Italy has a well-developed system of motorways (autostrade) in the North, while in the South it's a bit worse for quality and extent.
When on a timetable, use the autostrade - marked in green - where available and avoid using the general highways - marked in blue - for long distances (unless they are the divided-carriageway, grade-separated superstrade). While the toll on the autostrade can be rather expensive, they significantly decrease your travel time, whereas general roads can be annoyingly slow since they are heavily used by local traffic, can be clogged with trucks, can feature lots of roundabouts or traffic lights and will often run through towns and villages without bypasses. On the other side, general roads often offer breath-taking scenery and should be your first choice if you are not in a rush and want to explore the real nature of the country.
Every motorway is identified by an A followed by a number on a green backdrop. Most motorways are toll roads. Some have toll stations giving you access to a whole section (particularly the tangenziali of Naples, Rome, and Milan, for example), but generally, most have entrance and exit toll stations; on those motorways, you need to collect a ticket upon entrance and your toll amount will be calculated upon exit depending on the distance covered. Tolls depend on the motorways and stretches; as a rough estimate, you should expect a toll between €0.06 and €0.12 for each kilometre. Don't lose your entrance ticket, for if you do, it will be assumed you have entered the motorway at the farthest station from your exit and be charged the maximum toll possible.
All the blue lanes (marked "Viacard") of toll stations are automatic machines accepting major credit cards as well as pre-paid cards (called Viacard) that are for sale at service stations along the motorway or for instance at several tobacconists' in cities. If you have problems with the machine (e.g. your credit card can't be read), press the assistenza button and wait for an operator to help you - be prepared to have to pay your toll in cash if problems persist. Do not reverse to move into another lane, even if you might see other locals doing it, unless the personnel or the police clearly instruct you to do so; reversing in toll stations is considered equivalent to reversing on the motorway and very heavily fined if you get caught.
Many Italians use an electronic pay-toll device, and there are reserved lanes marked in Yellow with the sign "Telepass" or a simply "T". Driving through those lanes (controlled by camera system) without the device will result in a fine and a payment of the toll for the longest distance. Due to agreement with other countries, if you're foreigner, you'll pay also extra cost for locating you in your country.
The speed limits in Italy are quite strict, but in practice they are not necessarily respected.
Speeding on the autostrade is nowadays far less common than in the past because of sensibly strengthened control in the last years. There are a number of automatic and almost invisible systems to punish speeding and hazardous driving, also Italian Highway Patrol (Polizia Stradale) operates several unmarked cars equipped with very advanced speed radars and camera systems. Several sections of the Italian Highways are equipped with an automatic system called Tutor with automatic license plate recognition, which checks the average speed of all vehicles over a road stretch. The coverage of this system is being extended to more and more motorways. At times, road signs will remind you of the presence of this system.
Driving at the speed limit is not necessarily safe. For example in mountainous areas, be careful, because the speed limit may rise just before a sharp bend, where you should brake hard instead of accelerating.
If virtually all vehicles around you seem to behave, scrupulously driving at the speed limit or even a bit below, this is a good hint that some kind of enforcement system is in operation on that road. As a foreigner, it will be better to stay on the safe side and respect limits and rules at all times, even when locals driving like crazy might lead you to think a certain speed limit or "no passing" sign was a mere suggestion: every now and then, those locals do encounter the police on their way.
Unless different limits are posted, general speed limits are:
- 130 km/h on motorways (autostrade) (110 km/h in case of rain);
- 110 km/h on divided, grade-separated highways marked with blue motorway signs at the entrances, called superstrade;
- 90 km/h general speed limit on highways and roads outside urban areas;
- 50 km/h in urban areas - an urban area beginning with a white sign with the town/city name written in black, and ending with a similar sign barred in red.
Italian laws allow a 5% (minimum 5 km/h) tolerance on speed limits.
Fines are generally very expensive. If you are caught doing more than 40 km/h over the speed limit, you will be fined in excess of €500 and will receive an immediate driving ban from 1 to 3 months, leaving you on foot that very moment (you may reach the destination of your current journey). Non-resident drivers of vehicles with foreign registration are required either to pay their fines on the spot if they accept it, or to pay a deposit on the spot if they intend to appeal afterwards; either way, you must pay something immediately and the police won't hesitate to escort you to the nearest ATM to withdraw the cash you need. While chances of getting caught are admittedly not terribly high, you really don't want all of this to happen to you.
All vehicles must use headlights at all times outside urban areas, including motorways. Motorbikes must drive with headlights on at all times everywhere.
