The culture of driving

Something I appreciate about Italian drivers is that they rarely honk their horns. In America, drivers honk anytime someone is going too slow, or pulls out in front of them, or when they’re stuck in traffic (as if that will do anything), or, well, for just about any reason. In America, there’s the mentality of “Hey, I’m driving here! So get out of my way.” Despite what outsiders perceive as chaos when they navigate the streets of Italy, the traffic is much more fluid. Drivers are very aware of each other. Cars weave in and out of traffic—sometimes seeming to dart out from nowhere—but drivers here go with the flow. They realize this is how things work.

Instead of using their horns, drivers tend to rely on using their flashers. One aspect of the driving culture that is still hard for me to adjust to is speeding on the freeway. We’ll be driving in the left lane, passing a vehicle or two, and a car driving very, very fast will come up behind us, ride our bumper and flash us repeatedly so we’ll change lanes. Sometimes you see them coming up in the rearview so fast, you wonder if they’d plow right into you if you didn’t move over. It’s a little unnerving. But again, people recognize the rules of the road and most people move into the next lane, seemingly unperturbed.

While cars may honk infrequently, there is still quite a bit of noise pollution. The

A Cinquecento on the streets of Gubbio. Who wouldn't want to drive this car?

motorini are extremely loud. Many afternoons Alex will be napping, and one races down our street, waking him up, and probably all the neighbors napping after lunch! I may not miss the motorini when we leave Italy, but it’ll be hard getting used to large trucks and SUVs barreling down city streets again. I love the smaller vehicles here, especially the old Fiat Cinquecentos. There’s something to be said for the narrow streets of Italy: while more and more people are starting to drive SUVs, they have a hard time navigating the tight alleys of Italian towns and cities. I just wish they’d stay out of the centro storico!

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79 Responses to The culture of driving

  1. sartenada says:

    You asked:”Who wouldn’t want to drive this car?”

    My answer is: Me not!!! Before our car accident, I would have said Yes, but not after it. Absolutely not. I want to feel safe in my car! I want around me much of metal. In addition to that, small cars are not intended to drive on German freeways where there are speed limits. I like to drive fast. That is not possible in my country, but in German and that is why we visit German every second year.

    I am not rascal, but a senior citizen as You can see in my About page.

    Anyway I wish to You safety kilometers in traffic.

    • I’m sorry to hear about your accident–I can certainly understand your reticence to drive a small car! That being said, these cars are certainly not intended for highway driving, but I still think they’re great for navigating around the city.

  2. I do think it’s a shame that cute little cars are being driven off the roads by SUVs, they’re so great for nipping around tiny Europeans streets! I guess it’s a whole different experience to freeway driving.

  3. I love how people in America start honking as soon as the light turns green if you don’t hit the gas with power. So funny. I usually just stop and wait a moment when they do that 😉
    http://www.denwrites.com

    • Y3 says:

      thank you for your article through learning so many interesting thi

    • Guy Savage says:

      When people do that, honk right when the light turns green, my dad will get out of the car and look at his bumper and give a “Is there something wrong?” look as if the person behind is honking because there is something wrong with his car. And my dad lives in Miami, Florida where there are plenty of moron jerk drivers. He doesn’t do this anymore though, cause although he’s a big guy and nobody’s going to mess with him hand to hand, too many people in Miami may be strapped.

    • marty smith says:

      that means u r supposed to put it on old rock in radio & hold it to the floorboard,man.

    • Modern Funk says:

      Yep, Americans are beyond impatient when it comes to driving! ;p

    • Kiro says:

      LOL nice! I am always wandering what would happen if I ever went the speed limit in the highway on the fast lane! I am a fast driver but dam we have people that want to go even faster!

    • matt says:

      Ah yes….the definition of a New York second:

      The time it takes the cabbie behind you to honk his horn when the light turns green.

  4. Roads says:

    Gubbio is simply wonderful, and that cinquecento is in classic red, too.

    All you need now is Audrey Hepburn and a scooter, and you could re-make Roman Holiday right there.

    Enjoy Italy. There’s just nowhere quite like it, I agree.

