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November 7, 2008

Nine Rules for Driving in Italy

Filed under: Italy Rome-Sicily 2008, Travel — anotherheader @ 7:25 pm

The Italian autostrada

The Italian autostrada

I’m going to take a break from the trip account to talk about something we did a lot of on this trip—drive. Now we love taking the train and public transportation when we travel abroad. It would be our preference. Public transit is frequently more relaxing, more involving, and often gives us a better sense of the place we visit. But, as we get further away from the city centers, using public transit just takes too much time out of a short trip to be practical. And, of course, there is the issue of transporting the jumble of bags that we bring along on the trip. Perhaps we could pack lighter. It’s not like we carry a lot of clothes and, God knows, we can’t reduce the extensive collection of personal electronics and the 17.4 lbs of travel books that we typically carry. So, renting a car it is.

The basic, written rules of the road are pretty similar worldwide, particularly if you are driving on the right side of the road. What changes is the driving etiquette and which of the road rules people actually obey. In the States, for example, drivers routinely go 5 or 10 mph over the posted speed limit on the freeways and sometimes don’t use their turn signals, both of which are technically against the letter of the law.

In other countries, it’s a mystery as to what the operative rules of the road are. We haven’t done a complete survey, but here’s what we’ve inferred about the rules for driving in Italy:

Rule 1: Show no fear or weakness

This is the Golden Rule for all merges, stop signs, and the like. If you give space, someone will take it. If you move your head to look and see if your merge is clear, you have shown weakness and you lose all rights to your spot. Force your way to where you want to go and make everyone else give way. Driving in Italy is an elaborate variation of the game of Chicken.

Our cab driver in the Palermo demonstrated this technique perfectly. In a multi-lane chaotic merge, his head never, ever moved as he drove steadily forward. The sea of cars parted in front of him. The other cars had no doubt that our driver was determined and perfectly willing to ram them if they did not give way. No horns were honked as everyone acceded to his right to proceed forward. Our Palermo diver was good. I was watching him closely and I could not even see his eyes twitch to check whether he had space for the merge.

Earlier, Becky had tried a variation of the Palermo taxi driver’s technique. Rather than keep her eyes fixed focused straight ahead, Becky drove on with her eyes closed. Drivers nearby frenetically moved aside like Moses had parted Red Sea. It was truly something to behold. Though Becky had clearly demonstrated a mastery of the Gold Rule, I had some minor technical concerns about the continued use of the eyes closed method.

Dave expressing mild, technical concerns about Becky's use of the eyes closed technique

Dave expressing minor, technical concerns about Becky's use of the eyes closed technique.

Rule 2: Slow traffic stays right on the highway

Somehow the Golden Rule meets sanity on the freeway and the slower traffic religiously stays right. Even if you’ve pushed your shuddering and shaking Fiat Punta to 173 kph in the left lane, there will be a German salon car with blazing headlights screaming up on your six o’clock at warp speed. Not that we tried this. Once you pass, you return immediately to the right lane. The exception, of course, is that you are the one person who knows with absolute certainty that there are no faster cars on the road. And from what we saw, if you are that person, you’d be going pretty damn fast!

Rule 3: Strips on the road don’t mean anything

I’m not quite sure why the Italian authorities put stripes on the roads. More often than not, drivers use the strip as an indicator of where to put the hood ornament of the car. Sometimes it seems like a form of squatting on multi-lane highways. If you place the hood ornament over the lane stripe, you will have plenty of time to choose the lane you actually want to be in. Sometimes an Italian driver will cover several kilometers with the hood ornament centered over the line before deciding which lane to be in. Important decisions like this can not be rushed!

OK, we will try avoid the car falling into the water, we won't

OK, we can try avoid the car falling into the water, we won't play the bugle, and I think we can keep our speed under 30 kph in a parking lot (!), but why is a parking lot a no parking zone?

This is a curious enough practice on multilane highways and streets. What’s interesting, however, is that the practice of putting the center line of the car over the road’s dividing line is occasionally extended to driving on two-lane roads. Though less frequent, this practice is sometimes even used around corners with double stripped lines.

Rule 4: Slow traffic does not pull over and give way

Never, never, ever, pull over and let faster traffic through, no matter how slow you are driving. The frequent pull outs along the road side were only placed there to break up the line of the road for stylistic reasons. They are not to be used. Rule 4 is another variation of the Golden Rule, as pulling over would show weakness. The only people that pull over and let faster traffic through are undesirables and foreigners, like us.

