DRIVING IN ITALY
The Original August 25, 2001 post to rec.travel.europe
I read rec.travel.europe's [April 2001] discussion on driving in Italy with great interest that became trepidation. I didn't tell m'girlfriend what you said we would encounter on Italian roads.
It was a warm Venetian afternoon when we got a nice Alfa-Romeo 156 (very similar in size to my own car) with logical instrumentation (although we never did figure out how to work the radio) and hit The Road to Bologna. We knew nothing of the road signs thus mis- takenly getting on a toll road. We eventually figured out that the toll road signs are one color and the other signs another but I forget which is the green and which the blue.
I was looking for the guy you warned about doing 200kph to sit on our bumper but he didn't come along even though we seldom went as fast as 130kph. We found the freeway traffic to be quite normal, travelling at speeds to which we're accustomed and with which we're comfortable (well, on the Mojave Highway we usually do 90mph [Shhh. Don't tell anyone.]).
The fastest-moving car we saw was a luxurious German marque, and licensed, 4-door sedan with a woman driver that must've been doing 250kph.
We got to Bologna early in the evening. Traffic was light and driving ordinary except for my being on the wrong side of a two-way street that I thought was one-way. A cabbie presented a humorously signed vulgarity. We spent the night and, next day, she got her hair done while I roamed around. Both times, my parking gods took care of us.
After finding a place to stay in Florence, we went out to explore. It was then that we encountered real Italian driving that threw us into hysterics, she of white-knuckled terror, I of gut-wrenching (“You see that?!?”) laughter. Within an hour, according to her, I “became one of them”.
While driving on a freeway-parallel road around a major jam we saw in the distance, we saw its cause: A horrific high-speed crash involving several cars that must've resulted in a death or three. Fire trucks, ambulances, and a mob of police were in attendance.
On a narrow, winding, mountain road we caught up to a red car riding the bumper of another. “'Zat a Ferrari?” I asked her. “Sure looks like one.” “We'll know when he passes” which he soon did to disappear never again to be seen.
You're first to arrive to await a green light. Within seconds, you're surrounded by two- wheeled vehicles that are then surrounded by four-wheeled ones. You can no longer see the light. The probable, but not necessarily, appearance of a green light is suggested by the roar of accelerating vehicles. There's only one thing you can do: pop the clutch.
Yes, lane lines are on the street and double yellow lines separate the directions but they're all consistently ignored. Lanes are where you make them and the direction of a side of the street seems to be dictated by who's first to get there. These are not problems. It's all very efficient.
We didn't see the sort of red-light running that's becoming frighteningly common in the USA but, if there was no traffic on a cross street, the opportunity to go was taken even though the light was still red.
Horn-tooting seems to be a thing of the past. Time was when Italians, as well as other Europeans, drove with their horns. No more. In the horn-tooting days, pedestrians crossed streets at great risk. That's also no longer the case even in mid-block. They were consistently polite, tolerant, and patient.
I saw many an act that would be considered to be outrageous in the USA but seem'd quite OK there. The most outrageous was when I was on the way to turn in the car; in the Right lane, Right signal blinking, a motor scooter passed on the Right as we approached the intersection — but he gave a toot so it wasn't all that outrageous.
The driving in Italy is of a style that differs from those found in the USA. I'm not saying it's better nor worse; just dif'rent. I'll tellya this: I cannot remember ever enjoying driving as much as I enjoyed driving in Italy in May of 2001. It was a total blast! I highly recommend it.
On the mountain roads he resembled a road-racer, enjoying the short-throw box, quick steering, and tight suspension. He said it was a lot of fun.
I'll never forget the look on his face when we joined Rome's rush-hour traffic: child-like OhBoy glee. I was so petrified, jaw agape, that I wanted to hide under the floor mat.
From: Wessie (wessie@*.net): 2001-08-25:
David <dcmmdc@*.ca> 2001-08-25 wrote:
> Bravo for your story, Iconoclast! Your observations are very similar to mine!
> Thanks for your posting. It is in refreshing contrast to the sort of "I read in
> Fodor's that it's impossible to drive in Italy!" writings. Or the "Don't Try This at
> Home, Kids!" sort of writer who says something like, "I drive in Italy every day,
> no problem, but YOU could never do it."
always better the old cliche "when in Rome ....."
I have ridden thousands of miles around Europe on my motorcycle and always adopt the local riding policy - much safer to keep moving with the traffic even if it involves taking short cuts across the pavement 
 sidewalk for merkin readers
From: Barbara Vaughan (bvaughan@*.edu) 2001-08-26:
decobabe (wvriter@*.com) 2001-08-25 wrote:
> I drive everyday in Italy and it's the most unpredictable mess I ever saw. People
> come from side streets gaily chattering with a friend and don't even slow, let
> alone stop at the STOP sign, and if they get your door and maybe you, oh, mi
> dispiace. People park in the travel lanes in front of the grocery store, leaving no
> lanes for passing by or leaving the parking lot, which is almost empty. Those little > bug trucks pootle along at 16 mph, completely blocking travel lanes and others
> then feel forced to pass even on winding hilly roads with zero visibility. Bicyclists
> wander left to right and back in the travel lane.
