ZTL Zones in Italian Cities
First and foremost, you need to know about ZTLs, which are limited traffic zones (“Zona Traffico Limitato”). They usually surround the busy historic core or downtown section in most big and medium Italian cities, and entering these actual "tourist traps" can incur fines that are hundreds of dollars.
The boundaries of these zones are sometimes marked among a stack of signs and are monitored with traffic cameras that check license plates against a database. As of 2023, the leading navigation apps we use (such as Google Maps) provide no warning when approaching ZTLs. Depending on the city, entry point, and time of day, some of these zones may be inactive, allowing general traffic to pass through.... but they are likely active, allowing access for only residents and other permitted vehicles. Concerning permits, in Montepulciano, we needed to enter a ZTL, in order to drop off our luggage at the hotel. Checking in advance, the hotel assured us it was fine to enter the zone and gave us a written receipt showing we had authorization. No problem there so far.
Unless you have permission or know they are inactive, avoid ZTLs at all costs! From what I’ve read, it doesn’t matter if you immediately turn around and exit, the Italian authorities will squeeze you for money, TWICE, for entering AND leaving a ZTL zone. The local governments seem to offer no leeway and hope to bilk you as part of this lousy scheme, conjuring up stereotypes about lousy Italian governance.
Without the help of the navigation apps, and given the stress of trying to find parking in an unfamiliar place, don't neglect looking out for ZTL signs or “no entry” signs and their (often blue) cameras nearby, mounted up high. In the photo below (taken in Parma), the "enter on this side" arrow is negated by the forgettable "no entry" circle.
Given the limited traffic here, they could easily make a place for an "oh crap", last-chance U-turn right after the planter. Instead, it sure looks like they painted solid lines just far enough to ensure otherwise-law-abiding drivers can't turn before hitting the spot where the cameras can read your license plate. Lousy.
Toll Roads in Italy
So many highways across Italy require a toll. The lane we picked at the first tollbooth didn’t seem right, because there was no gate arm, no pay machine, and no way to print a ticket. Fortunately, we had room to back up and drive over to a lane with a gate arm. There, we grabbed a ticket which, later on, allowed us to pay the bill upon exiting the highway. Here’s a standard toll booth, followed by an explainer for all the signs:
“Biglietto” = “ticket”. You'll need one to pay by credit, debit, or cash upon exiting the toll road.
“T” on yellow = Telepass. Only use one of these dedicated lanes if your vehicle has an active Telepass On-Board Unit mounted at the top of your vehicle’s windshield.
"Carte" = these lanes accept credit and debit cards.
cash and change icon = unmanned booth, pay with cash
hand holding cash and change icon = manned booth, pay with cash
Keep your ticket in a safe place. Since the toll charges are by distance, a lost ticket means you'll have to pay the maximum amount, based on the distance from the start of the toll road to where you are exiting.
Italian Speed Limits
Pay attention to the road signs. At times, the Citroen’s TomTom navigation would show the speed limit as 80 kph (~50 mph) while, at the same time, Google showed 130 kph (80 mph). So, just like at home, pay attention to the posted signs. Also as a heads-up, the speed limit sometimes changes suddenly and without any obvious reason why. On the highway, it could suddenly drop from 80 kph to 50 kph. I have to officially tell you to abide by the posted speed limits but, at the very least, it’s not a bad idea to stick to the right lane on the highway and let the fastest drivers pass you, as another way to avoid traffic fines in Italy.
A typical Italian speed limit sign (in KPH).
Speed Cameras in Italy
Speed cameras (“autovelox”) are all the hell over, on highways and in the smallest of towns. I’ve read Italy has installed more of these than any other country in Europe. Thankfully, our rental car's navigation app gave alerts when approaching so many of them. They pop up on Google Maps and Apple Maps, as well, but both apps rarely showed the same cameras. Most of them are roadside boxes, standing about 4 ft. tall and are often accompanied by an “autovelox” or “controllo electronico della velocita” sign advertising their presence. Sometimes these are decoy boxes, made to look like speed traps, but don't count on that to be the case. Sometimes, as well, the glass in front of the cameras is busted or spray painted over, because many of the locals hate them, too. Check out this speed camera positioned behind a light pole:
On highways, speed cameras can be on the roadside but seem to most often be above the roadway:
Safe Driving in Italy
This topic is complicated, because driving in this country can be so unpredictable and erratic. Many places don’t have properly-marked lanes, leaving you to wonder if you are navigating down a one or two-lane street. Sometimes, scooters squeeze through the smallest gaps between cars. Drivers might decide to pass a slow truck at any time, even if it forces oncoming cars to drive on the shoulder. That's the case here:
While driving in Italy, and this might sound a little contradictory, you have to be both assertive and safe... and try to go with the flow of traffic. Even if most people don’t, use your blinkers. Also, be sure to study road signs ahead of time. You can find these on Wikipedia here.
To ensure all the bases are covered, before heading to Italy, check that you have the proper license or permit to drive in the country. Otherwise, you might show up and not be able to rent a car! Here in the U.S., we just needed to get an International Driver’s Permit (IDP). That supplements a state-issued drivers license and passport, allows you to drive in 150 countries, and lasts a year. The cost was $20 at our local AAA branch, and we just had to provide two copies of a passport-style photo. You can print those at home, and I should detail that easy process in a future post. Also, make 100% sure you have at least liability insurance for your rental car, but more coverage is ideal when driving in a foreign land.
If you have an upcoming trip to Italy, do me a favor: bookmark this page. If thinking of this post keeps you from entering a ZTL, helps you identify a speed camera, or keeps you from going through the Telepass lane at a tollbooth, visit us again after your trip and consider donating at least a few bucks via the PayPal link below.
Also, I just can't express it enough: a huge “thank you” goes out to those who have donated after reading other helpful, free posts on this site. It really helps us keep this space up and running.
"Italy: Avoiding Fines While Renting a Car and Driving Safely" - 2023
Written by Justin Kilmer, Edited by Janine Kilmer
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