Rule 5: Passing

There are interesting consequences when Rules 3 and 4 are operative at the same time. This comes into play on two-lane roads with traffic and also seems to be related to Rule 8. And, as usual, the Golden Rule comes into play here also.

The first thing to understand is that passing can occur literally anywhere on the road. In the rare instances where there is a dotted center line, passing occurs at will. In some cases, the presence of oncoming traffic seems to inhibit some drivers from attempting to overtake, but other drivers are perfectly willing to go three abreast (two cars going one way usually with usually only one oncoming car) on a two-lane road. By our measurements, a solid white center line decreases the likelihood of passing by only 5.3%. The double white line that is only used on the road in the most extremely bad passing situations (i.e., no visibility over a hill, around corners, through narrow tunnels, through the woods, past grandma’s house, etc.) only further decreases the likelihood of being passed by 7.1%. Now I will admit that our sample sizes will not lead to a high level of confidence in the percentages quoted. Nevertheless, the numbers sure seem about right to us.


Becky, trying to find someone willing to ride in the car while she drives.

Passing also occurs in some odd situations. It goes without saying that motorcycles and scooters will “split lanes” and move up through the traffic at intersections. Interestingly, this technique is occasionally used by auto drivers. If the traffic on a two lane road is backed up waiting to merge into a traffic circle, it seems to be OK to pass left into the oncoming traffic lane to move up and into the traffic circle. The driver using this technique bypasses all the other motorists showing weakness by waiting their turns in the queue.

In any event, passing in Italy seems to be much more than a practical matter. It seems to have become a sport.

Rule 6: Don’t judge the book by its cover

Just because the driver of a car is elderly and struggling to peer over the steering wheel with blue hair ablaze does not mean that they will drive less like a madman. The Golden Rule still applies. The older the driver, the more likely they will understand the nuances of not looking and showing fear or weakness.

Rule 7: Stop signs are negotiable, but everyone seems to stop at the stop lights

Though it is pretty common to slow at stop signs, stopping doesn’t seem to always be required. We actually got honked by the person behind us when we stopped at a stop sign at the entry of a sketchy round about. The use of the horns for this sort of thing was pretty unusual, so this must have been a major faux pas. Perhaps that explains why many four way intersections have no signs at all.

Stoplights appear to be obeyed religiously, however. Perhaps this is because stoplights are somewhat unusual.

Rule 8: Drive whatever speed you want, unless there is a speed trap

I wouldn’t take our word on this, but the speed limit thing seemed pretty arbitrary. On the autostradas, many cars seemed to be going as fast as they could possibly go. At the same time, other cars were cruising along at 60-70 kph (40 to 50 mph), 50 kph below the posted limit with out a care in the world. The speed difference was pretty dramatic.

With the exception of when the traffic was in well labeled speed traps, the posted speed limit seemed to be only loosely correlated to the actual speed of the cars on the road. We weren’t sure about this rule. So, for us, we tried to keep things near the speed limit since navigating the Italian penal system was not on our agenda for this trip.

Rule 9: You still can’t drive the wrong way on one way streets

We tested this one, several times, often with the advice of the TomTom. Surprisingly, even in Italy, showing strength by driving the wrong way on a one way road is not acceptable. I guess this is the exception that proves the Golden Rule.

We’re sure there are many more rules of the road in Italy that we don’t understand. I guess we will work on figuring those out on a later trip.

Dave relaxing while Becky takes the wheel

Dave relaxing while Becky takes the wheel

In the end, despite all the issues, we like what driving adds to the trip. After adjusting to the different rules of the road, it’s really not that stressful. It may even be even less stressful than driving at home as you begin to expect the unexpected. And I can even relax and let Becky drive now and then.

1 Comment »

  1. Hi. Gail Husson shared your travelogue with me. I think that your rules for driving in Sicily are really good. I found that driving in Italy was actually fairly stress free. The drivers are very, very aware of each other and don’t exhibit the deep anger or road possessiveness of American drivers. In Syracuse, eye contact got me from the center of a circular piazza through a dense pack of traffic all the way over to the right turn we had to make. This would not have happened in San Francisco. You are right about the autostrade: Stay in the right lane unless passing or else be regarded as a subhuman moron. My main driving problem in Italy was directions!! Was I going the right way on those twisty streets? Would there be a place to park at the end of all this?? A closing note: The parents of my Italian ex-son-in-law used to come to the Bay Area to visit. They’d rent a car, but thought driving in the States, especially the multi-lane scramble on the freeways, was a nightmare. Larry DiCostanzo

    Comment by Larry — November 28, 2008 @ 7:24 pm

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