Italian Traffic Tickets
Yes, you can rent a car and drive in Italy. Europcar and other companies make it easy for you to set up a rental well in advance. The problem is that you are very likely to receive an extremely expensive traffic ticket in the mail a year or more later! Here's what happened to me, and what you need to know to avoid similar trouble.
Many Italian cities have established Limited (or Restricted) Traffic Zones, known there as ZTL or Zonas a Traffico Limitato. Multiple traffic cameras photograph all vehicles traversing the ZTL and vehicles without a proper permit receive a notice of traffic violation through the mail.
Florence (or Firenze in italiano) is especially notorious for boosting civic income through traffic fines. An article from The Florentine presents these statistics about traffic tickets in Florence:
The Florence traffic police issue an average of 1,253 tickets per day. This is in a city with a population of about 365,000.
The fines average out to about 140€ per year, per motorist fined, and the city rakes in about 52,000,000€ per year.
The amount of money made through traffic tickets tripled over the period 1999-2009.
Italian cities with much larger populations make much less from traffic tickets.
Many tourists have received three or four tickets within a 45-minute period as they attempt to find their hotel for the first time!
You can also receive a ticket for accidentally passing through a lane reserved for buses, as I did. Yes, the above picture is the traffic camera image for my violation.
I could see giving someone a ticket for violating the rules if the traffic in Florence were a reasonable and well-ordered thing. However, Italian traffic in general is pretty nutty, and within Florence it's especially insane. I've driven in Turkey and Romania, but Italy, especially Florence, is by far the worst driving conditions I have encountered. I wasn't involved in an accident and I stayed off the sidewalks, that should get an award for meritorious conduct.
Adding insult to financial injury, the glacial pace of Italian bureaucracy means that you only receive the notice of violation up to a year later. It appears from my "dossier" (and you can view and download this from the website of the billing agency, more on this in a moment) that I drove in the wrong lane on the 27th of May.
It took them until mid-October to figure out that the car belonged to EuropCar and that I was the person who had rented that specific car on that day.
Then, on the 20th of May of the following year, just one week short of a full year after the event, they mailed the letter notifying me of the violation.
Well, the Policia Municipale didn't send the letter. Neither did the city of Firenze. It came from the mysterious entity of Nivi Credit S.r.l. Div. EMO — European Municipality Outsourcing.
This letter arrives unexpectedly, written in an only somewhat stilted and awkward form of English, demanding the payment of 120.60€ by credit card to some Italian web site. What is this, some sort of scam of marginally better quality than the usual Nigerian nonsense?
Asking Google to search for
italian traffic ticket
returns "About 305,000 results".
the nearest Italian consulate (Chicago, for me)
gets me nothing but a voice menu from the Italian tourism
office inviting me to leave a message.
the Italian consulate in New York
provides two abrupt disconnections before finally getting
a live human on the line.
They then immediately heap scorn and exasperation
(disprezzo e esasperazione)
on anyone so foolish as to call them
asking if this is really legitimate.
Quite a bit of Internet research leads to a number of useful pages:
The Italian Government Tourist Board has a page about transporation. Tellingly, the first half of that page is about the ZTL system and the associated traffic tickets. Really. Given all the possible details of all possible modes of transportation within Italy, half of that page is about traffic tickets.
Travel columnist Christopher Elliott, ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine, has reported on the Italian traffic ticket situation. He describes it as the recurring complaint causing the most grief for his readers. He says that Auto Europe, a U.S.-based consolidator for European car rental companies, says that at least "every third or fourth phone call" they receive is about this topic.Urban Access
Also see the Urban Access Regulations site. It is funded by the European Union, and is designed to help travellers avoid costly fines and limit fees and tolls.
They have sections on urban access regulations (what I and so many others have run afoul of in Italy), urban toll roads, and low emission zones.
Can't I just ignore this, or otherwise avoid paying?
I don't think so. One of the pages of tiny print you sign in a rental car agreement contains a statement that you will pay all traffic and parking fines accrued during your rental. The Italian police will go after the car's owner, the rental car company, and they will get the money from you one way or another.
I have seen that some people advocate disputing the charge with your credit card company, but I can't imagine that really working. I have also seem some people advocate canceling the credit card with which the rental was made, which seems charmingly naïve about the benevolence of credit card companies.
If you don't pay the initial fine, it seems pretty well guaranteed that they will double the fine at the next step in the process. And some reports say that it might later get doubled a second time. Eventually the authorities are going to collect from someone, and the car rental company will reluctantly pay since they want to continue doing business in that jurisdiction. And since they already have your credit card information, they are going to be able to get payment from your card issuer. At that point the fine will be high enough that your credit card company will probably be unwilling to just eat the loss, and they will try very hard to get it from you. Those companies have a lot of power and patience.
Can I appeal that the ticket and fine be cancelled?
Yes. Are you fluent in Italian, have lots of free time, and have a low-cost or free communication channel to Italy? Or, do you already have an Italian lawyer who can handle the case for you? Keep in mind that appeals for fines based on camera images are almost never successful, and you have to start the appeal by paying a fee that works out to something like 30-40% of the fine.
Remember that you are not dealing directly with the governmental agency, you are dealing with a company that makes its money by successfully collecting fines.
See this page for more details on appealing the ticket.
How can I avoid a ZTL fine?
In real life, you can't rent a car with cash and a bogus home address. Well, not easily. So:
- Your hotel can register your license plate number with the police, allowing you temporary access (at least within limited times). However, this seems to be a bit of a chicken and egg problem — you will not know your license plate number until you have picked up your car, so you will have to pick up the car and then ask the hotel to register the plate. And you are still at risk of lane violations, speeding, improper parking, and who knows what other violations of poorly posted regulations.
- You could keep your car well outside the city center and rely on public transport between the garage and your hotel.
- Don't drive in Italy. It's nerve-wracking even without the heinous traffic tickets.
What else can I do?
I think it might be helpful, at least cathartic, to write letters to the Italian Government Tourism Board expressing your unhappiness with the results of a previous trip or your worries about any future travel to the area. There seems to already be some political pressure on Florence to ease up on their aggressiveness. Maybe a little more pressure would help. Write an actual letter with ink or toner on paper, the extra effort involves makes it much more meaningful than just one more e-mail. Get the addresses for the Tourism Board office in the U.S. and Canada or elsewhere in the world. Similarly, communicate with the hotel where you stayed or where you are considering staying.
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