One of the most common stereotypes about Italians is that they are bad drivers. As someone who has now been living and riding in cars in Italy for some time now, I can tell you that, while Italian drivers are not necessary "bad" per se, they are certainly very... intense!
I go into this in more depth in my book, How to Be an American in Italy, but the short version of the most likely explanation for this is that the roads in Italy were built long before the roads in America. So, they were built in a time where cars were smaller, and where the city around them had already been established (in many cities in America, the roads were built before the buildings, so they weren't trying to squish in a road between rows of houses). As a result of this, Italians have to make due with less space to drive and park in... which means that they have an entirely different style of driving than we do and have to dodge way more obstacles, like cars parked on the side of (or in many cases "in the whole lane of") the road.
In my experience, Italians are bolder when it comes to passing other cars and making turns and things of that nature, so the first and most important tip for driving in Italy is to be very careful when you are driving, and always look out for the other cars/bikes/buses/etc.! It takes a while to get used to how Italians drive, so try not to get frustrated (or too scared).
Now, here are seven more tips for driving in Italy as an American, so that you stay safe and "in the know" on the road.
1. Most Italian Cars Have a Stick Shift
In America, most of us drive a car with an automatic transmission, meaning that when it is time for the vehicle to change gears, it does it itself without us having to move the gear shift. We do have some cars with manual transmissions (better known as "stick shifts"), but these are in the minority. In Italy, it is the opposite. So if you are renting a car, they will most likely hand you the keys to one with manual transmission, which you probably shouldn't try to learn to drive on the fly!
You can find some cars with automatic transmissions here in Italy, but they tend to cost more to rent and to buy. So, either be prepared to shell out a bit more cash for a car you are more secure in driving, or take some time to learn to drive a stick so you can easily handle any car you come across.
2. The Speed Limit Signs Use the Metric System
I don't really know why American never latched on to the metric system (everything is based on tens, so it's less math and memorizing to do...), but not realizing that Italy has a whole different system of measurement than we do can really get you into trouble on the road.
If you somehow manage to get an American car to Italy, your speedometer is going to register speed in miles per hour (mph). In Italy, they use kilometers per hour (km/h). One kilometer per hour is equal to around 0.62 miles per hour, so you will have to adjust your speed accordingly.
3. Your International Driver's License Doesn't Last Forever
Before coming to Italy, you can apply for an international driving permit. This is usually easier to get than a normal driver's license, because it is largely based on the American license you already have. This international driving permit, however, is only valid for one year or until you get residency in Italy. At that point, you will need to get an Italian driver's license.
4. The Italian Driving Test is in Italian
I didn't really think it was necessary to mention this... but lately the American expat groups I am in have been really freaking out over this. If you are living in Italy and planning to get a license there, you need to get a good grip on the Italian language first. The written test is only given in Italian, and your driving instructor for the driving portion will surely speak Italian to you as well.
5. Don't Turn Right on Red!
This is an extremely important one. In America, unless there is a sign that says otherwise, it is usually okay to turn right at a red light or a stop sign if the road is clear. In Italy, this could get you a ticket — or in a bad accident! Don't turn at all until the light turns green and it's your turn to go. Period.
6. Know When to Go at Intersections
The Italian rules of "right of way" at an intersection are a bit different than in America. Whereas in the U.S. we usually give precedence to the car who arrived first, in Italy, the car on the right goes first. Usually they don't have to stop, so if there is a road to your right, you have to check and come to a full stop at the end of your part of the intersection to make sure it's clear before you drive on.
7. Watch Out for Open Doors
This is one of the biggest problems I have seen while driving in Italy, especially in smaller towns. Since the roads are narrow, as I said in the introduction, and cars often park on the sides of said roads, you have to watch out for people opening their doors on the street to get in or out of their vehicles. Oftentimes, they don't watch for oncoming traffic, so you have to watch for them so you don't have to swerve unexpectedly into another lane (or take their car door with you when you pass).
Thank you to Alycia Reynolds, Lynn Spreadbury, Yenina Vereda, and Leslie Heap Fisher for their suggestions for this post.
Do you have any more Italian driving tips? Let me know in the comments and I can put them in a future post!