Puglia

A novice’s guide to driving in Italy

Driving in Europe can be daunting, especially for non-Europeans.

Road signs contain very little text (probably deliberate in design due to the many languages spoken in the region), there are non-posted “national speed limits” based on different road types that you’re just supposed to know, and drivers can be aggressive.

I have driving licenses in the USA and the UK and I’ve driven in many European countries and I still find myself confused sometimes. It’s easy to get overwhelmed driving in unfamiliar places and sometimes, even the most straightforward directions can quickly spiral into a meltdown when you’ve got an aggressive local driver behind you.

Driving etiquette

Drivers in Italy are aggressive, there is no doubt about that but after driving in Puglia for a week, I realized that there are rules of etiquette and they were followed by most drivers.

Below is a random list of unwritten rules and observations I made during our holiday.

1 – The left lane on motorways is for passing only.

As soon as a car is passed, the passing car will immediately move to the right lane. And when I say immediately, I mean immediately after the back bumper of the passing car is in front of the car being passed, then the passing car will move into the right lane.

Oftentimes, there are only a couple of feet between the back bumper of the passing car and the front bumper of the car being passed.

2 – Passing cars often drive straddling the center line on the motorways.

I have no idea why they do this but I was glad I was aware of it before I drove in Italy.

3 – Tailgating is common and aggressive.

Whatever you do, do not “brake check” tailgaters. Slamming on your brakes will surely cause a collision.

If a tailgater is stressing you out, tell yourself that they can – and will – pass you. I had a lot of pep talks with myself when it came to tailgating but it was still easy to become overwhelmed when driving in towns with narrow roads when there wasn’t a safe way for them to pass or a safe way for us to get out of their way.

We sometimes missed turns because I felt that making a sudden turn would cause a collision.

4 – No one uses turn signals/blinkers.

And you shouldn’t either, unless you want to stick out like a sore thumb.

5 – Roundabouts in large cities such as Lecce are aggressive (and sometimes flooded with rainwater).

Follow the roundabout rules (outlined later in this post) when possible and when not possible, be aggressive and just go for it.

Being passive or timid in a busy roundabout scenario will only aggravate other drivers and make the situation more stressful. They will start honking at you and possibly even tapping your back bumper with their front bumper in an effort to get you to move forward.

I never got honked at during our week in Puglia which is a little surprising but then again, I have no problem being an aggressive driver when needed (even when not needed!).

My best piece of advice is to blend in with your driving. Think like an Italian. Drive like an Italian.

6 – No one abides by “no overtaking/no passing” zones.

7 – No one on country roads abides by the speed limit.

8 – Flashing headlamps/headlights is way of communication.

The flashing of headlamps/headlights can mean many things, including, but not limited to: it’s your turn, thank you, turn your headlamps/headlights on, turn your high beams off, and fuck you. Pretty standard stuff.

Finally, below is a short video I asked Peter to take of the many miles of country roads we drove on in Puglia. A lot of them were only wide enough for one car. This particular road was nice because it was paved (and not flooded).

Speed cameras and ticketing

Many roads in Italy are monitored by speed cameras.

The cameras not only snapshot your speed at the moment you pass by the camera but some systems also take the average speed between two camera snapshots and issue tickets accordingly. It’s a double whammy of catching speeders so be aware.

Speed camera sign

There are a few clues to knowing if you are in a speed controlled zone.

  • A road sign containing the text of controllo della velocita indicates that you are either in a zone or are about to enter a zone
  • A road sign containing a camera icon
  • A road sign containing a policeman holding up their hand

I mostly adhered to the 90 kph posted speed limit on motorways in Puglia, however, we were passed by cars clocking speeds of 120-130 kph, even in speed-controlled zones. In fact, I firmly believe that it was more dangerous for us to be driving the speed limit versus driving with the flow of traffic.

There were times when I exceeded the speed limit in speed controlled zones both on the motorways and secondary roads and I did not receive any tickets after the fact.

So, I’ve concluded that the speed cameras on the roads we drove on in Puglia were not activated, however, I do know of someone who drove in northern Italy and received several speeding tickets in the mail after returning to the USA so you do you when it comes to speeding in Italy.

