Heading to Europe? Beware of stealth traffic tickets

Months after Ruth Carr returned from Italy, the citations started piling up in her mailbox: two for driving in a “restricted” area in Rome, another for a similar traffic violation in Vicenza.

“We were never approached by a policeman and tried our best to abide by all the posted traffic regulations,” says Carr, a retired restaurant worker who lives in Seattle. “But let’s face it: When in a foreign country with unfamiliar signage, it’s pretty difficult to find your way around without at least stopping to look at a map or ask for directions.”

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Total damage: about $800.

If you’re thinking of renting a car overseas, listen up: Traffic cameras are everywhere, and if you rented a car, it could take months for the fines to find their way to your mailbox. You can avoid some of these traffic gotchas, but the long-term fix will have to involve governments and the travel industry, particularly car rental companies.

Traffic cameras have become ubiquitous, especially in Europe, says Chris Brown, the executive editor of Auto Rental News, a car rental trade publication. Among the hot spots: London, which imposes a “congestion” charge for motorists during certain times; and most of Italy, which seems to be obsessed with traffic cameras. Rome and Florence are standouts.

“The fines can be brutal,” Brown says.

Here’s the problem: Unless you’re a details-obsessed driver, you probably have no idea what awaits you. Motorists say car rental companies often gloss over the restrictions. Hotels don’t warn their guests.

They don’t tell you that in some downtown areas, a special permit is required. They don’t mention that cameras record your license plate and automatically send a bill for the fine to your rental company. They also fail to disclose that it could be months before you get that bill.

Wayne Tutzauer received a $99 citation from the city of Florence after inadvertently driving in a “restricted” zone on his last trip to Italy. He not only paid it, he plans to keep a copy of the receipt the next time he visits Italy.

“I don’t know if they keep a database of scofflaws,” says Tutzauer, who lives in Denver. “But I don’t want to bet on it.”

Actually, they have you cornered, says Colleen Taylor, president of Midwest Travel Consultants in Jefferson City, Mo. When you sign your car rental contract, you agree to pay any traffic fines using the credit card it has on file.

“There is really no way to protest a fine or ticket,” she says.

I contacted the Italian Embassy in Washington for a comment. It didn’t respond. The American Car Rental Association, a trade group whose members operate internationally, also declined to comment.

How do you fix these tickets?

You can brush up on your overseas driving rules by visiting the U.S. State Department website (state.gov), which lists traffic safety and road conditions for nearly every foreign destination. Some embassy sites, such as the U.S. Embassy in Rome, offer helpful information about driving restrictions.

“Road conditions can vary significantly from conditions in the United States,” warns Philip Skotte, director of the Office of American Citizens Services at the Bureau of Consular Affairs.

Travel companies could try a little harder to inform their international visitors of these cameras. Car rental companies stand to benefit from the fines because they usually pass the charges to their customers along with a fee. Insiders say the fee covers the company’s expenses, but renters say the companies profit from the tickets.

To dispel that idea, car rental companies need to improve their disclosure and equip every vehicle with the necessary permits, so guests aren’t broadsided with $800 bills after their European vacation.

It might be helpful for our diplomats to start a high-level conversation with the authorities who eagerly install these cameras and reap the profits from clueless American motorists visiting their country.

How to avoid a ticket overseas

• Stay out of downtown areas. Restricted zones are largely confined to heavily congested city centers. Steer clear of these parts of town to avoid these zones. Park outside of town, like the locals.

• Do the math. Pay particular attention to the difference between kilometers and miles (a mile is about 1.6 kilometers), and slow down unless you want a speeding ticket!

• Read the signs. A few key phrases might be helpful. Look for red circles with the words “Zona Traffico Limitato” in them when you’re in Italy. In Germany, it’s called an “Umweltzone.” In Britain, the signs read, “Congestion Charging” and “Central Zone.”

22 thoughts on “Heading to Europe? Beware of stealth traffic tickets

  1. Any American who tries to drive in Europe is asking for it. I have a better idea: take the ubiquitous, fast, on-time trains instead.

      1. Where trains don’t go, there is other public transportation. And when I say “bus,” don’t flinch, for these are not the grimy thug-ridden contraptions we’re used to. In Switzerland, for example, the Postal Bus system serves every tiny village.

        1. Alan, you just did my work for me! Exactly what I was going to say.Americans think of Amtrak and Greyhound when they hear “train” and “bus”. It’s totally different in Europe. There’s no reason to rent a car there, unless you’re bringing a family and then the car may be cost effective. But if you’re going alone or with one other person, a car is more trouble than it’s worth.