  5. kevin says:

    you rarely get to meet drivers with proper manners when it comes to traffic and driving etiquette.

  6. wineguider says:

    Couldn’t agree more — it would be so great if Italy could remain free of big SUVs, sort of like visiting Montana to see vast areas where humans haven’t yet poured concrete. Great entry. And I see you’re into coffee — I need to get up to speed on your posts in this area! I sit around my house wondering WHY i can’t find coffee as good as the great restaurants have. I think they are sourcing from Italy!
    -Wineguider, http://www.wineguider.wordpress.com

  7. pltprincess says:

    I love nothing more than a great ride in a small zippy little car with just a dash of European driving flair! And, of course, a good read like this one!

  8. Having lived in Rome for two years, I take strong exception to your comment that Italians do not like to honk. Oh, come on! Italian drivers honk for anything all the time. Do you pick up someone from his apartment at 5:30 in the morning? Don’t walk to the entrance of the building and press the buzzer for his apartment. Heck no! Stay in your car and press the horn until he materializes. Who cares that the street is now awake at 5:30 am?
    You and your wife are shopping late in the afternoon in a good shopping neighborhood and you decided to do your own errands and would meet again at the car by 7:00 pm. Wife not there? Get in your car and start honking. Millions of husbands do this at the same time so there isn’t a wife who can pick out the horn of her husband’s car.

    I grant you that Romans, and Italians in general, are excellent drivers. Very few accidents occur.

    http://wordsfromawoman.wordpress.com/

    • I should clarify–I’m not speaking for larger cities like Rome or Naples. However, having spent the past two years in a small town in southern Italy and in the coastal city of Pesaro, my experience has been that Italians don’t honk often, except when necessary. Although, even in larger cities like Benevento, I’ve noticed that someone who is blocked in by a car that is double-parked tends to wait longer to lay on the horn than they do in cities I’ve lived in the U.S. (Chicago, DC, San Francisco, etc). To expand on my post, I think honking in Italy is a very different thing (culturally) than in the United States. This is just my opinion, but in the U.S., I’ve noticed that people tend to honk when they’re irritated or upset, whereas in Italy, aside from when a driver is clearly angry, Italians use honking more as a form of communicating–exactly as you’ve noted. They use it to greet people, or tell someone they’re waiting for them, more than out of anger at someone else encroaching on their space. It may seem aggressive, and it’s obviously very irritating at 5:30 a.m., but I think it has an entirely different meaning than in the U.S.

  9. small better for the environment….more miles per gallon, litte fiats better than big chevvies, maybe we should adopt a cycling culture?

  10. ryoko861 says:

    SO, when some idiot decides that he’s going to peruse the lawn mowers that are on display in front of the Home Depot, stopping right in front of them in the middle of the road, I’m suppose to just sit behind him and patiently wait til he decides which one he wants?

    Or when the light turns green and the q-tip in front of me has either fallen asleep or can’t see over the steering wheel to even know he/she is at the stop light, I’m suppose to somehow go around them?

    When someone cuts me off at 65mph on so called “freeway”, you better believe I’m going to let them have it with my horn!

    I’m from New Jersey, and yes, we have horns, and we’re going to use them!

    And yes, I quite like the little Fiats. I love the Mini Cooper as well. Hate hybrids. They all have horns too. And they’re there for a purpose.

  11. Thanks for insight to driving in a european city. I live in the wilds of the American Midwest. SUV’s rule here. Congrats on being freshly pressed.

  12. 1andy4 says:

    The UK is probably as bad as the US as far as driving is concerned these days, people are so impatient it is unbelievable. As denis says, I too dawdle deliberately if another driver is harassing me.

    Some people just totally change personality as soon as they get behind a wheel, I’ve read several theories about it. I like to think about motorway driving as being in a flow, it de-personalises it, hence you don’t get as angry when someone cuts you up.

    I’m not into small cars personally but my wife loves them, she currently drives a Mini Cooper convertable and wouldn’t swap it for anything.

    I’ve only been to Italy once, some years ago. I do remember the people though, they were great.

    Happy motoring.

    Andy.