The issue of drunk driving has received a great deal of attention in the last years after a series of lethal accidents. The tolerated limit is 0.50g/L in blood; being above this limit is a crime punishable by heavy fines, license revocation, jail time and even immediate confiscation of one's own vehicle in the most serious cases. The limit for drivers under 21 years of age or less than 3 years of driving experience or professional drivers is zero. Unfortunately, enforcement, although stronger than before, is still insufficient and drunk driving is still somewhat an issue.
All passengers are required to wear their seat belts and children under 10 must use the back seats. Children under 12 years of age must use either an approved car seat or a seat booster, depending on the age.
At unmarked intersections, you are supposed to yield to any vehicle coming from your right. Be on the look-out because many Italians seem to ignore this rule and will insist on an non-existent right of way just because they are going straight on or they are travelling on what they think is the main road, even if the intersection is actually completely unmarked. This especially occurs in large cities at night time, when traffic lights at some intersections are switched off. Most times, the minor roads at those intersections will have a "give way" sign, but sometimes they don't, which is both confusing, because you never know if the crossing road has a sign or is unmarked, and dangerous because you might expect the vehicle coming from your left to let you pass while it will assume you have a "give way" sign and will carry on travelling like a bullet.
Many Italians don't take road markings too seriously (a few of them don't even seem to notice there are any road markings...), which can be odd if you come from north of the Alps. On multi-lane roads, you should always be wary of vehicles on other lanes invading your lane in curves. Lane markings in multi-lane roundabouts are systematically ignored and virtually all motorists will "cut off" while negotiating the roundabout and again when exiting, of course without signalling. There is a fair amount of confusion in Italy about the correct behaviour in large roundabouts; you should exercise caution there, expect vehicles entering, turning and exiting at any time without signalling and never travel side by side with other vehicles in a roundabout assuming the other will respect the lane markings.
Flashing your headlights may be interpreted differently to the way you intend. Flashing your lights may be understood either as a request to give way or as an invitation to go first, depending on the situation. A vehicle coming in the opposite direction flashing repeatedly might warn you about a danger or a police car/checkpoint further on the road (although this practice is forbidden).
Signposts used in Italy are patterned according to EU recommendations and use mostly pictographs (not text). Motorway (autostrade) directions are written on a green background while general highway signs (including those on the divided-carriageway, grade-separated superstrade) are on a blue background, and urban or local road signs are on a white one.
Fuel prices are in line with those in western Europe and considerably more expensive than in North America and Japan. As of December 2016, prices were about €1.65/L for gasoline and €1.53/L for diesel.
At most stations, only one type of 95-octane gasoline and one sort of diesel is available; some others also have premium gasoline and/or premium diesel types.
At many service stations, there is a considerable price difference between self-service filling (self-service) and having an attendant do it (servito). The respective pumps are marked accordingly when you enter the gas station, and you are supposed to pull up to the pump according to the type of service you'd like. If you stop at an attendant-served pump, just wait and an attendant will pop out within seconds.
Traffic in large Italian cities is really heavy and finding a parking spot can vary from a challenging to an impossible enterprise at times, so driving in Italian large cities is not advisable unless you really need to. Basically in any large city, you'll be better off parking your vehicle at a park-and-ride facility or somewhere in the outskirts and using public transport, which is reasonably reliable and quite cheap.
Limited traffic zones
Be very careful with limited traffic zones (zona a traffico limitato or ZTL). They are restricted areas in many medium-sized and large Italian cities, mostly but not only in the historical centres (maps), where only authorized vehicles are permitted. The entrance to a ZTL is marked by signs and cameras, which go easily unnoticed by tourists driving a car. Most local drivers have passes that allow entry into ZTLs, so simply following them can lead to fines. Many tourists every year report being fined (about €100) for entering a ZTL unknowingly. Unauthorized entry into a ZTL is the most frequent fine on rental cars, more than exceeding speed limits and unpaid parking. Tourists renting a car will end up receiving one or more tickets months later at their homes, including additional fees for the paperwork needed to send the papers abroad. Also, the renting companies may charge €15-50 to give the driver details to the police. So entering those zones without authorization might easily add up to a fine over €200. If you booked an accommodation in a city centre and plan to reach it by car, you should check in advance if it lies within such a limited zone and if you are entitled to an authorization.
Most GPS software does not know about ZTLs and may route through them without warning. Waze avoids ZTLs in select cities since 2018.
Driving licences and insurance
EU licences are automatically recognized. If you don't have an EU driving licence, you need an International Driving Permit in addition to your home driver's licence in order to drive. To obtain a formal recognition of your driving licence (adeguamento or tagliando di riconoscimento) you will need to pass a medical examination. You can ask Italian authorities for a duplicate if it gets lost or stolen.
All motor vehicles in Italy must have insurance (assicurazione) for at least third party liability.