  2. Another way to deal with this sort of problem is to use a credit card that will soon expire or has not a lot of ‘headroom’ for more charges. I know, I know, this suggestion isn’t good for the civilized version of the social contract, but at least it limits the arbitrary/automatic charges, and allows you the chance to decide if you agree with others’ interpretation of your civic responsibilities. Simultaneously, a fix for American travelers at the institutional level is worth pursuing.

    1. Italy, at least, fed up with scofflaws, now have collection agencies going after them.

      And, why suggest something illegal here on this forum?

  3. Key rule: round signs with a red circle around the outside and a white background are prohibitive – things you may not do. Speed limits, no passing, non parking, etc. You must understand these or you risk serious problems.

    Rectangular blue signs are permissive. Things you may do: park, turn, etc.

    1. Apparently. And also apparently the traffic laws exist there solely to fleece us.

      Come on…are we willing to waive tickets for visitors to our country who may not be familar with the laws? No, so why are we asking for that?

      If you chose to drive in a foreign couuntry, then it is your responsibility to know the rules. If you fail to do that, pay your fine and move on. There is enough public transit in Europe not to have to rent a car the majority of the time anyway.

  4. Sorry, but if you can’t read the road signs, and don’t know the laws you should NOT be driving. Imagine if a visitor to the US tried to say “Well, I didn’t know the speed limit was 75, so I shouldn’t have to pay the ticket” or “Well, I didn’t know that you have to pay to drive on a toll road, so I won’t” RIDICULOUS. Yes, the rental car agencies should provide guide pamphlets on local laws, but ultimately it is the responsibility of the driver to know and understand the local requirements.

    For the record, I’ve driven in the UK, Ireland, France, Germany, Italy(Including Rome and Florence), Switzerland, Netherlands, Belgium, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Austria, and a few more European countries–I’ve had 1 (Deserved) ticket, and paid it happily. European road signs aren’t hard to figure out, if you try!

  5. The most arrogant thing in this article is “It might be helpful for our diplomats to start a high-level conversation
    with the authorities who eagerly install these cameras and reap the
    profits from clueless American motorists visiting their country.”

    It’s like you think the authorities are installing the cameras to only capture American motorists!!! How arrogant can you be? I assume you think all the other motorists tickets are automatically cancelled.

    Oh and by the way, if they are “clueless” then maybe they should not be on the road anyways.

  6. Beware of speed limit in Tunnel because of large fine up to 1500€ and may be more, including German Autobahn which have almost no speed limit but TUNNELS have. And they asked for credit cards for immediate payment.

  7. I rent a car in greater London three – four times a year. I have to for various reasons. I went through the Dartford Tunnel last year which is now fully automated. I went online later in the day to pay the toll but unbeknown to me – there have been catastrophic failures in their system. A few months later I had about $70 taken from my card by Hertz for non payment followed by large penalty notices from the UK dept operating this shambles. It has been sorted out now but it took ages. I discovered I got off lightly having seen the debacle on social media.

  8. I don’t understand the suggestion: “Do the math. Pay particular attention to the difference between
    kilometers and miles (a mile is about 1.6 kilometers), and slow down
    unless you want a speeding ticket!”

    I’m sure the car you are driving in Europe has a speedometer using kilometers. So there is NO math to do. If the speed limit says 60, then be sure your don’t exceed 60 on your speedometer, no need to do math. So don’t try to use that as “excuse” of why you are speeding, since they are “out to get you” as this article implies.

    Also the idea that the rental car companies and hotels need to warn you about cameras is ridiculous. First of all, obey the traffic laws then you don’t have to worry, do the rental car companies and hotel have to tell you to “obey” the law. Or did you forgot that once you left the United States. Or since you are an American you can do what you want in another country since we are so “special”.

    Also they use cameras in the US, so that should not be a surprise they use them in Europe, or do you think they are so “backwards” they haven’t caught up to the US?

    1. I also didn’t understand the reasoning behind the “do the math” comment. It stands to reason that the speedometers on European rental cars would display in kilometers. Even in the US, most vehicles either show both miles and kilometers on the speedometer or, like my car, switch the digital display from one to the other with the push of a button.

  9. And it is not like the US doesn’t have its hidden charges — toll roads where there is no way for someone to easily pay unless they are local (ordering an Easy Pass.) Just as frustrating for the European visitor as these congestion charges are to American visitors.