Speed limiters

Nowadays, cars sold in the US come equipped with an option called “cruise control”. I thought this was a standard feature across all cars until our trip to Puglia and now I feel like I have to write about this ridiculous topic.

When cruise control is activated, the car takes over and drives at the designated speed. You can take your foot off of the accelerator and sit back and, well, cruise.

With everything I read regarding speeding and speed cameras in Italy, the first thing I did after we entered the motorway was set the “cruise control”. The car’s language was set to Italian but it didn’t take a genius to conclude that the “limiter” option probably meant “cruise control”.

But as soon as I took my foot off of the accelerator, the car slowed down. I reset the limiter and took my foot off of the accelerator and the car slowed down again. After about 20 minutes of these shenanigans, I realized that the limiter feature only prevents the car’s speed from exceeding the designated speed. It does not keep the car cruising at the designated speed so I always had to have my foot on the accelerator to continue driving at the designated speed.

Protip: Change the display language of your car before leaving the car rental parking lot.

Filling the fuel tank

Honestly, I’ve never been so confused about how to fuel up a car in my life until our trip to Puglia.

Every country (also individual states in the US) seems to have different rules for filling the fuel tank. In Greece, there is no self-service. In Italy, there is self-service and full service but full service is much more expensive.

The gas/petrol station we visited was in the countryside just west of Ostuni. The pumps were not fancy but, hey, how hard could it be?

Past experiences gave us the insight that we probably needed to pre-pay but what threw us for a loop was the machine next to the pump.

Specifically, it was the monetary denomination buttons at the bottom of the machine that made us think twice about pre-paying. Naturally, we pressed the buttons to indicate how much fuel we wanted to purchase but pressing the buttons did nothing.

We bumbled around for a bit under the watchful eye of an older Italian gentleman who was sitting in a white plastic chair near the door to the “convenience store”. He’d probably just finished his 45th espresso shot (aka “caffe”) of the day. It was like 10:30am.

Defeated, we entered the store with our tails between our legs. The clerk/barista gave us a few short instructions and we returned to the pumps. The older gent followed us. He knew we were in trouble and he was there to assist!

On our walk to the pumps, Peter immediately noticed the pay machine which was on the other side of the pump from the weird machine in the photo above.

He slipped a few banknotes into the machine which activated the pump and dispensed the amount of fuel for the price we paid.

As far as we could tell, there was no way to fill the tank to full in one go and I wondered how filling the tank was going to work at our final fuel top-up at the airport because we needed to return the car with a full tank of fuel.

At the airport, we pulled into the gas/petrol station and an attendant came over to assist us even though we were parked at a self-service pump.

He spoke no English and we speak no Italian but he knew we wanted a full tank. I thought this guy was gonna show us the magic trick on how to tell the machine that we want as much gas as it takes for the tank to be fuel (versus a set monetary amount).

Nope. There was no magic trick. It went exactly as I expected.

Peter fed the payment machine with banknotes, the attendant worked the pump, and I watched the fuel gauge needle from the driver’s seat. It took us three rounds to get the needle to “full” and I threw up the universal good-to-go hand signal – a thumb’s up – out of the open car door.

Most important road signs

Below are the most important road signs to familiarize yourself with before you drive in any European country, including the United Kingdom.

NO THROUGH ROAD / DEAD END

The red area indicates the road containing the dead end.

In this example, you are approaching a “T-junction/intersection” and the cross road is a dead end.


TRAFFIC PRIORITY

In this example, when driving on the right, your direction of travel has priority over oncoming cars.

Note: When driving on the left (UK, Ireland), the sign would be flipped with the white arrow on the left and the red arrow on the right.


ONCOMING TRAFFIC PRIORITY

In this example, when driving on the right, oncoming cars have priority over your direction of travel.

Note: When driving on the left (UK, Ireland), the sign would be flipped with the red arrow on the left and the black arrow on the right.


ONE-WAY ROAD / TURN IN DIRECTION INDICATED

This indicates the direction you must turn or travel in.

In this example, you must turn left at the junction/intersection. This sign may also indicate the direction of a one-way road but not always.


CLEARWAY / NO STOPPING

This sign indicates a section of the road where stopping is strictly forbidden except for emergency situations.