> I can't go on, it's too depressing. I drive everyday in Italy because I have to. You
> can too, but they brag that they kill 40 tourists a year on the Costiera Amalfitana,
> and that's just one place!
I also drive in Italy; not every day, as I prefer to walk if I can. I don't find the driving so terrible here, no worse than where I lived before. My worst problem is getting stuck behind slow-moving farm vehicles on roads where you can't pass safely. Some, but not most, drivers have a tendency to pass where it isn't safe, a good many follow too closely, and a certain number tend to "cut curves". There are a lot of fatal accidents, but these seem to be concentrated in the early morning hours when well-lubricated young people are speeding home from the discotheque.
The accidents that do occur in Italy are more likely to be fatal because many Italians don't wear seat belts. I was also horrified to see children riding around in cars completely unrestrained: standing on the seats, in grandmom's lap in the front, sometimes even "helping daddy drive". Italians seem not to have heard that small bodies fly through
windshields much more easily than adult ones. I have read several reports of local accidents where the adults suffered light injuries but a baby was killed. There was never any mention in the papers of whether the baby was in an infant seat, but I'm pretty sure the baby in question was in someone's lap in the front seat, where it became a sort of
air-bag for the adult holding it.
It's odd, because Italian parents are extremely protective of their children's health and safety, more so than the average American parent. Until they get in the car, which is probably the single most dangerous place a child ever goes. Then all thought of safety flies out the window. I asked a mother once why Italians don't use child restraint seats very much. She said that in her own case, her 4-year-old son refused to sit in one. My children certainly never saw this as an option.
From: Giovanni Sonego (g.sonegoSCOAZZE@*.it) 2001-08-28:
26 Aug 2001 Barbara Vaughan <bvaughan@*.edu> wrote:
> My children certainly never saw [restraints] as an option.
Why italina are not using seatbelts and seats for children is a mistery.I know a lot of intelligent people that does not use seats for kids. It seems impossible to me that such person are not able to understand the risk. You may show them statistics, films and formulas, but they are not convinced.
I've three children and since the were only few days old, the have used the right seats. They do not have any problem using them. Many friend of mine, asked me how I was
able to convince them to stay on the seat. It's very simple and you, Barbara, have well explained how this result is achiveable: this is not an option. They must use it. No choiche.
From: hamilton (hamilton@*.com) Date: 2001-08-25:
my husband and I often rent a car and drive in Italy — although the big cities are nerve wracking and we avoid planning to have a car in Rome or Florence — driving in the countryside and on the freeways is a snap — and Italian drivers are excellent — and attentive. As long as you don't do something sudden and unexpected they will miss you [in a car or on foot] and if you follow the rules of the road, it is fairly easy to get around. Americans e.g. have to learn how to use traffic circles which are rare in the parts of the US I drive in.
Italy also has excellent signing — we have rarely gotten lost because the signing is so good — with a decent map, we have found all sorts of out of the way places — be- cause even tiny roads nowhere are properly signed.
We have found nothing in Italy as difficult to drive as Boston or New York City. And having a car means you can go interesting and offbeat places easily. I would recommend that anyone planning on an extended visit in Italy or France NOT have a car in the big cities, pick one up on the way out of town and have a car for touring the country outside of the big cities. Great way to go.
From: Paul O'Brien (pobrien3@*.au) 2001-08-25:
To operate a motor vehicle in Italy, you must understand the transportation gestalt in an entirely different way. Definitions that you thought were above redefinition will immediately be redefined. Please pay attention!
Includes not only the paved portion of the highway, but also what others might call the verge, the curb, the sidewalk, the front yard and the roadside restaurant. The paved portion of the roadway is generaly two lanes wide. Not two lanes in each direction, just two lanes.
All animals are granted the greatest respect in Italy. It is presumed that, being highly eveolved creatures, chickens, dogs and the like know how to sidestep an Alfa Romeo going 78mph on a fog shrouded road during a local religious holiday.
The same position of honor is granted to small children, men, unattended ambulances and elderly women in mystic trances. Slowing or swerving to avoid these beings would be to cause them dishonor.
These colorfull white and yellow markings wish a hearty welcome to every traveler. They have no other function.
The national sport of Italy. Observant motorists may encounter the vertical triple (passing three vehicles in one acceleratory movement), the horizontal triple (passing a vehicle that itself is in the process of passing a vehicle), or even the rare double-double (passing a vehicle at precisely the same time that the other vehicle, coming in the other direction is also engaged in the act of passing).
