Driving in Italy - An American View
Apologies for length. A documentary of my recent experiences in Italy.
Driving in Italy - an American View
In the 1980's movie, "Gumball Rally" about the famous race across America, one of the characters is Italian. He's paired with an American and they are driving a Ferrari. At the start, as they race through the empty streets of New York in the very early morning, he reaches up and breaks off the rear view mirror, throwing it out of the car while shouting, "the first rule of Italian driving: What's behind you is not important!"
Let's just say that keeping this in mind helps when you're an American driving in Italy.
Now, for us Americans, the first rule of Italian drving is:
The Italians absolutely must be in front of YOU. It is important that you not take this personally. In fact, it has nothing to do with you. If someone else was in front of them, they'd need to be in front of them as well. So don't take it personal. Just recognize that in this case, you are in front of them and therefore, it is necessary to pass you.
The second rule of Italian driving: Whenever the road permits, one must travel at the highest possible speed.
With both of these in mind, I now understand why Italian sports cars are not required to have high top speeds. Oh sure, some of them do, to be sure. But handling and acceleration are the prime considerations. Handling, so they can negotiate 180 degree switchbacks at top speed and acceleration so they can achieve the highest velocity from turn to turn, even if there is less than 500 feet of straightaway. It's no wonder that many of the great F1 drivers are Italian. Hell, even some of the great "American" drivers like Mario Andretti are Italian.
I was reminded of this each time I drove our little Smart Car with a snarling 1.1 litres of raw horsepower and began to whip through the turns. As I began to get into the swing of things, I would think how well I was doing only to be invariably shown up by the lowliest vehicle on the road - the Fiat Panda or worse, a contractor van.
Why? Well, I don't have that Italian gene for being in front, for one thing. But another reason is motion sickness. I can only guess how strong the Italian stomach must be since whipping through lefts, rights, lefts, full 180's and repeating at high speed for 45 minutes will make your passengers car sick. Even as the driver I was getting awfully tired of it.
How to drive in Italy if you weren't born there
What helps is to take a deep breath, relax, and start driving like an Italian, not like an American. Here's a couple of tips:
1. First, realize that lane markings are simply suggestions. If there is enough room for two cars meeting head on, there will be room for three. In fact, you should expect at any moment to have a car overtaking you on the left even as you are meeting head on traffic. In these cases, please, move over to the side and let the car through. Remember, they MUST be ahead of you and if you follow that logic, it is YOU who must yield, not the person behind you. After awhile, this becomes a comfortable way to drive, even in the presence of pedestrians as you burn through a small village at 50-60 mph.
2. Which reminds me. Speed limits exist in Italy and there are signs which tell you what they are. However, I think these are for conformance with some kind of international agreement that speed limits are "good". As best I can reckon, what you do with the speed limits is double that number and then ignore it. Just drive as fast as you want. Which is not to say there are no speed limits. Along the Autostrada, the equivalent of the U.S. interstate, the speeds were quite reasonable at around 120 kph or perhaps as high as 150 kph, around 60-85 mph.
I have to caution that my driving experience in Italy has only taken place in the North and Middle sections of the country. Perhaps 10 years ago I drove a loop from Germany into Venice, Florence, back through Milan and up to Switzerland. This time, the flight was into Rome, and I drove up to the Chianti region of Tuscany and day trips all around. Siena, Montalchino, Pisa, Lucca, and Florence.
On my previous trip, I had experienced Florence traffic firsthand during rush hour and was scarred for life. Florence driving is completely different from driving in the rest of Italy, including Rome. It's not just organized chaos. It's chaos. There are lane markings on the road but these mean nothing. A two lane road is instantly a four lane one, then a three lane one, then a five lane one depending on what is parked along the side of the roads. Driver throw their doors wide open into traffic and you avoid instinctively. And of course this takes place at maximum velocity because the genetic code requires everyone behind you to be in front of you.
And the motorinas swarm around you like gnats! Fully half of the transportation in Florence is on small motorcycles. Businessmen, shop clerks, students, EVERYONE rides them. And why not? If you're on a motorina, when traffic comes to a halt, you simply move to the oncoming traffic lane and roar up the middle to where the traffic light is red, then pair up with the 15 other motorinas that have done the same and then roar off when it turns green. Or when there appears to be an opening, which is defined as any daylight between cars. The effect is like playing some kind of video game. Seriously.
Meantime, you are trying to navigate. Before we came to Italy, my wife thought GPS was the stupidest idea ever. "Paper maps are fine. What's wrong with paper maps? Why boot up a stupid computer just to find your way around?" Let's just say that IF we'd had iGuidance and IF it was accurate, she would have been a believer. But we didn't so we spent a lot of time trying to decode Italian signage. We still don't have the hang of it. For example, we went to Siena one way and were utterly unable to find out how to reverse the route and return the way we came. We never did figure it out. The next day, we went through Siena on the way to Montalchino. Think we figured out how to come back the same way? Nope.
As near as I can tell, Italian road signs route you from point to point versus the U.S. where you head in the general direction of the biggest city near your destination. What that means is you have to have detailed knowledge of the local landscape so you can pick which way to follow. For example, you can be headed for Siena and following signs that say that. Then suddenly, you hit a rotary and there are no signs to Siena, only to places you haven't heard of or need to find on the map. Now remember, during this time you're being trailed by Italians who MUST BE IN FRONT OF YOU, and a traffic circle makes an excellent place to pass what is clearly a clueless American in a Smart Car.
What you can learn from Italian drivers
Now, you may think that I hated driving in Italy. Not true! I actually liked it a lot. Once you begin to accept the rules of the road and start to drive like the Italians, there's a lot about the way they drive that makes sense. First, traffic circles rule. Americans are too stupid to use them because we have intersections. I ask, WHY? Traffic circles keep the traffic moving at all times and if everyone knows how to use them, are very efficient.
Second, the Italian road system is designed like a roller coaster. There's barely and intersection in the country, not a square corner to be found. What that means is that you drive without stopping. Slowing down, sometimes, but rarely stopping. It's great. All of the turns are sweeping curves with yield signs on them. You approach the corner, enter the curve and merge with the traffic. None of this right turn on red stuff like the U.S. has.
I guess in the end it comes down to the fact that the Italians drive with style. Broad turns, use the road, full speed ahead, tailgate as closely as possible, pass when the opportunity presents itself, or make the opportunity happen. It was a lovely time and I'd recommend driving yourself around Italy as part of the quintessential Italian experience.