Crazy Italian Driving, Demystified

Admittedly, when I first arrived in Italy in 2012, I wasn’t prepared for the left lane etiquette of “get out of the way, or else”. I was frequently incensed. These truculent, Italian road warriors had it all wrong, and Jason had to remind me, over and over, “Erin, it’s their culture. We’ve come here—not the other way around.”

He had a point.

If you’ve ever been on an Italian roadway, especially a highway, you’ve probably learned that Italian drivers can…well—be a bit rowdy. But step back from whatever cultural framework you come from, and you’ll see there’s a lot more to the Italian roadways than meets the eye.

That's me, driving to the Gargano Penninsula. (somewhere in Puglia)
That’s me, driving to the Gargano Penninsula (somewhere in Puglia)

I’m an assertive driver myself. But I still couldn’t help but be irritated with the level of aggressivity in Italian driving. “How is it necessary,” I’d shout, “to get so close to my back bumper we almost collide? Flashing headlights like an ambulance?! It’s over the top!”

“May-be,” Jason would say. “But at least traffic moves.”

I am not the first foreigner to feel accosted on Italian roadways. A woman in Sicily writes a quirky blog actually titled, “Driving Like a Maniac”. I kid you not. The fact that Italian’s drive like escaped convicts strikes a chord in a lot of people—especially us Anglo-Saxons.

Turns out, it’s not all senseless aggressivity. Roadway norms exist, and ones that have purpose: there’s a method to their madness. Take the time to learn about Italian road habits, and you, too, might grow to appreciate the thoroughly communicative and efficient manner in which Italians drive.

You might even begin to drive like them yourself. But first…

SOME GENERAL ROADWAY GUIDELINES

Guideline #1: Rules are optional (or mere suggestions).
Guideline #2: Expressive driving—flashing lights, tailgating—is commonplace.
Guideline #3: The road is for moving. If this isn’t your priority, then get out of the way.

UNOFFICIAL RULES OF THE ROAD

1. There is a correct and incorrect way to use the left lane

In the United States (excepting anywhere with a history of Italian immigrants—e.g., New Jersey), it’s not uncommon for drivers to hang out loosely in the left lane like a retiree at the local coffee shop. But in Italy, there’s a culture of more purposeful left-lane use. Be aware of this, and use it for passing only.

With the white car hogging the left land, that van literally passed between us. (Puglia)
With the white car hogging the left lane, the van literally passed between us. (Puglia)

2. Pass or be passed

It’s commonplace that Italians are a little more lax about where and when to pass. Sometimes there are lines on the road to indicate passing zones (not always), but they are rarely heeded. Bottom Line: expect to be passed if you’re going anywhere around the speed limit. Expect passing to be done aggressively, in the face of oncoming traffic, or on a blind curve. Expect to sometimes feel like you’re part of a Nascar Rally.

A Smart Car passing just before a narrow tunnel (Passo Mendola)
That would be a Smart Car passing just before a narrow tunnel (Passo Mendola, Italy)

Hearse passing a truck. I know, I couldn't believe it either. (Puglia)

Hearse passing a truck. I know, I couldn't believe it either. (Puglia)
Hearse passing a truck. I know, I couldn’t believe it either. (Puglia)

3. Lane lines are ‘suggestions’

Italians have this tendency to use lanes as something they’re taunting. Riding eerily close to them, crossing over them unexpectedly, then darting back within the lines. It’s comical.

Sometimes cars go where they want, sometimes people (Sicily)
Sometimes cars go where they want, sometimes people (Sicily)

4. Tail-gating and flashing lights in your rearview mean ‘get over!’

These things communicate. In fact, it’s considered polite to flash your lights because you are letting someone know you’re arriving on their tail, and fast. People are typically quick to get out of the way, too; if the slower car doesn’t move, the approaching car (the one fixed on your bumper) will flash and flash and maybe even honk until you do. Persistence gets results.

