The next few installments will cover driving in Italy. We will examine the main rules of the road, provide tips for country, city and highway driving as well as gassing up, parking, tolls, important street signs, avoiding speed traps, dealing with fines and car rental surcharges. Cars are the lifeblood of the villa rental business and 95% of all vacation rentals in Italy require a car. What helped make America great was the car. It gives us independence and freedom to go wherever we want whenever we choose. The same applies to vacationing in Italy. Unless you plan to confine yourself strictly to cities, it is, at best, cumbersome, if not downright impossible to explore the magnificent countryside by any other means.
Italy has gone through many changes over the last decade, none of them appeal to me. I remember driving a fancy Audi V8 from Rome to Naples at 265km per hour — that’s roughly 165 mph — in the rain! It was one of the most exhilarating feelings I’ve ever experienced. The car gripped the road like a tiger and the entire drive took not much more than an hour. Speed limits were more like suggestions back then. Those days — sadly for me — are long gone. Hardly any Italians exceed speed limits anymore. Everyone wears seat belts and maintains daytime running lights.
The roads have become homogenized. Why did this happen? Italy devised a devilishly devious scheme — each driver is given 20 points when they receive a license. Every time Italians are caught breaking the law they lose four or five points depending on the infraction. Lose all your points and it may take up to two years of bureaucratic maneuvers to reapply for drivers education, driving tests, permits and all that’s required to get back on the road. The best part is that they do not even know when it happens. Most infractions are recorded electronically followed by bad news in the mail.
Americans and citizens of non European nations are unaffected for the moment, the most we get is a fine. So, these days the few speeders on Italian highways are most likely foreigners in rental cars. To Italians that’s like rubbing salt in an open wound. It’s actually worse in other places. Some Scandinavians are being fined up to 10% of their annual income for a speeding violation. The EU is giddily looking into this for all its member nations.
However, Italians are an ingenious lot. Since most infractions are caught on hidden cameras and first generation equipment lacked good resolution, crafty Italians resorted to paying elders and nursing home residents to falsely claim they were driving at that particular moment. So what if the seniors lost points? They no longer drove, each senior was good for at least four violations and the extra cash didn’t hurt. That’s over too. I’m not sure if the cameras got sharper or the Italians just ran out of seniors with valid licenses. For awhile, citizens of Naples tried wearing (and selling) t-shirts with a seat belt painted on just to avoid latching up. That ended as well. Big Brother’s iron boot has slammed the brakes on Italy’s daredevil antics. I hope to demonstrate how this translates into good news for you.
My first post on the subject stirred some debate. I’ll encapsulate that post by restating that possessing an International Driver’s License in Italy is a scarcely enforced law that I deliberately choose to ignore. Having said that, I also promised to check into it a little deeper. Here are the results:
The Law Regarding International Drivers License is written in Italian and confusing at best. Our Italian legal counsel summed it up as follows: “with an American license you can drive, but if you do not have an IDL or an official translation, you risk a fine of 78 up to 311 Euro.” The main issue, it seems is not translating the color of your hair, but understanding what vehicle class you are allowed to drive. In Italy, I don’t drive buses, tractor trailers, heavy construction equipment or motorcycles and thus I am content to be without an IDL in my sedan.
Second, I had our staff in Italy stop, call and speak to members of various law enforcement agencies. Not a single officer was aware of such a law and none of them claimed to have ever demanded seeing an IDL from an American. They look for a valid driver’s license, passport and car rental contract. Granted, our research was completely unscientific. Nonetheless, rarely enforced laws occur all over the world. For instance, men with mustaches in Nebraska cannot kiss a woman.
Third, in order to pick up their car at the car rental desk, clients must provide their valid driver’s license, passport, credit card and reservation.
Finally, I have yet to see copy of a fine or ticket levied against anyone for failing to comply with this law. So where does that leave us? For myself, I shall continue to spend the extra cash on something useful like getting a shave next time I visit Nebraska.
I’ll be pilloried for saying this but someone better. Forking over cash money for an IDL to use in much of Western Europe, Italy included is a complete waste of time and money. Every armchair traveler is now doubling over in their recliner at such blasphemy. Laws will be rattled off with penalties ranging from severe fines to life imprisonment. But, before you hand over the cash equivalent of a good bottle of wine please hear me out. I have personally driven over a quarter of a million miles in Europe, 80% of them in Italy alone. I have been stopped on occasion by carabinieri, polizia and guardia di finanza (basically, everyone except the army) and have never been asked to produce an IDL. At the start of my travels, I fell prey to this scam and was fortunately stopped by Italian police officers early on. I immediately produced my IDL. They had no idea what an IDL was and demanded to see my real license and passport. Since then, no law enforcement person has ever asked me for one, nor has any car rental desk, gas station or parking lot attendant demand that I produce one either. Why should you?
It is an easy $15 to $50 bucks to peel off of folks prior to departure by: a) claiming laws the local police do not even claim to know exist and b) guaranteeing piece of mind to the uninformed. The IDL is simply a translation of your actual license. You most definitely need it when visiting countries that use a completely different alphabet such as Greece, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Japan and anywhere else the ABCs of our alphabet appears as squiggles in the eyes of the beholder. Italy, France, England, Germany, Spain, Scandinavia, South America and a host of other countries use the very same alphabet and can easily figure out your name, address, height, hair color and license number.
So, I choose to save a few bucks and carry around one less meaningless piece of paper. While driving in Italy, I make sure that I always wear seat belts, pass only from the left and never hold a cell phone while driving — ignoring these laws will get one into real trouble.