Italy: Fines for rental-car drivers on the rise

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There's nothing dolce about Italy's infamously slow-moving, perplexing bureaucracy, as a growing number of travelers are learning first-hand. Christopher Elliott revealed yesterday that the most vexing complaint he repeatedly hears is about traffic tickets from vacations in Italy—often received several months after returning home.

Dean Brown is the latest in a long line of agitated drivers. In 2008, he and his wife visited Florence. "I parked my rental car in a space with a meter," said Brown, a general contractor who lives in Tiburon, Calif. "I made sure the meter had the correct amount of paid time for our visit. Now I have received a notice of 'Violation of the Highway Code,' which states that my vehicle was circulated in a limited-traffic area without authorization. They are asking for 183 euros," about $250.

A customer service manager for Auto Europe told Elliott that at least every third or fourth call the company receives has to do with a traffic infraction or fee in Italy. The notices are in Italian and difficult to appeal, even for Italians, because cameras are assumed to be accurate.

Elliott interviewed Nancy Parode, a travel writer who has been caught on camera while driving in Italy, and she encouraged travelers to pay the fines without delay as they can double over time. When Elliott contacted the Italian Government Tourism Board, he got a call back (one month later) from a spokesman who said travelers should follow the instructions on the ticket notice, but admitted that failing to pay certainly won't bar you from a future visit to Italy.

That may be a relief, but if you want to avoid the nuisance and dilemma of a ticket, be warned that drivers are typically caught when 1) speeding by an Autovelox box, or enforcement camera or 2) Driving in a "limited traffic zone" (zona traffico limitato) without an authorized license plate.

These limited traffic zones are a way for Italian cities to keep traffic and pollution manageable along the narrow, medieval streets of historic centers, while allocating limited parking spaces to neighborhood residents with special plates or permits.

If you're spending time in cities like Rome, Milan, or Florence, it's not worth the headache of renting a car and trying to navigate these rules—not to mention dealing with the frequent one-way streets and aggressive drivers. (When I studied in Florence, a friend's parents got into an accident on their first day driving.)

It's easy to make day trips from big cities by train or bus. The only time a car is really necessary is when you want to spend days exploring small Italian towns, or if you're staying in a villa or in Sicily, where public transportation is limited.

Have you ever had problems or gotten a ticket when driving in Italy? And would you change your behavior after hearing these stories?


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