Note: Parking may or may not be allowed on specific days of the week or at specific times of a day when traffic levels are low.


NO WAITING OR PARKING

This sign indicates a section of the road where brief stops are permitted to drop-off or pick-up passengers but waiting or parking is strictly forbidden.

Note: Waiting/parking may or may not be allowed on specific days of the week or at specific times of a day when traffic levels are low.


MAXIMUM SPEED LIMIT

In this example, the maximum speed limit is 40 kph (UK: 40 mph).


NO ENTRY / DO NOT ENTER


NO OVERTAKING / NO PASSING

In this example, you are entering a zone where overtaking/passing a car is prohibited.

When there is a diagonal line through this sign, it means that it is the end of the zone.

Note: When driving on the left (UK, Ireland), the sign would be flipped with the black car on the left and the red car on the right.


VEHICULAR TRAFFIC PROHIBITED


LIMITED TRAFFIC ZONE

This sign is specific to Italy.

Only vehicles with special permits are permitted to drive in the zona traffico limitato (ZTL).

Note: ZTLs are controlled by cameras which will promptly issue a ticket to your car rental company who will then kindly tack on a processing fee and send the giant fine to you.


END OF LIMITED TRAFFIC ZONE

In general, any sign with a diagonal line means “end of”. Another example of an “end of” sign is toward the end of this post

In this example, the sign indicates the end of the limited traffic zone.


PRIORITY ROAD

This sign indicates that the road has priority at intersections and other traffic will give way/yield to traffic on this road.


END OF PRIORITY ROAD

This sign indicates that the road no longer has priority at intersections and normal give way/yielding traffic rules apply.


Other important road signs

Below are a few other important road signs that may or may not be straightforward to non-European drivers.

BICYCLE AND PEDESTRIAN ONLY ZONE

This sign indicates that cyclists and pedestrians are permitted in the designated area.

Vehicular traffic may or may not be prohibited based on the design of the area (e.g. a road). As an example, a road may be divided into two lanes with vehicles permitted in one lane and cyclists and pedestrians permitted in the other lane.


MINI ROUNDABOUT AHEAD

This sign indicates that there is a small roundabout ahead. Mini roundabouts will be a single lane.

Rule 1: Vehicles in the roundabout have priority.

Rule 2: Vehicles approaching or queuing to enter the roundabout must give way/yield to vehicles currently in the roundabout.

Note: When driving on the left (UK, Ireland), the arrows face the opposite direction.


ROUNDABOUT AHEAD

This sign indicates that there is a large roundabout ahead. Roundabouts may be single or multiple lanes.

Rule 1: Vehicles in the roundabout have priority.

Rule 2: Vehicles approaching or queuing to enter the roundabout must give way/yield to vehicles currently in the roundabout.

Note: When driving in the UK, the arrows face the opposite direction.


TRAFFIC QUEUEING AHEAD

This sign indicates a section of the road where traffic backlogs/jams are common so be aware of stopped traffic ahead.


UNEVEN ROAD AHEAD

This sign indicates a section of the road where the asphalt/tarmac is uneven.


ROAD NARROWS AHEAD

This sign indicates that the lane and/or road is narrowed. Most commonly this occurs when bridges are present.


LEVEL / RAILROAD CROSSING

This sign indicates that there is an uncontrolled (no lights or barriers) level/railroad crossing ahead.

A red/yellow/green traffic light will accompany this sign when it is a controlled level/railroad crossing.


GIVE WAY / YIELD


END OF TRUCKS PROHIBITED ZONE

This is an example of an “end of” sign.


Sign colors

Different colored signs mean different things.

The three most important colors are brown, blue, and green. Knowing the type of thing you are looking for and its associated color can help you quickly find the relevant road sign when there are many colored signs on a single post.

BROWN signs contain information for historic sights and attractions.


BLUE signs indicate motorways.

In Italy, “blue roads” are free.

Note: When driving in countries with national speed limits like the UK, do not count on there being speed limit signs posted along roads. Drivers are expected to know the speed limit for the type of road they are driving on.


GREEN signs indicate national roads.

In Italy, “green roads” are toll roads.


Coming up next, life among the olive groves in southern Italy.

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