out the petrol pumps. Gas stations can range from tiny one-pump roadside pull-offs to full-scale, monster truck-sized service plazas. They’re pretty basic but have their quirks.
The little pull-off pumps are generally full service, which is a good thing because there may not be room for you to exit your car with traffic streaming by. You simply drive in, they pump the gas and off you go. Frequently, they will also wash your windows and check your oil at no extra cost. Even larger gas stations with service-specific lanes may offer additional services that you don’t expect, even in the self-service lines. If not and the station is open, you simply fill your tank then pay the attendant.
Did you catch that line, if the station is open? A sign at the curb announces if a station is open Aperto or closed, Chiuso. Some may say Aperto but looked shuttered; that is because many stations offer 24 h availability, even if an attendant is not present. At these pumps you must pay at a machine before pumping the gas. The machines take cash; some — but not all — take ATMs or credit cards. Frequently, one machine services several pumps so pay attention to which pump number you’ve parked at. Insert the banknote, select the correct pump number and then choose your gas type (unleaded is called senza piombo; diesel is called gasolio). Beware: the machine does not make change!
Larger stations offer attendants to offer assistance and collect your money. They will check your oil or tire pressure on request. If you’re paying by credit card you generally have to go inside the store to complete the transaction. Most of the larger gas stations also have little shops and cafes, as well as restrooms, so you can fuel up on caffeine or snacks while filling up your car.
Take a Breather: One of the great things about driving on the Autostrada, apart from being able to unleash the inner Indy racer in you, is the pit stops. The roadside respites known as Auto grills are sprinkled at convenient intervals all along the highway route, allowing you to take a breather and fuel up.
Not content with being a mere gas station, the Auto grill offers travelers a host of services (along with gas, of course). First there is the coffee bar. Being Italy, a good espresso can be obtained quickly and inexpensively. Then there are food offerings, from simple sandwiches or pizza slices up to full cafeteria-style restaurants at the larger Auto grills. Then there is the shopping. The stores carry a variety of regional specialty foods, candy and cookies, meats and cheeses to construct a picnic lunch, as well as maps, books, CDs and more. And finally, not to be overlooked, is the availability of clean restrooms; some even boast free showers (nice if you’re still salty after a day at the beach).
To utilize the food service part of the Auto grill you’ll have to follow the proper procedure or risk some angry guests behind you. Go to the counter to look over the offerings and decide what you want. Panini are on display in the case and are given cutesy names; fresh squeezed juice (spremuta) is always available. Once you’ve decided, line up at the register; tell the clerk your order, and pay. Take the receipt to the counter and hand it over to the barista while repeating your order to him, then enjoy your cafe or snack. The cafeteria restaurants operate like usual, pick the dishes you want and pay at the register on your way to a table.
The Auto grills give you sustenance, shopping, and the chance to stretch your limbs before the next leg of your journey.
Child Car Seats: According to the Italian law about passenger safety, any time you seat in a vehicle fitted with seat belts it is compulsory to wear them. Children who are under 36 kg (97 pounds) or 150 cm (4 ft, 9 in) must use appropriate child restraints, which are of two kinds: child car seats and boosters. Child car seats are mandatory while the child is less than 18 kg (48.5 pounds). Children who weigh more than 18 kg/48.5 pounds can use boosters, which lift them up to the point where the seat belt can be fastened appropriately.
Bear in mind that: Child car seats must be reserved in advance when you rent a car. Boosters might not always be available for rental along with the car, but they are inexpensive and can be bought locally, if you are not bringing one along.
All infants should always ride rear facing until they weigh at least 10 kg (24 pounds). Never place the baby in the front seat if you can help it. Absolutely never in front of a passenger- side air bag that cannot be deactivated. The middle rear seat is generally considered the safest, but most are not latch compliant, so use the standard seat belt installation for the middle seat unless your child safety seat’s instructions specifically note otherwise.
Children weighing 10 kg/24 pounds and over might be placed with their car seats facing forward. Seat belts must be worn and securely fastened even for short trips.
Reproduced with authorization from Summer in Italy