  13. nexru says:

    Love the car … we call it fičo (ficho). But I don’t like the driving in Italy. 🙂 We allllllways argue who will get to drive in that crazy trafic.

  14. Haha, if you think the honking in America is bad you should go to Taiwan. American drivers tend to honk to express impatience or anger, while Taiwanese cabs and cars honk to warn others of their presence. It’s that way in a country where pedestrians have no right of way and where motorcycles pack the streets in hoards. Italian drivers also seem to adapt to the chaos in traffic. I guess Americans just suck at driving.

  15. Great post!

    We North Americans are too fast to use our horns in any and all situations *sigh*. Trust us to be loud and obnoxious, even when we’re contained in vehicles.

    I absolutely love the Fiat 500 and can’t wait for it to come to Canada next year. So exciting, so to answer your question I would most definitely drive that car.

    The highways (freeways) work the same here (far left is the fast lane) and I’m often greeted with a sudden grille in my rearview with flashing lights to move over! I think that is, perhaps, the only polite thing us NAers do on the road. Hehehe

    Anyways, congrats on getting Freshly Pressed and great post. If you want a bit more automotive reading, check out my blog! 🙂

    Drive on,
    – M.

  16. wadingacross says:

    My family and I toured Western Europe for a summer when I was quite young – I still remember plenty of it – in a small cargo/wagon (think Ford Escort Station Wagon without rear windows). Fun times, that.

    Europe has always had small towns built long before anyone conceived of large transportation vehicles. Most of the US was built as large, personal transportation was coming about. Europe was built compactly, whereas the US was built fairly openly, even in the cities.

    I like the small, old British Sportscars – the MGB is my favorite car – but I prefer to have as much sheetmetal around me as possible.

    SUVs may often be a luxury, but they do have pluses – such as storage and muscle (torque/HP). My first car was an 83 Volks. Rabbit GTI. Fun car for a teen, not for a family. And getting ready to have two more kids, there’s no way I could pack all of our gear and 4 children into even a small station wagon.

    Minivan, here we come. The SUV is not the epitome of Americana. The minivan is Americana.

    And I honk sometimes; or I’ll use my brights at night (flash them). Different strokes for different folks. Just because something works in Italy doesn’t mean it’ll work or is better than what works here – or what people do here.

  17. Nicole says:

    Very interesting blog. The driving culture is similar in Belgium. Especially with the highway speeding and flashing. They also use their left signal light. The Belgians honk at everything too. In Canada its pretty rare to hear honking. Kind of the same thing “Hello, I’m driving here, don’t hit me” or its a two short beeps to say hello to someone in a nice way or to alert someone that the light has turned green.

  18. Nico says:

    Thanks so much for this blog. I think I’m going to use it in one of my classes. I teach Italians English so this should be pretty interesting to them.

  19. bluejeans says:

    One of my pet peeves about driving is people who won’t get out of the left lane on the highway. You are supposed to stay to the right if not passing. It’s a basic rule of the road in the US. The left lane is for the fast cars, if you are slower, than MOVE OVER!! I’m not a horn blower and hardly ever use my horn.

  20. elenasc says:

    Fiat Cinquecento is the best car ever! But, I’m sorry, Italian people are not good drivers at all… and I am Italian!!! lol Thanks for your post, very nice!!!
    I’m living in Canada now, writing about how the world sees Italians, Italian stereotypes and my life here in North America. Drop by if you have time, there are post that you will probably enjoy. Thanks again!

  21. When my Dad was first teaching me to drive and someone cut right in front of me one day, I remember hearing him say “There’s just no courtesy left in the world! In my day, that never would have happened.” That was 1980 and he was 56 years old. He passed away in ’89 and I often wonder what might go through his mind driving out on the roads in this day and age!

  22. Love the original Fiat 500, had one many years ago enjoyed driving it so much I got rid of my other car altogether….. Bought a Fiat 126 Bis its replacement but not as much fun… then the original Panda 4×4 a totally mad concept but what a car…..small cars with bags of character the true Italian concept of motoring…..