5. Do not challenge other drivers

If another driver is tailgating you or flashing their lights in your rearview, I assure you: it’s not personal. Do not, by any means, drive intentionally slower in the left lane, or try to challenge the expressive driver. It’s likely that only you see this behavior as ‘rude’. Just get out of the way.

6. Beware of slow drivers (or other moving objects in the road)

Not everyone in Italy goes fast, especially people driving small, old cars with tiny engines. They are frequently found putting along at 48 kph (30 mph), slower than everyone else. Be attentive, because these sloth drivers are easy to run into, they go that slow. Plus, it’s possible that the slow driver is driving something other than a car or truck.

Backhoe driving down the road (Puglia)
Backhoe driving down the road (Puglia)
Apple tractor holding up traffic. That's a pesticide 'fan' on the back (Val di Non)
Apple tractor holding up traffic. That’s a pesticide ‘fan’ on the back (Val di Non)
Goat herd in the road (Puglia)
Goat herd in the road (Gargano Peninsula, Puglia)

7. Leave the blinker on (until finished passing)

In Italy, when you are passing, put on your left blinker, and leave it on. This signals that you intend to return to the original lane as soon as you’re finished passing. American’s do this differently, though: we switch the blinker depending on the direction of the lane we’re headed towards. Be aware that it’s the opposite in Italy.

Using the blinker (Val di Non)
Using the blinker (Val di Non)

8. Choose your speed wisely

This one’s tricky. It’s not uncommon to be humming along at 130 kph (80 mph) and be passed over by cars going upwards of 180kph (112 mph). At first, it seems like there must be no speed limit, but…there is. And speeding has nothing to do with speed limits, but how speeds are ‘checked’.

In the US, your speed gets clocked only at one point (on the corner of 4th and Main you get caught going 45 in 25 zone). In Italy, however, you get zapped at two different points (say, at mile 35 and mile 50) and your “average” speed is calculated. This meant that if you enter the highway after the first speed zap, then you’re free to go as fast as you can until you reach the next speed check.

My advice: don’t try this if you’re not Italian (or extremely familiar with this system). It’s very hard to figure out, and very, very costly when you get a speeding ticket in the mail (upwards of €200). Trust me.

9. Cross the street at your own risk

Drivers may or may not stop if you’re in the crosswalk (if there even is a crosswalk). This becomes more important to remember the farther south you go (or, if you’re in a big city where everyone’s in a hurry). Bottom line: cross the street with the assumption that you have little more value than a stray dog.

Man crossing the street (Milan)

Man crossing the street (Milan)

Man crossing the street (Milan)
Man crossing the street (Milan)

TO KEEP IN MIND

Driving in the North V. the South

Driving will not be the same level of unpredictable hostility in all areas, in all regions. When we asked a soft-spoken friend of ours from Palermo, Sicily, what she likes / doesn’t like about the city, the first thing she said was: “Non sanno guidare” (“They don’t know how to drive.”).

In the South, a lane is even more optional than in the North—people meander around like wind chimes on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Lanes are used as suggestions in the North, too, but in a more decisive way.

Short, abrupt on/off ramps

They’re extremely short. The engineering rules are different, so there’s rarely enough space = time to speed up and merge with traffic (or to slow down sufficiently to come to a full stop). We’ve had a lot of quick moves and screeching brakes here, so be very, very careful because they arrive abruptly and end just as fast.

Expect narrow roads

One of the side-effects of a small, dense country that was around before recorded history, is that roads weren’t originally built for cars. Road widths are narrow and there are rarely shoulders. Engineering standards differ as well, but the main idea is: be ready to feel “squeezed” when driving here (especially if you’re an American).

A narrow, one-way street (Perugia)
A narrow, one-way street (Perugia)
Typical no-shoulder road (Val di Non)
Typical no-shoulder road (Val di Non)
Narrow passage between two buildings (Val di Non)
Narrow passage between two buildings (Val di Non)

You may have to adapt to a new set of road rules for your trip to Italy, but at least you’ll be prepared when, behind you, all you see is honk honk honk, flash flash flash, realizing there’s a car in your tailpipe.

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