No, this is not a blog about crazy Italian drivers and how brave you need to be to drive here, although yes, Italian drivers are crazy and you do need to be very brave to drive in Italy. Some stereotypes exist for a reason. This is a blog about the hidden side of driving in Italy, things that I didn’t believe when I first got here, but now I see are true. Please note that my personal experience is in Florence, and I’m told that driving in Milan is a different story, as is driving in Naples.
Driving in Italy is not for the faint-hearted, Vespas come from both sides of the car, other cars are so close to you it’s like they’re trying to get inside your trunk, parking is a nightmare. It looks so chaotic you wonder how they do it. If you come from a country like the US or the UK, where you’re used to people respecting road signs and keeping their distance, you’re likely to suffer when you get here. But the reality is, driving in Italy is significantly safer than driving in the US. Look at these numbers: the U.S. traffic fatality rate is 12.4 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. An additional 4.4 million are injured seriously enough to require medical attention. (Statista.com).
By comparison, the number of traffic deaths per 100 000 inhabitants in Italy fell 58% between 2000 and 2019, when 5.3 traffic deaths per 100 000 inhabitants were recorded, compared to 12.4 in 2000. The average in the European Union was 5.1 deaths per 100 000 inhabitants in 2019. (OECD)
Order in chaos
How can this be? Is there order in the chaotic Italian way of driving? Well, in my personal opinion, after my move to Florence and years of driving here, the answer is a definite yes. To understand how Italians drive, we need to first try to understand Italians. I did another blog about my experiences at the gym and how they helped me make peace with Italian behaviours in general. By watching Italians interact with each other at the gym, I began to understand them and make peace with my Florence move. Watching them drive is the same.
Let’s think about this carefully. Italians are crazy about their 2 wheelers, they love motorbikes, mopeds, bicycles, scooters, you name it, they have it. It’s important to know that from the age of 14 you’re allowed to drive most of these, and most Italians who drive cars have this experience, not necessarily from 14, but from a young age. These bikes are a great way to get around and Tuscany has beautiful weather, so there’s a lot of opportunity to get around in a cool moped. It’s fair to say that Italians drive either like someone who knows what it’s like to be on a bike and have a car come out in front of you, or like the parent who knows their child is driving out there and they want to make sure they either have good karma, or don’t hurt their own child. Italians look out for bikes. Every bike rider I talk to in Italy, who has driven elsewhere says the same, they feel much safer here. The consensus is that bikes count and drivers are always on the lookout for them. Your move to Florence can make you a keen biker. In my own experience, I must say that in the beginning I had no choice but to be on the lookout for bikes, they came from all sides, drove at different, erratic speeds, and were generally a nuisance. Fast forward a good few years, I realise that the system in fact works and reflects their way of life well. There’s something very live and let live in Italian traffic, much like Italian life. I was in the UK last week and did quite a bit of driving, yes it’s more relaxed, but there seems to be a much lower tolerance for mistakes. In Florence if you’re walking and you cross the street wherever you like, drivers look at you and let you pass, they get it, they do it also. In England if you dare to try to cross a street away from a pedestrian crossing, they accelerate towards you! In Florence you are safe in the knowledge that if you make eye contact with a driver with a smile on your face, they are likely to let you pass, pedestrian crossing or not.
Parking and mending
Another really cool thing that took me ages to appreciate is the fact that in Florence you can literally park wherever you like. People park on roundabouts, in the middle of the road, yes, it’s chaotic, but once you get into the rhythm of it, it’s fantastic. I must say that it’s still very hard for me to park illegally, but I park with much more bravery than before. After learning to park in spaces as big as my car in Paris, I’ve now learned to park in spaces that are almost legal in Florence. My own Florence move making changes in me!
One hilarious thing that you will see a lot here in Florence are cars stuck together with what looks like sellotape. When Italians have a small traffic accident, they DIY their car and motorbikes back in shape. It’s a true art form. Something you should not expect to see a lot of is road rage, there is the general idea that a human being is behind the wheel and still deserves your respect and benefit of the doubt. Italians don’t like a big fight in the street, it’s against their Italian way of life, that is very much family oriented.
The ZTL can bite
Clients who hire cars are always super happy with the result, get some parking tickets for sure and sometimes drive into ztl zones, this is definitely something for you to watch out for! Be extremely careful if you ever try to drive into the centre of Florence, or you could end up with a hefty fine. Make sure you pay a lot of attention to the ztl signs, and never cross a red one. If you do, they will track you down and make you pay a lot of cash (around 80€ per entry). Like everything here, there is an exception to this rule, if you’re going to park in a garage inside the ztl zone, you can go through those red lights in full confidence, as they cancel the fine for you. It’s a magic trick they do. I’m not even going to suggest that if you accidentally cross a red ztl light, you look for the nearest garage and have a word with one of the guys…! Let your Florence move change you ; )
Cars are great, and sometimes the only way to get around Tuscany. You can see some amazing views if you drive to Fiesole or the south part of Florence, and so much more going from one little town to another. Make sure you don’t take yourself too seriously and be humble about your mistakes, nobody cares, they’ve seen it all. Remember that some roads are as big as your car, and also two-way. When driving in Italy just remember that you like being alive and watch your speed! Enjoy.