  10. Unless you spend your European vacation cruising around the countryside, knowing and obeying the rules, you’re going to encounter traffic cameras that you didn’t notice. Months later, the tickets arrive, along with a hefty fee from the rental company on your credit card. In the past, tourists did not receive the tickets, but that little courtesy is gone. I’ve seen 6 speeding tickets in Italy, 3 minutes apart, each worth about $150. With that kind of municipal mentality, you just don’t visit Italy any more. This doesn’t make alot of sense for the economy of Italy, does it?
    I know lots of people take trains, but many of us have tried public transportation and don’t like it. The key, I think, is to park outside the towns and take public transportation into centro. So that adds another layer of research … find the parking areas on the outskirts, figure out how to get into the town. Shouldn’t be that difficult, some enterprising individual will start a website listing them all..

  11. Studd–that happens in the US too–again, if you can’t understand the system, you shouldn’t be driving. My sisters street has one rule for the side she lives on, a very different rule for the other side of the street–and both of those rules are time and day of week AND weather dependent. And that is in Denver. I don’t understand it–she tells me where to park every time I visit…..AND THAT’S IN DENVER. In foreign countries, I ASK. Now, I’m a polyglot, but I don’t speak every language–but with a little bit of gesticulation I make myself understood and understand the locals. I have pulled up to places where I’m not sure of the rules–if I can’t gain an understanding–I MOVE, I don’t take the risk!

    If you’re that stupid that you travel overseas and think the world owes you an explanation, then you shouldn’t travel. Ignorance of the law is no excuse–at home or abroad.

  12. Sorry, I have no sympathy on this issue. I cannot fathom why people think that wherever they drive is going to be the same as where they live and they don’t bother with even 5 minutes of research. This information is all over the internet. I never plan to get behind the wheel of a car somewhere without reading up on local road rules.

    The idea that that rental car companies should warn all renters, presumably in every language known to man, etc is the height of self-centeredness. Travelers don’t do the most basic homework before getting on foreign roads and then get angry when they are not coddled by rental agencies and hotels and told how and where to drive. It is their laws and just like in the states, ignorance of the law is no excuse.

    In Italy, the ZTLs are instituted in an effort to keep unnecessary vehicles out of the cities and towns to keep down the damage caused in these places to the buildings and roads, many of which are thousands of years old. The trains and local transportation in Italy is excellent but some people just need to have a car for some reason. In the countryside, it is great. Elsewhere, it is wholly unnecessary.

    And, it is not just Americans who get fined, the cameras don’t know the nationality of the person behind the wheel of the car when the photo is taken, violating the rule. Locals get caught out as well.

  13. I don’t care if Europe wants to send me a ticket. I care if Europe wants to send me a ticket months after the fact based upon some camera operator’s say-so without any way to contest the ticket. I understand that people should follow the law of the land they’re in, and they have a duty to know what that law is. But I’m not so quick to believe that just because a state or country accuses someone of something that they’re necessarily guilty, particularly when the only consequence of that guilt is an enrichment of the state or country in question.

  14. Look, if you got caught and pulled over in Austria for doing 120 mph in 70 mph zone and that happened because you are too dense and ignorant to understand that “Autobahn” means simply “Highway” in German, which just happens to be the language Austrian people speak as well, and it does NOT mean “I wonder how fast this puppy can go?” – I cannot care less. Austria, being a sovereign country, set speed limits as they please, even if they call highways “Autobahn”, just like Germans. So, your 1,500 Euro fine and ban to drive in Austria for 5 years sit just fine with me, cry me a river.

    HOWEVER, when it comes to Italy, I will side with perpetrators, not the law in most of the cases. It is a deception that I cannot stomach, not fines – like placing “Autovelox” at the beginning of the 4-lanes road on which, 500 feet later will be explicit sign of 50 km/h. Yes, it is understood that you didn’t leave populated area, so the speed limit is still the implicit 50 km/h … but why didn’t you put the “Autovelox” AFTER the explicit sign, then? Simply because AFTER the sign, people will slow down – so no fine, no money for municipal coffers. Full disclosure, I didn’t get that fine, my Italian friend did.

    If you want to visit Italy, don’t. If you really must, just keep in mind that you WILL be fined and no, you will never be able to predict it because they cannot care less about traffic safety and will never place cameras in spots where it would be obvious you want people to slow down, but in spots where it is more likely that people will speed up because the road is wider and straight (for example) so they can cash in. Further proof of that is that Polizia and Carabinieri have very little problems with funding and their paychecks are still pretty safe, it is the municipalities that are totally cash strapped and their local police (“Vigili”) knows they will be out of jobs if money doesn’t come in. Want to count how many fines came from Polizia Dello Stato or Carabinieri … counting? … counting? … Yeah, I told you so – ZERO.

    Another full disclosure: I hold Italian citizenship.

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