Driving, Thriving and Surviving in Italy

Everyone knows the stereotypes about Italians and driving – fast, impatient, aggressive, appearing to consider red lights as advisory… But there are more specific quirks that may take you by surprise. So, to make your driving experience in Italy a bit more predictable, here’s Gordon Craigie’s Top 10 Italian Driving Habits…

Illustrations by iStock

italian driving


As you’re bowling along the autostrada in the outside lane, you’re aware that the car you’re about to overtake is drifting towards your lane. Oh, wait a mo’, they’re drifting towards the safety fence, no, they’re coming back again… There are usually only two possible explanations for this: they’re either drunk, which is rare but not unheard of; but far more likely is that they’re glued to their mobile phone – and most probably texting. Yes, it’s illegal but, hey, this is Italy. Wait until they’re heading towards the inside again then gun past them is my advice.


If there’s a line on the road, and they’re not wavering, then Italians like a good straddle. Particularly evident on the autostrada, where even the hard shoulder is fertile territory for an Italian straddler. I have no idea why they do this but it is so widespread I get sick of hearing myself yelling, “Pick a lane, any lane, but stay in it!” several times per journey. However, you’ll also witness straddling on single-track country roads too where, if there are no lines, they’ll just drive in the middle. Impossible to overtake, and leading to some heart-in-the-mouth moments if you’re approaching with only rough terrain or a ditch, hedge or wall on your inside. All you can do here is slow down, get as close in as you can, then pray. It usually works…

Your average Italian driver definitely looks on indicating as an optional activity. On the rare occasions that an indicator is activated then it is highly likely that it will not be cancelled for many, many kilometres. This is almost compulsory with Piaggio Ape drivers – in fact, I’m certain some Apes come with one permanently flashing indicator as a factory-fitted option. In all cases however, this means that it is not uncommon to see drivers indicate left then turn right and, equally but far more dangerously, indicate right then turn left. They’re also very fond of hazard warning lights, and equally fond of not cancelling them either. They are usually, and quite usefully, very quick to bang on the hazards when approaching queuing traffic but, again, they can stay on ad infinitum despite the car resuming its 130 km/h cruising speed. My advice? Never take any indication as correct and expect the unexpected!

Like points 1 & 2 above, this is another line-related problem. What is it with Italians and lines? When approaching any kind of junction they appear to be genetically incapable of stopping on, or before, the stop line. There will always be at least half a metre of car protruding into the carriageway, and very probably still edging out. An extreme version of this occurs mainly with old ladies, the ones with that Italian state-regulated short, permed hairdo (how exactly do they all manage to look the same?) who drive around everywhere with the, “If I don’t look at you, you’re not there,” philosophy whilst emerging from side junctions at little more than 3 km/h. The only way to deal with either situation is to be constantly aware of side junctions and always be ready to brake and/or swerve.

italian driving

Disembarking from a moving car

Yes, you read that right, and this is indeed an art form. It can be viewed in many contexts but is easiest to spot when an Italian pulls up at a bar for one of the day’s obligatory coffees. You watch: the car slows down, the engine cuts out, the door opens, the driver sets one foot out and then, and only then, the car comes to a dead stop. I have no idea how they do it. I’m sure it’s even technically impossible with modern cars, but… This isn’t something that requires a solution; just watch and marvel, and enjoy your coffee.

Inability to change gear

Another trait perhaps that is best observed from the terrace of a bar. As you try to enjoy your refreshment many cars will pass and somewhere inside your head a little voice will be screaming, “Change up!” or “Second gear!” This particular phenomenon can occur with any car but it is particularly prevalent in what I call the ‘Ape GT’, which is the saloon version of the Vespa-based Ape. Intriguingly, this car does not require a driving licence… Let us just ponder that for a moment… The sound of its engine is like a straining hairdryer at best but is given zanzare whining levels of annoyance when it is in the hands of a reluctant gear changer. Again, there is no solution; just look, listen and wonder.

