We take a break this week from farm and agriculture topics to talk about getting an Italian driver’s license.
Let me be clear: I know how to drive and have driven legally with a US license for almost 20 years.
But for Italians, that’s not enough.
If you’re going to live in Italy, enjoy the good food, and bask in the sunny weather, you’re going to have to go through the process of getting an Italian driver’s license – from the beginning.
I honestly don’t remember much about US driver’s ed in high school. We had to watch videos with titles like Red Asphalt – 3 to learn about the dangers of drunk driving. The course book was pretty basic. The hardest thing about the actual driving test was having to parallel park on a hill.
But unlike Americans, Italians take pride in their driving abilities. Italian drivers are aggressive but very good. They drive at high speeds in powerful, fast cars on narrow, winding roads. Not much room for error.
And so when I signed up for Italian driver’s ed earlier this year, I had no clue what to expect.
Italian Driver’s Ed
Before I could even sign-up for the course, I had to go through a very perfunctory medical exam. It was basically an eye test but required multiple pieces of paper.
Then I had to get the accessory paper often required in Italian bureaucratic processes. I had to make payments through the post office and get the resulting receipts, and get a marca da bollo – an official proof-of-payment stamp for official documents – sold at the tabaccheria – the local tobacco/stamps/postcards/pens/lottery/random-item shop.
The course itself didn’t really have a structure. There was no start or end date. It was held every afternoon and the instructor just cycled through the topics. A student could show up for the first day and be in class with students who had been there for weeks.
It was a bit disorienting because there was no introduction and the structure of the test was never explained in class. There was no schedule of topics so if someone – like me – was able to attend class maybe once a week, there was no way to know whether you would be repeating material.
So I attended class, along with a group of teenagers and a few other foreigners who were in my same situation.
Massive Amounts of Material
The Italian driver’s test covers an impressive amount of material. The course book alone is over 300 pages long.
To begin with, there are dozens and dozens of road signs – all with very specific meanings. Some of them are very similar but with one or two critical differences.
The most frustrating to learn were the set of signs for railroad crossings. There are three different types of railroad crossings – ones with bars, ones with half-bars, and ones without bars. Each situation has a different set of signs and lights associated with it.
There are very strict norms around passing another vehicle, so there was a whole chapter of the book dedicated to those rules.
There is a big difference between a brief stop and a longer stop (but the stop is not long enough to be considered “parking”), and there are 22 distinct situations in which the former is allowed and the latter is verboten.
There are four categories of child car seats, five different categories of trailers, and seven different types of licenses (not including trucks and heavier machinery).
There were whole chapters on how the motor functions, air pollution and environmental regulations, and first aid. (The chapter on first aid began with a disclaimer: that the material was purely for theoretical purposes so that students could pass the exam; the information should never be used to actually administer first aid.)
To explain the rules around right-of-way, there were 39 diagrams with 39 different situations.
The Questions are Meant to Trick You
If the quantity of material were not enough, the test questions are written to trick you.
The test is in a 40 question true-or-false format. The questions are very detailed and are written to make you think and reason through exactly what they are asking.
Part of the value of attending class was having the instructor explain how the questions would be written and what to watch out for.
There was also a very specialized vocabulary that I needed to learn.
Taking the Test
After studying for weeks and taking dozens of practice tests, I decided to take the exam.
Perhaps there is something universal about taking a government test. As I walked up to the Italian DMV the morning of my exam, I had flashbacks to when I had to take my pre-SATs, SATs, APs, GREs.
The tests are often early, so the regular morning traffic and daily activity hasn’t really started. Other test-takers are always milling about, trying to cram the last bits of information into their heads. You always get called into the test room by a disgruntled person who uses a certain you’re-just-a-number-on-a-list voice, and everyone – even Italians – is very quiet while waiting for the test to start.
The test was 30 minutes long, and I took the full 30 minutes. I read and re-read the questions. I changed a few of my answers.
When I finished, I thought I had failed. I was certain. To pass, you have to make fewer than five errors, I was certain I had made at least five.
In my head, I had already set my next study schedule and calculated that if I studied hard, I could retake the test in another month. In the mean time, I would have to continue to rely on rides, my bike, and public transit to get around.
Everyone waited for the results, and then the instructor called out the results in alphabetical order to the entire group.
When the instructor got to my name, I was shocked to hear that I had passed. I almost cried.
And Next… the Driving Test!
I now have my foglio rosa – learner’s permit. I have to take six hours of mandatory driving lessons and then take the driving test.
I am less worried about the driving test because I have driven for almost 20 years. For the driving lessons, I get to practice things that I’ve never really mastered – like starting a manual transmission on a steep hill while using the parking brake.
Once I pass the driving test, I will be neo-patentata, i.e., newly licensed. For a year, I will only be able to drive cars under a certain horsepower, and for three years I will have to respect lower speed limits on highways.
Like everything in Italy, getting a license is a process.