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Italian highway laws and the road to chaos


Automobiles and trams jostle for space on a Milanese thoroughfare in a photo from around 1890. | COURTESY OF DIVANOMILANO.IT

Differences in local customs could turn any trip into a bumper-car ride

By Jeanne Outlaw-Cannavo

It is a little-known fact that Italians once drove on the left side of the road. For visitors, driving in Italy is not always for the faint of heart. Even for Italians, driving in different areas was often a daunting task until national driving laws were set.

In Italy, driving on the right side of the road started around 1890 but not all regions followed this rule. In fact, until the national “Highway Code” came into force on June 30, 1912, a royal decree from 1740 allowed the rules of the road to be set by the individual provincial administrations and sometimes also by the municipalities.

As a result, in each province or city there could be a mandate to circulate on the left, on the right, or again on the left on some roads and on the right on others.

Or you circulated in the middle of the road and you had to give way to the vehicles you met by moving to the left or to the right. However, cities with a tram network could retain left-side driving if they placed warning signs at their city borders.

There was obviously great confusion for drivers who were not from the area. For example, in the center of Milan (within the circle of the Bastions) they kept to the left, but in the periphery, as in the whole province, they kept to the right. In Bergamo they kept to the left, but in Brescia the right. In Rome they kept to the left, in Vicenza they kept to the right, but in Verona to the left. In Ravenna they kept to the right, but along the road to Porto Corsini the rule of the left side was preserved to respect custom. Sometimes, in fact, the manner of driving followed local customs more than hard-and-fast rules. For example, carts pulled by animals, which had wheels with iron rims, were often moved toward the center of the road and cars were to pass on the right, while drivers passing another car could pass on the left.

The Mussolini government was the first to take the unification of road traffic rules in Italy seriously. A 1923 decree set stricter driving standards, but Rome and the northern cities of Milan, Turin and Genoa could still mandate driving to the left until further orders from the Ministry of Public W ˇorks. By the mid-1920s, right-side driving finally became standard throughout the country. Rome made the change on March 1, 1925, and Milan on Aug. 3, 1926.

It is interesting to note that as early as 1922, a motorway was built in Italy, the “Milano Laghi” which from Milan reached Varese and Como. Along this motorway one kept to the right, as in the whole of the province of Milan (except the city of Milan itself) and as in the province of Varese, while in Como they kept to the left.

A catastrophic example of driver confusion over which side to use was what happened after the disastrous battle in Caporetto, in 1917. The rule imposed by the War Command was that in all war zones the left side should be kept, but this information had not reached those far from the front. The result was that the retreating troops kept to the left, as expected in the war zone, while the incoming reinforcements kept to the right, as was the civil rule in almost all of Veneto Tridentino and Friuli Venezia Giulia. This caused great confusion in a situation that was already tragic.

Therefore, traveling by car on Italian roads until 1926 was not at all easy. A car driver certainly had to know the rules of the city in which he lived, but if he wanted to move to another city he had to make sure that he also carefully learned the rules of that city, as well as the rules in force between the cities. Of course, head-on collisions were not uncommon.

It should be noted that the royal decree of 1923 also required urban trams to circulate on the right, and this was one of the reasons for granting a two-year period to comply, and for the delay with which Milan spent adapting to the new rule, since it had a large tramway network to be readjusted. The brand new “1500 series” trams of 1928 (of which there are still many in circulation) were built on an American design as they are suitable for driving on the right.

With the decree of 1923, the Mussolini government wanted to change the circulation of the railway system as well, but was convinced to keep the left side in railway traffic due to the complexity of the operations that would have been required for the change and the impossibility of establishing a mixed circulation period. Therefore trains in Italy, if there is a double track, still circulate today keeping to the left.

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