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Driving on the Autostrada in Italy

Pauline Kenny

The Autostrada is the main highway system in Italy and is similar to the Interstate highway system in the US. The Autostrada is the fastest way to get around Italy. We use it whenever it is practical. The winding and slow country roads will drive you crazy eventually, especially if you really need to get somewhere quickly. The Autostrada are toll highways; you pay to use them.

Rules of the Road

Speed Limits

Speed limits, September 2003

In 2003, new speed limits were brought in. This photo shows a recent sign. The limits are: 130 kilometers per hour on the Autostrada, 110 on main highways, 90 outside of towns, 50 in towns. Other signs are posted indicating lower limits in effect for bad weather conditions.

Drive With Lights On

In 2002 a new law was passed to require that you have your headlights on at all times when driving on the Autostrada. You will see the sign "In Autostrada Anabbaglianti Sempre Accesi", meaning "On the Autostrada keep your running lights on."

Entering and Exiting

The exit and entrance ramps for the Autostrada frequently have very tight curves, so drive carefully. When you are getting on the Autostrada, you may find that the entrance lane is short and you are merging with fast-moving traffic. Make sure there is room to enter the highway before you merge from the entry lane and once on the road, speed up quickly. Wait in the entry lane until you see enough space in the traffic to safely join the highway.

When you pass an entrance along the Autostrada, be mindful of people entering on the right and be prepared to give way.

Passing Lane

Most Autostrade are two lanes in each direction with dividers down the middle. The left lane, the passing lane, is only for passing and is to be approached cautiously. We call this the "Mercedes lane", because it is used by expensive cars who drive very, very fast. Before you pull out to pass, be sure you have lots of room. That Mercedes in the far distance will be coming up behind you in seconds. Once you have passed, immediately pull back into the slow lane. If you are driving in the left lane, people coming up from behind will flash their lights at you to tell you to move back to the slower right lane.

But, don't be afraid of the passing lane. You will need to use it to get by slower cars. Just use it cautiously.

Note: In 2002, Italy started enforcing more strictly the Autostrada speed limits. On our last trip we did not see as many really fast drivers in the passing lane.

We have noticed a driving technique on the Autostrada that we call the "Italian straddle". A driver pulls out into the passing lane and passes a slower moving vehicle. Instead of pulling back into the lane, ahead of the vehicle he passed, the driver moves only partly over, straddling the lane divider line. This lets faster moving cars in the passing lane know he will move over when they approach, but gives him a head start on passing the next car.

Tailgating

Keep a safe driving distance from the cars ahead of you, even if this invites others to cut in front of your car (on the Autostrada and on other fast moving roads). In my opinion, tailgating is the worst thing that Italian drivers do. They come right up to your rear bumper when trying to pass you. The best way to deal with this is just slow down and keep to the right and they will pass. Do not let someone push you to go faster - it's always better for you to slow down.

Finding the Autostrada

When you are looking for the Autostrada, look for green signs. They will show the town names for the destination of the Autostrada. For example, in Tuscany, you can follow green signs saying "Roma" to get to the A1 Autostrada that runs from Milan (Milano) to Naples (Napoli).

Most of the Autostrada roads run north and south. The saying that all roads lead to Rome is true of the Autostrada! To go east and west, you usually have to use minor roads.

Signs

The signs on the roads and the Autostrada are similar to what we are used to in the US, but the words are in Italian. Here are a few words you should know:

  • Uscita means Exit

  • Entrata means Entrance

  • Tangenziale means tangential, usually a ring road around a large town

Remember that that direction signs have the town names in Italian, so Rome is Roma and Florence is Firenze.

Toll Stations

The Autostrada system is operated by a private company and you pay tolls to use it. On some parts of the Autostrada you get a ticket when you enter and pay when you exit (you pay for the distance you drive). In other parts you pay set amounts at toll booths.

Entrance

When you come to an Autostrada toll entrance you will see a toll plaza with one or more drive-in gates. Always go to a gate marked Biglietto (ticket) or drive to an unmarked gate. Do NOT enter gates marked only Viacard or Telepass. Take a card from the automated machine at the entry gate.

Autostrada toll booth in Tuscany, 10/01

After you pass through the toll plaza you will see signs directing you to the possible destinations for the Autostrada. Always know which larger city you are heading towards, and know the city names in Italian (e.g. Roma or Firenze).

Exit

When you exit the Autostrada you can pay cash at the gates marked Biglietto or at the unmarked gates, or using a credit card at the gates with the universal credit card symbols. These gates usually also have the Viacard sign. When you pay cash, you hand your ticket to a person and the amount you owe is displayed. They will give you change. When you pay with a credit card (Visa, MC, Amex, Diners) first insert the ticket, then your card, and the machine will thank you.

Notice in the photo above that the left lane marked with orange lines is for Telepass, the next lane marked with blue and orange lines is for both Telepass and Viacard, and the right two unmarked lanes are for cash. The lane marked in blue for Viacard also takes credit cards; the sign for the lane shows the credit cards they take.

The toll both at the Levanto exit was completely automated. You put in your ticket, it told you the amount, you put in cash, it gave change. You could also use credit cards.

You can buy a Viacard at the Autogrill gas stations and use it for paying tolls.

Example Autostrada Tolls - from Levanto to Cetona (2003)

5.10 euro - from Levanto to Lucca/Firenze exit
10.80 euro - from Lucca to Chiusi exit
TOTAL 15.90 euro from Levanto to Chiusi

Rest Areas - Autogrill!!

You will find rest areas every 30 to 50 miles along the Autostrada. The rest areas are marked in your Touring Club Italiano (TCI) road atlas (special Autostrada maps at the back show the rest areas). Read our page about the Autogrill.

Photo of the Autostrada

This is a view of the A1 Autostrada that goes from Rome to Florence through the eastern part of Tuscany. This picture was taken from an Autogrill Ciao Ristorante that sits over the roadway. You can see the covered parking spaces for the Autogrill on the left and the right. Having the restaurant over the freeway allows it to be used from either direction on the Autostrada. Most of the Autostrada through Tuscany is only two lanes in each direction.

Autostrada in Tuscany as seen from restaurant above the roadway, 10/01

Accidents

Should anything happen - accidents, car trouble or getting lost - ask for help. Many people in Italy carry mobile phones, there are Autostrada repair service trucks that come to assist if you are stalled, and the Autostrada service stations can do minor repairs. If you have rented a car from AutoEurope, call their toll free number and they will arrange the help you need.

Now, start up your car, buckle up your seat belt and get ready for the drive of your life on the Italian Autostrada. You will come to love it!

Resources

www.autostrade.it: Autostrada

www.autostrade.it/pdf/Welcome_Aspi_Network.pdf: a PDF document that explains, in English, the basics behind using the Italian Autostrade system

www.autogrill.it: Autogrill

Slow Travel Photos - Italy - Instructions - Driving: More photos

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