What to do when not passing.
An insult not to be endured. The greater the differential between your vehicle and say, a Ferrari, the greater the potential loss of prestige. The owner of the less powerful vehicle must at all times do everything in his/her power to thwart all attempts to overtake.
Absolutely unnecessary. Not only are they not worn, they are not even considered. Passengers are fully protected by the horn.
Rapidly blinking headlights can mean many things, including "O.K. to pass now", "dangerous to pass now", "get out of the way", or "may you find the thread of gold in your linen existence". It takes years, sometimes an entire lifetime, to learn this subtle and intriguing intuitive non-verbal communication skill. In most cases, however, you have three seconds.
The horn when sounded loudly and frequently, sets up an invisible energy barrier protecting the vehicle and its inhabitants from all harm. The greater the vehicular speed, the better the horn works. This is THE central concept of Italian motoring.
Rare. Usually the result of a malfunctioning horn.
From: grey (not@*.com) 2001-08-25:
Liked your definitions a lot; chuckled out loud.
Then realized it reminded me of Boston driving...
From: www.summerinitaly.com (ltrotta@*.com) 2001-08-25:
Why, is there anything wrong in passing three vehicles in one acceleratory movement? :-)
Luca – ten year of driving license and never been passed yet :-)
From: hamilton (hamilton@*.com) 2001-08-25:
> Paul O'Brien <pobrien3@*.au> wrote:.
> > Definitions that you thought were above redefinition . . .
JimWil (firstname.lastname@example.org) 2001-08-25 said:
> Brilliant, I loved it. On the other side of the coin as a pedestrian....I got off a bus
> in Rome one night, and had to cross a six-lane, deserted road to get to my hotel;
> brow of a hill about 20 yards to my left....
> I'd crossed the first lane when there were suddenly headlights from my left...three
> lanes of traffic bearing down on me at high speed. I stood absolutely still on the
> white lane marking, and the cars swept by either side of me....when the pack had
> gone, I hurried across the rest of the road. Could have been a lot worse.....
LOL yes that is my experience — if you don't panic they do miss you
From: David (dcmmdc@*.ca) 2001-08-25:
And while we're on the subject of that sort of account about driving in Italy, don't forget these, Paul, which come down to us from Gil Eannes, 1433:
– Don't try to sail beyond Cape Bojador [off the Moroccan coast] because the sea
boils and the ships will all catch fire!
– Don't try sailing west into the Atlantic. It's filled with sea monsters that eat ships!
(Like it says in Fodor's Western Atlantic, where a sea monster who has just eaten
a ship with a crew of 50 is quoted: "Crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside."
– Of course, even if you manage to dodge the sea monsters, you'll just sail off the
edge of the earth anyway.
From: Ralph Holz 15 May 2005:
> there were only 2 traffic lights in [Rome] (or so it seemed), and traffic lanes and
> other control devices are merely suggestions, so you just follow the car in front.
Almost right to the point. You missed one or two:
If you need more space, just open up another lane. Others will follow swiftly.
No brakes needed, a good honk will suffice.
Alan S wrote:
> when I drove in Rome, it must have been a special festive celebration week.
> I was lucky enough to be there for "Make up your own road rules week".
That week is celebrated 52 times a year. :-)
> During this week, all drivers choose for themselves which side of the road to drive on.
> There are competitions to see how many cars can be driven side-by-side in a two lane
> road, passing is only allowed on the wrong side of the road when there is oncoming
> traffic, and all road signs and traffic lights are considered to be silly rules for wimps and
> occasional guidance for the brave. Of course, no-one wishes to be seen as a wimp.
(sigh) So true.
Makes me so *long* to go there again...
From: Doug Burke (dburke2@*.com) 2001-08-25:
Great posts by both you and Paul O'Brien. Laughed out loud having been there. AND, we are going back next week for more wild and crazy fun on the Italian roads.
From: Italian Town and Country (info@*.com) 2001-08-25:
. . . I'd like to post it on my site. I drive in Seattle, I find driving in Italy
a great break from idiots.
From: jabo (jabo@*.net.il) 2001-08-26:
Try Israel — Italy is a piece of cake after that!!!
From: Nisar (nisar@*.hr) 2001-08-26:
Great story - so very true...
An Italian Driver,
From: TheNewsGuy Mike (tnguym@*.com) 2006-03-20
One day we we driving from the Trevi Fountain back to our Hotel, which we could see down a short one-way lane. There did not seem to be any other easy way to get there, so I took a chance, just as I started down the wrong way a Police car appeared coming head on, we both pulled over to make way and as we passed, driver's window to driver's window, he gave me a “finger wag” like one would do to a naughty child, then drove off. Phew! What a country!
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