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Italy's road rules sting travelers

Traffic tickets are a common nuisance for those driving in Italy. Arcane rules and camera captures complicate travelers' avenues of recourse.

July 22, 2012|By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times

Question: We recently received a registered letter from the Commune of Lucca, Italy, notifying us that we were in violation of "circulating inside a pedestrian area" on May 5, 2011. Because we did not contest the violation immediately, it said, we must be considered guilty. We were to send immediately 123.76 euros, about $152. If we delayed more than 60 days, the fine would increase to about $245. We did visit Lucca on May 5, but we never received a ticket or anything else in writing. How do we fight this?

Fran Piacente

Santa Barbara

Answer: People who get traffic tickets in Italy — and there are many, judging by the outrage you find if you Google "traffic tickets in Italy" — evidently fall into two categories: People who didn't break the law and people who may have broken the law unwittingly and are charged with driving "inside a pedestrian zone," which is what Piacente's violation said..

Susan Spano, a longtime contributor to the L.A. Times Travel section and formerly a resident of Rome, tells me she received a parking ticket from the city of Pisa. Only problem: She had never been there. She paid the fine anyway because she didn't want the hassle.

The traffic-fine problem is so pervasive that the State Department (http://www.travel.state.gov) and the U.S. Embassy in Rome have sections on their websites devoted to the issue. Here's some intel from the latter (http://www.lat.ms/M3vwVq):

"Vehicle traffic in some historic downtown areas of cities and towns throughout Italy is limited by a system of permits (called 'ZTL' and functioning the same way as an EasyPass system in the United States might on the freeway). Cameras record the license plates of cars driving in parts of the city that require a permit. Although most of the automated verification stations are clearly marked, if a driver passes one it is impossible to know at the time that a violation occurred or has been recorded. Violators are not pulled over or stopped, and there is no personal contact with a police officer." Notification of those fines, the State Department says, can take a year to arrive.

The U.S. Embassy in Rome goes on to say that you can write to the local representative of the national government of the city and ask that the ticket be canceled or file an appeal through the justice of the peace in person or using the services of a legal representative. Then it provides a list of reps who speak English, which can be found at http://www.lat.ms/M3vwVq. (To find Lucca reps, look under the Consular District of Florence.)

The best advice, alas, occurs in the rearview mirror: If you're thinking of driving in Italy, think about puppies or fields of flowers or anything else until the urge goes away. If that doesn't work, take this advice from Alex Roe, a Brit who lives in Italy and is the founder and author of the ItalyChronicles.com:

"If travelers stay in city or town center hotels, they must insist that hotel staff tell the local police about their stay and provide local police with the license plate number of the car they are driving," he said in an email explaining how to avoid getting a fine for driving in a pedestrian zone when your hotel is in a pedestrian zone. "This will mean that even if the car is caught by one of the many traffic cameras, a fine will not be issued.

"Travelers must insist on signed, written confirmation that the police have been informed. Then, if a fine does arrive, a copy of the confirmation letter can be forwarded to them. This should ensure the fine is annulled."

The issue is such a frequent one, Roe says, that a post on the topic dating to 2008 has been viewed 80,000 times with scores of comments. "The traffic tickets problem is not going away," he wrote. If you are and your destination is Italy, his advice can save you a world of trouble.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.

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