  23. G-LO says:

    Though I’ve never driven a car in Italy, I have been a passenger quite frequently when visiting with family in Milan and Sicily. I like to call it controlled chaos. It’s a wild ride for sure (depending on the driver of course), but they most definitely know how to handle a car. And if you really want an interesting ride, try a ride on the back of a motorcycle through downtown Milan at rush hour… Craaaaazy!

    Cent’anni!
    G-LO

  24. I’ve always wanted to drive a moped in Italy…reenacting scenes from The Lizzie McGuire Movie.

  25. Peter says:

    You should come to Poland to see some mixed action on our streets. There are guys driving like Italians, some people drive like Americans and there is also a group of lamers, who shouldnt be on the road. We have something like wild west in here, the more crazy you are on the street the faster you will get to job. And Police don’t mind driving like that. They are only interested in sending tickets for speeding. Just pure absurd 🙂

  26. MH says:

    Having only backpacked through Italy, I never thought of this…but you’re right, there was a lack of car horns honking.

  27. Anton Hassan says:

    Drivers in different countries behave differently … that’s interesting!

  28. jpcabit says:

    Your picture of a Cinquecento is so enthralling and adventurous! And I’ve been dying to ride a motor scooter (motorini?) lately. They’re so old-world.

  29. sayitinasong says:

    Italians are some of the craziest drivers in the world. I won’t ever forget it- on the extremely deep mountain road along the Amalfi Coast and the Italians speed on their Vespas, driving with one hand, texting on the other, weaving in and out of the traffic…

  30. vkaw16 says:

    I hate driving small cars

  31. tenthoubride says:

    Oh boy, I feel ya. It’s noisy out here….I think you’ll get used to it though…outside of the cities there’s not much honking.

    Good luck with your move and congrats on being freshly pressed! (we’re sharing the page with you today! yay!)

  32. skybambi says:

    That sounds lovely. Over here in Malaysia, motorists honk aggressively. Wish people would adopt more civilized road ethics!

  33. I love vintage cars and the culture that goes with them. Your post reminded me of that. Bravo.

    Do check out my blog if you have time. 🙂

  34. I just love Gubbio (I am from Perugia) and I love 500! Nice and interesting article btw!

  35. Rosie Ful says:

    In our country, especially in my hometown, blowing of horns is a little bit rare and if someone would do that, all the people would stare at the car as if they will to kill the driver..lol. .

    When I’ll get to europe, I will definetely drive A Cinquecento! hehe.. I love small cars especially the vintage one..^^

    nice post by the way^.^

  36. joaoacioli says:

    I agree that traffic flows well here in Italy but there’s something else: Italians don’t seem to mind doing some nasty driving like taking prohibited U turns, wrong ways and stuff like that! And yes, I would definitely drive a cinquecento in the streets of Siena or any of the cities I’ve visited so far.

  37. I like driving in America. If people worried less about other’s actions and worried more about their own reactions, things might just work out better.

  38. fkjfkdjfdjfhs says:

    I totally kind of agree!

  39. Why do people happily claim they are a ‘fast driver’? ! what the hell does that mean?
    Dangerous… oh wow!! Machismo nonsense… I think….

    Ah well,

    Rowland
    http://www.reallyaccessiblememory.com

  40. iwritten says:

    thats nothing, u have no idea how people drive in indonesia, they`ll drive lika a F1 driver

  41. These are the reasons, my friend, that I ride a bicycle still.
    Safe, small, efficient.

    (I am not suggesting the same for all. Neither will your angry boss.)

  42. well It seems driving in Italy is similar to driving in Portugal 🙂

  43. first of all, I love your blog – i am Anglo Italian so i can very much relate to your background. I will definitely come back to read more of your blog!

    Regarding this post… you wrote that Italians ‘rarely honk their horns’: seriously, this makes me laugh so much as Italians are so well known for being craaazy drivers and totally disrespectful of any laws / rules. I took my driving license here in Italy (Torino) and it was real hell learning to drive…now I’ve been driving for several years I still feel everyday I’m lucky to get home alive! I really wonder WHERE in Italy you live, but if such ‘heaven for driving’ really exists in this country, I’d love to experience it myself!!! 🙂

    I hope you will visit my blog and well done on getting Freshly Pressed!

