Before leaving for Italy I was worried about the Zona Traffico Limitato--the no drive zones--in Italian towns. I was worried about getting tickets for sure, but I was also worried about parking and getting close enough to see what I wanted to see in the towns we would be visiting. Would the ZTLs prevent me from getting close enough? I was also worried about speeding tickets. How much tolerance is there in Italy? I know when I drive Interstate 78 I can set my cruise control at 76 and the police won't give a second look. What was it like in Italy?
Zona Traffico Limitato:
Basically, a ZTL sign marks the boundaries of a zone usually in the center of a town or special areas of a city that you cannot drive through, without expressed permission. That permission is usually spelled out in often confusing details on a sign or signs below or alongside the basic ZTL sign. A typical sign might list the hours the ZTL is in effect. For instance, many ZTLs are 24 hours, some are only during business hours, and still others might be only at night. Some are closed to traffic only on certain days, for instance, market days.
In some cities, like Florence or Rome, it gets very confusing. There are restricted vehicle types and unrestricted types listed. They could allow buses or not. They might allow only trucks, or restrict deliveries between certain hours. Some might show a wheelchair logo meaning they allow handicapped permitted vehicles.
There might even be special ZTL traffic lights (like the one pictured on the left) that show when you can and cannot pass through the ZTL. Simple, yes? No. The newer lighted signs say either "Varco ZTL Attivo" or "Varco ZTL Non Attivo". A simple translation would be "ZTL Gap active" or "Non-Active". These signs were designed as speed traps. Even the Italian drivers get confused because "Attivo" (Active) means you CAN go through and NON-ATTIVO" (Non-Active) means you CANNOT pass through--even though the word "varco" (literally "gap") actually refers to the cameras themselves. So, when you read "Non-Attivo" it means the cameras ARE activated and the ZTL is off limits. Even locals want these changed.
In small towns it's usually easier. Simple ZTL signs without anything other than "ecetto autorizzati" (except authorized) are easy to understand. Stay out unless your a local resident, police, emergency vehicle, a worker with a permit, etc.
After a few drives it got easy to spot the ZTL signs and stay clear. In fact, there is good reason in the smaller villages for the ZTLs... the streets are little more than narrow alleys, many with no way to turn around. In fact, another sign you need to know is the "T". A "T" with a red bar along the top means there is no exit--dead end. Backing our of a tiny, narrow street can be a real chore.
Again, learn to recognize and respect the ZTL. When in doubt, don't go through. When in areas where you have to go through, like when your hotel is in the ZTL, don't panic. Just make sure your hotel contacts the local police to let them know your license plate number and type of car so you don't get a ticket. For example, in Matera it was impossible to get to our hotel in the heart of the old sassi section without driving through a ZTL. We gave our plate number to the hotel staff to call into the police. (Hopefully, that worked.) You can even get a special handicapped permit if you are staying inside Florence's historic center. And when you have return a car like I had to, in downtown Florence, use Bing Maps or Google Earth street view (before your trip) to take a look around at street level for the ZTL signs. Do a drive through at ground level in Earth. This is especially helpful for Florence. There is only one way IN to the car rental return garage and one way OUT. Any other streets will take you into a ZTL. Most of this is by design to raise revenues. Just educate yourself to get around the ZTLs safely.
I should mention that the ZTL zone in Florence is really big--pretty much the entire tourist center. This is one of the reasons why we opted out of going into Florence itself. We would've had to park in a lot very far from the tourist sites and either take the confusing buses or walk it. With my poor legs, that would have been a real effort. In fact, Lisa and I recently discussed that if we ever do get back to Florence we would stay inside the center to make things easier. There is so much to see in Florence that I'm sure a nice way to see it all is throttle back, not go anywhere else BUT Florence for about a week. Perhaps that's another trip...
Speeding and Speed Traps:
Well, the good news is, driving on highways in Italy is actually a bit safer than here in the U.S. First of all, the fast lane (as we call it) is really a passing lane that most Italian drivers seem to respect. If you enter the passing lane, you are expected to pass the slower traffic in the other lanes, and then to move back out of the passing lane. Guess what? They actually do it. This means if you park yourself in the middle lane and someone comes up behind you, he won't ride your butt but zoom around you in the passing lane. Just make sure you don't go into the passing lane and NOT pass. If you coast along without passing, you WILL have someone hugging your rear. Also, be aware that once in a while you'll get a speed demon blasting by everyone--but at least they're in the passing lane. Expect to be shocked once in a while, or keep an eye in your rear view mirrors so you don't get spooked. In general, keep below or at the speed limit. There are so many ways for local and regional Italian governments to catch you. Why chance it?
Now, as for the speed zones. There are basically two types of speed control technologies used in Italy. The first is cameras. They take a picture of your license plate and give you a ticket automatically. You'll never see a policeman and the ticket may take the better part of a year to get to you. There are fixed cameras--large gray boxes on the side of the road or hanging from a bridge or pole. The other type of camera is mobile and operated by a policeman sitting on the side of the highway.
The second type is called the Safety Tutor system. You will see the word Tutor on the signs warning as you enter these zones. Basically, they measure how long it takes you to get through the measured zone. If you make it through faster than it would normally take at the posted speed, you get a ticket. Automatically. You will have (as I did) locals pushing you through these zones (flashing lights and such) but don't speed up. The locals know the zone and might only be going as far as the local alimentari or bar and not all the way through. In this way, they can speed into town, pick up something at a shop, and speed out, without a ticket issued. As long as you slow down upon entering these zones, you'll be fine. BTW, our Tom Tom GPS always gave an alarm at both camera and Tutor zones. I suppose we'll know in a few more months if I got caught in any speed traps.