italian drivingParking 
This isn’t so much a quirk as a complete failure to recognise that parking doesn’t mean just stopping a car randomly with no regard whatsoever for lines, kerbs or the proximity of other vehicles. Parallel parking simply doesn’t exist and, especially in big cities, bumpers are for, well, bumping. When combined with 5, above, watching an Italian parking can be another entertaining coffee bar diversion, as long as your car isn’t anywhere nearby! Many newer supermarkets and shopping centres have more structured car parks with, thankfully, bigger spaces, but it is still rare to see an Italian park wholly within a space parallel to the lines and with the wheels left perfectly aligned. In a huge car park, if you decide to park ‘away from it all’ to avoid any potential difficulties it is absolutely amazing how many times you return to your car to find an Italian parked right next to you in the middle of nowhere. They’re also particularly adept at parking only millimetres away from a right hand drive driver’s door. The only solution here is to think ahead, choose your parking spot wisely and allow for all eventualities.

No, not that, but flashing headlights in Italy means the exact opposite of a friendly ‘after you Claude’ UK-type flash. It means ‘get out of the way’ and quickly. In fairness, the UK Highway Code still states that headlight flashing should be used as a warning so in this respect the Italians are technically correct. Where you really need eyes in the back of your head is when you’re gleefully hurtling down the autostrada at, or close to, the limit. You may suddenly be aware of flashing lights behind you that weren’t anywhere in your mirror 10 seconds previously but are now within touching distance of your rear bumper. They don’t actually care that you are only half-way through overtaking a line of five or six wavering Romanian truckers and have nowhere to go, they just want you out of their way pronto. In this particular instance your only option is to ignore them and continue your manoeuvre but, when you’re ready to move back in, check behind carefully as, and you won’t believe this, they may have decided to undertake you at this point! In all other situations just remember the flashing is a warning not a courtesy.

Now, roundabouts themselves are not a problem. Me, I’m quite partial to a well-placed roundabout and am actually irrationally saddened at how they seem to be getting phased out in the UK. Or worse, we’re putting traffic lights on the roundabouts and therefore negating the whole point of said roundabout in the first place! Anyway, I digress… Yes, roundabouts are a relatively new institution in Italy but their adoption has been both rapid and widespread. When we first moved here nine years ago there were none. I can still vividly remember my first encounter with an Italian roundabout, and a half-finished one at that… on a cold, dark winter’s evening in the middle of nowhere… Now, that was a bumpy ride! But, as much as roundabouts have been widely adopted and become part of the scenery, the average Italian’s ability to understand, or enact, the required roundabout etiquette has not progressed at an equivalent rate. You can never assume that you have priority when you should and, particularly with the smaller rotatoria, you should never assume that your Italian counterpart, whether prioritised or not, will go round, and not over, the roundabout. My only advice here is, once again, to always be aware, be very aware! italian driving

10 Merging

Italian road engineers must go to very different schools from their UK colleagues. You can quite quickly get used to the short run-offs that constitute many junctions, and develop the ability to effortlessly go from 130 to 50 km/h in the space of 25 metres on a tight curve… But merging? Near where we live they’ve built a super-duper new shopping centre. Years of planning, state-of-the-art facilities, excellent parking areas… The only problem, and it is a big one, is the approach roads. As often happens out here you can have two or three lanes coming from one direction meeting two or three lanes coming from another direction; but to get to the shopping centre one set of traffic has to cross three lanes, while the other lot are equally trying to cross three lanes in the other direction. Chaos! Then, immediately after you’ve navigated that you have to perform a similar operation in the space of 100 metres to reach the one, I’ll say it again, one lane that enters the aforementioned state of the art shopping centre. Add in Italian speeds, lane discipline, wavering and mobile phones and this probably combines most of the above quirks into one handy, accident-inducing package. I can’t give any tips on how to navigate this as it has to be experienced to be believed but, once you’ve made it through the mayhem, it’s best to park straight and within the lines then head for a recuperative coffee, as you’ve earned it.

You may have your own possible entries into this list as I’m sure it’s not exhaustive. I actually encountered each of the above in one 40-minute journey from Perugia, and I know another day may well yield an entirely different list. But the one thing I know for sure is that this is how it is, so get used to it. There is no point trying to impose our northern European rule-abiding values or getting annoyed or frustrated as this is, quite simply, the Italian way, and… When in Rome… Buona giornata!