  44. Brooke says:

    In my city, you don’t hear the horn too often. It’s nothing like NYC or Chicago. And as much as I dislike bigger trucks from blocking my view, those little Smart cars are feisty little things. There’s a couple I share the road with home and they just zippity-doo-dah between cars and lanes like crazy.

  45. deadwednesdays says:

    Awww, you make me want to go to Italy really, really bad. ):

    Haha, the back of the Cinquecento reminded me of a punch buggy. I wanted to punch someone. xD

  46. urbannight says:

    Interesting topic. A year or two ago I read an article that some European countries were passing laws against the use of the car horn. Partly because of the noise polution and partly because they see it as a contributing factor in accidents. You are driving along and suddenly a car starts honking. You start to look around to figure out what you are doing wrong or what someone near you is doing wrong and ‘boom’ and accident happens.

  47. Patrick says:

    We have that kind of Fiat here in Argentina too. The old ones, and the new version. They’re cute. I’d never have thought italians were good drivers. Most of us here come from italian families, and we have 22 dead people per day because of traffic accidents!. Drivers use lights, horns, hands, yelling, anything! lol.

  48. lbwong says:

    Great post! Whenever I visit the Big Island, Hawaii, I am quickly reminded of how much more polite the Islanders are. People do not honk, and if someone does its likely a mainlander (or other tourist) behind the wheel. And the only hand gestures that come from car windows is the “hang loose” whereas we in the States normally have our middle fingers out. Your visit to Italy sounds inviting. Perhaps you’ll talk about the food another time 😉 Congrats on Freshly Pressed! LB

  49. Before visiting Italy I heard that Italians were the best drivers in the world. After visiting Italy I think it really depends on the context that comment is made in. Yes they are good at weaving and dodging dangerous situations but No I wouldn’t say they are the best behaved when it comes to driving. Taxi’s are probably the worst. Although I didn’t get in any accidents while I was there. It’s unfortunate for anyone to have to go through that on their holiday. I love the little cars that wonder the streets. If there was ever a big market for smart cars I would say it’s in Italy. Perfect for narrow streets. http://journalbysepi.wordpress.com/

  50. mia1984 says:

    It’s interesting how you say Americans honk their horns a lot in States. Because grew up in the US (I don’t really remember how the driving was because I was very young back then) and a lot of the time when my parents reminisce living there (in Michigan), they always mention how out car’s horn got broken and they never bothered to get it fixed because it was never necessary. So for 5,5 years my parents never honked a horn. And they say that because the driving here in Indonesia is crazy. You should try the traffic in Indonesia. There’s a Facebook group called “If You Can Drive In Indonesia, You Can Drive Anywhere In the World.” LOL.

  51. kelemta says:

    Interesting post — I think that Australia’s driving culture is very different from both of those. In the smaller cities of Western Australia at least, there isn’t horn honking except for alerting other drivers to something (or perhaps saying goodbye as you pull away from someone’s house, but half of the people just find that annoying… and of course what people consider an ‘alert’ varies; there are some really pushy drivers anywhere), but there also isn’t a feeling of smoothness and slipping together like you describe in Italy.

    Here the culture seems to be to keep to yourself. For many people that means disregarding others and merely focussing on their own driving experience, but overall it means little honking and lots of speeding in suburban areas. 😛

  52. sogam0 says:

    In Korea, people prefer the big cars to the small cars because they tend to undervalue the small cars. Eliminating the big cars are more safe, people prefer the big cars because the big car represent his wealth or position.

    Just my opinion as Korean. I’m Korean. 🙂

  53. Don Preece says:

    I’ve just got my license in the UK, would love a Fiat 500 for a bit of that Italian charm, but hope I don’t start becoming some raging beast when I get behind the wheel. The worst drivers for honking are definitely in India – there the rules of the road over there seem to be to honk when you are behind a car you wish to overtake, like saying ‘I’m here and I’m coming through’. I guess it’s a legacy from the time before road lights in India.

  54. Pingback: 2010 in review | Chasing Cappuccinos

  55. y3 games says:

    I like your post. Thanks you very much..

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