It's about this business of traffic tickets when driving in Europe. We use the word 'business' advisedly because, in some cases, that's what it seems to be. The great city of Florence, Italy, for example, rakes in more than 50 million euros each year from traffic tickets, a good percentage of them issued to visitors in European rental cars. But it's not just Florence and Italy. All over Europe authorities are using high tech equipment to catch more violators than ever before. No longer must you be observed breaking the law by a live person, pulled to the side of the road and ticketed. Most tickets are now issued electronically and sent by mail. Sophisticated cameras can now catch drivers speeding, talking on a cell phone, not wearing a seat belt, driving in restricted zones, or even following too closely. And the cameras never get tired or have to stop for coffee. A lot more tickets are being issued. Ten years ago we might get two or three emails or calls per year asking for advice in handling a European traffic ticket. Now it's two or three per week.
First, the Admin Charge
Here's the way it usually goes down: You return from Europe, organize your photos, and get on with daily life. Then one to 12 months after your return (or in some cases even later) you find a charge on your credit card from the rental car company. In most cases the charge is around $50. What is it? Well, you've probably been photographed breaking the law; speeding, running a red light, driving in a restricted zone, etc., and the $50 is not a fine, it's an administrative charge the rental company imposes for providing your name and address to the ticket-issuing agency. Later, you may or may not receive a payment demand for one or more traffic violations from the police. (In most European countries, speeders—both locals and visitors—are not stopped and ticketed, they are caught by automatic cameras and notified of the offense by mail.)
Four years ago, while driving near Lindau in an industrial area I noticed a bright flash on a power pole about 100 yards ahead of my car. I quickly realized I had probably been photographed traveling 65 kph in a 50 kph zone. A few weeks later Avis charged my card about $30, not for the ticket itself, but for the admin fee to provide my name and address to the police. The issue ended there, however. I never paid the fine because no ticket ever arrived in the mail.
Non-arrival of tickets still happens but not so much. In 2011 if you come afoul of one or more of Europe's many thousands of traffic cameras (known in Germany as "blitzers"), you will surely pay the rental car company's administrative fee, and are very likely receive a demand for payment, perhaps even dunning notices, by mail from the ticket-issuing agency or a private company it may have hired to collect fines.
How to Pay a European Traffic Ticket
The question then becomes, how to pay the ticket. Sometimes that's not easy, principally because the ticket and accompanying correspondence are usually in a foreign language. Frequently the documents have a return address, phone number, and bank account numbers for an electronic funds transfer. To pay by bank transfer, however, you'll probably have to go in person to your bank, pay a transfer fee of about $35, and perhaps other charges, that could exceed the cost of the ticket itself. Some call the phone number provided on the notification and give their credit card number. Others mail a personal check in a U.S. dollar amount that equals the euro amount of the fine.
Tickets in Italy
Cameras in restricted driving zones (Zona a Traffico Limitato or ZTL) catch literally thousands of visitors each year in Italian cities, especially Florence. Many of them are not even aware they are in an area that requires a special permit and they wind up getting multiple tickets, each at around 100 euros. They are so unaware that don't learn they have been ticketed until months later when they get a collection notice in the mail. They may also find out about a ticket when the rental company's approximately $50 charge administrative charge appears their credit card. Italian law requires only that the ticketed driver be notified of the violation in writing within one year.
Entrances to ZTLs are marked by signage in Italian. Some drivers report seeing the signs just as they turn into a restricted street, but by that time there is usually no turning back.
Permits to park in ZTLs are not available from rental car companies. We've also heard of visitors whose hotel was in a restricted zone, something the hotel failed to mention and which, months later, resulted in the arrival by mail of multiple tickets.
What to do?
Not driving in Florence (or several other Italian cities) is the surest way to avoid ZTL tickets. Otherwise, we suggest the following:
- Get maps of restricted driving zones. They are available on the Internet. Here's one for Florence.
- A temporary permit can be issued for a maximum of two hours for baggage transport. To obtain a permit provide your license plate number to your hotel or parking garage and they will pass it along to the authorities. This means you will either have to park outside the ZTL during your stay or park in your hotel's private garage.
- A good source of info on this topic is the Bella Toscana website, and there are many sad stories of multiple tickets posted on the travel forums of Frommer's, Rick Steves, Fodor's, and TripAdvisor.
To Pay or Not to Pay that European Traffic Ticket
For the discussion of whether to pay the fine at all, we'll set aside the moral issue and focus on the practicality of such a course of action.
The 'ignore' decision raises a number of questions:
- Will rental company pay the ticket and charge my credit card? The short answer is very, very unlikely—providing it's a moving violation and not a parking ticket. The driver, not the car's owner, is the responsible party and for guilt to be established it must be determined who was driving the car (some European drivers use a variety of reflectors and other devices to hide their image from the camera). For a rental company to pay a customer's fine and then charge his credit card, would deny due process. Since it's not responsible, the rental company doesn't care whether the fine is paid or not. (We hear that Italy, however, is trying to pass a law that would force rental companies to pay the ticket and then charge the renter's credit card.) Though there are unconfirmed press reports of fines being charged by car rental companies, we have no direct knowledge of that ever having happened. Erroneous reports to the contrary probably originate from travelers who confused the rental company's admin charge with a fine.
- If I don't pay the ticket will I be denied entry into the country next time I try to visit? This, too, is very unlikely, though some ago a customer told us he wasn't allowed through customs at the Zürich Airport because of an unpaid traffic ticket. We are aware of many customers who have been ticketed over the years and, other than the foregoing Switzerland incident, none has ever reported any repercussions. In most countries, non-payment of a ticket is a civil misdemeanor. One also assumes that customs officers have bigger fish to fry than trying to catch traffic scofflaws.
- If I don't pay will it be turned over to collection and can my credit be affected? If ticketed in Italy you will be contacted by the "European Municipal Outsourcing," a private company that collects traffic fines on behalf of numerous Italian cities. It appears, however, that they are not a debt collections company and will not affect your credit if you refuse to pay. As to other countries, we have heard—but cannot confirm—that once authorities realize the ticketed driver lives outside the EU attempts to collect the fine are dropped.
For the Internet's best advice on European car rental, see our FREE special report “What You Should Know About Renting a Car in Europe.”
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