It’s no secret that Italians love to drive fast. Not really surprising given that Italy gave birth to icons like Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini and Ducati and created an annual car race around Italy, the Mille Miglia, almost one hundred years ago. But it’s also true that Italians don’t like to get speeding tickets and the system that Italy has come up with seems perfectly designed to snare tourists while sparing Italians.
There aren’t many speed cops around these days other than perhaps for a special section of road somewhere that has become an accident hot spot, and typically you can speed right by a police car and he won’t care because it’s not his job anymore and he’s not equipped with the requisite paraphernalia. Instead the whole business has been outsourced to the all-seeing, never sleeping, ugly orange box at the side of the road, the autovelox.
There’s some good news with the autovelox and some bad. The good news is that unlike in many other countries there is always by law a visible warning sign before you get to the autovelox and also it only measures your speed at the exact moment you pass it, so a quick tap on the brakes is mostly all that is required to avoid an automatic fine. Also many car navigation apps will warn you of the presence of an autovelox immediately ahead.
The bad news is the following:
1. Though mostly orange or black it comes in different shapes and colors so it's not always easy to spot
2. It’s often not clear what the actual speed limit is when you come across an autovelox because the warning sign never includes the limit for that particular road and speed limit signs can be few and far between in Italy. The autostrada has a fixed limit of 130 kms per hour unless stated otherwise. We were in a rental car recently which had an app installed that showed the current speed limit on the dash board and we checked it every time we went past a speed limit sign and it worked almost flawlessly
3. The autovelox has no heart and no concept of materiality so you are certain to get a ticket even if you are only marginally over the limit. Your rental car company will then slap a big admin fee on top when they inform you several weeks later
So, if you’re out on the road somewhere in Italy dutifully obeying the speed limit and you see a long line of impatient cars in your rear view mirror and the one right behind you is practically touching or there’s a blur of impatient drivers overtaking you, don’t be tempted to speed up and join them because they will all be locals and they will know exactly where the nearest autovelox is hiding. You will see them speed right past the warning sign and then not until they are practically level with the autovelox will they jump on the brakes quickly, for about two seconds, then re-accelerate and continue on at their preferred personal speed. The older machines only work for one side of the road but the newer machines work for both sides so your eyes have to cover a lot more ground to see them if you don’t already know where they are.
And finally on the subject of speeding tickets, there is a new system being introduced on the autostrada called Tudor which you will see from time to time on the overhead signs. This is a more sophisticated speed trap which measures your average speed between two fixed points several miles apart and is designed to negate the practice described above of simply slowing down very briefly for the autovelox.
Another somewhat confusing subject. If the evidence outside our apartment is anything to go by then you are more likely to get a ticket for overstaying your pre-paid time limit than you are if you’re parked half on the pavement where there is no actual marked parking place at all, such is the chaos that surrounds parking enforcement in Italy.
Anyhow, the normal rules are as follows, using Lucca as an example, though again the actual colors will change from region to region:
1. Yellow parking spaces: residents only with permits visible
2. Blue spaces: anyone, but you have to pre-pay first at a nearby machine and leave the ticket visible through the windshield. Many paid parking places in Italy don’t require payment between 8.00 pm and 8.00 am and the pre-paid ticket will automatically skip the free hours and carry over past 8.00 am when you feed it enough coins which is helpful to avoid having to get up early just to feed the machine again
3. White spaces; free for anyone but don’t expect to find any of these near a centro storico where spaces are at a premium and municipalities need the money
4. Other spaces (generally in smaller towns): there will be signs stating a fixed time limit for free parking, often thirty minutes or one hour. Your rental car will generally have a disco orario in the glove compartment which is basically a silly little cardboard clock. You set the current time and put it in the windshield as evidence of when you arrived. Obviously everyone cheats a bit and sets it 20 minutes forward because one hour is just not enough for an Italian lunch
However sometimes, as in the photo, you will see a parking sign with two crossed hammers like something out of the old Soviet Union, signifying the working hours when parking is limited, in this case to 30 minutes. But outside of these working hours you can park without limit, ie. night time and in the example below a very generous lunch period between 1.00 pm and 3.30 pm (so, yes, this is Italy after all, not the Soviet Union).
The last 200 yards:
OK, so far so good, you spotted all the autovelox on your journey, avoided any speeding tickets (you think), you’ve followed all the signs to the centro storico and are now only a couple of hundred yards from your hotel or apartment. Then suddenly you come across the ZTL sign (Zona Traffico Limitato) or Varco sign (Varco is an old Latin word for an entrance and the Italian bureaucracy seems to enjoy using these archaic words just to be difficult because they are never used otherwise).
And now it gets really confusing. ZTL Attiva or Varco Attivo means active, ie don’t enter. ZTL or Varco Non Attivo therefore means inactive so you can enter. Recently because of all the confusion for tourists, the Italian Ministry of Transport has tried to simplify everything by using just the ZTL sign which will be colored green with the words Non Attiva/Opened in green when you can enter and Attiva/Closed in red when you can’t. Much easier to follow. In Lucca there’s also a red cross which should make it crystal clear to even the most confused driver and in fact Lucca, being an efficient city, has already changed all its signs to ZTL from Varco.
In many of the smaller old town centers like Lucca, the ZTL is almost always closed whereas elsewhere it may just be closed during working hours and open evenings and weekends, in which case you will see this written on the sign. If you make a mistake and enter the ZTL even by just a few yards before reversing there is no mulligan and the camera will already have photographed your number plate. Mark that down as an expensive navigator error by the person in the seat next to you. ZTL is also often marked on the road.
If your accommodation is in a centro storico somewhere then unless you have made a prior arrangement with the hotel (which is definitely advisable) or you’re staying in an apartment you will have to park as close as you can to the ZTL closed sign so as to minimize the distance that you have to haul your luggage. It’s always worth finding out in advance at the time of booking what the parking arrangements are nearby and very often they will offer you the option of a nearby (or not so nearby) private car park (run by a relative or friend usually) at a decent daily rate.
However there will always be situations where you have to negotiate several flights of steps and a couple of hundred yards on your own so it’s best to work this out in advance so you can organize your luggage better and leave stuff in the car that you won’t be needing for a night or two in that location. Unfortunately 600 year old Italian towns weren’t built with traffic in mind, but that’s what makes them so interesting.