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Streets Of Rome: Anarchy, Primal Fears

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November 24, 2009 Culture & People, Traffic No Comments

The traffic situation in Italy, and especially in Rome and Naples, is notorious enough to frighten countless visitors from every part of the world. When confronted with the italian driving style, the incredible amount of traffic, and the poor state of most roads, many vow to avoid cars for the length of their visit, or take to their blogs to describe the complete anarchy so unbecoming of a civilised country (The 10 Basic Traffic Rules In Italy). An undisclosed number of adrenaline-junkies secretly enjoy it.

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Small vehicle historic centr

This country brought forth race cars of heavenly exquisiteness for a reason: The general population, including nuns, will rather walk than submit to a requirement so irrelevant and insulting as a speed limit. But no one walks. The loud and ceaseless communication experienced in restaurants, bars, shops, cinemas, and at most every italian dinner table, can be observed in its full exuberance on the streets: Honking, screeming, rude gesturing, and loud conversations on the phone are an integral part of the traffic. Other street behaviours include the ignoring of signs, traffic lights, and any written rule; the creative use of even the smallest space as a parking opportunity; and the habitual overtaking of other cars – anytime, anywhere.

These behaviours appear quite obnoxious to the typical visitor from Northern Europe, or the United States, who instinctively feels that such non-adherance to the rules must result in catastrophe. Even Michael Schumacher is said to have had a frightful moment when he came to visit the Italian Automobile Club in Rome, and found his Roman driver’s style so worrisome that he asked him to slow down (BBC, April 2004).

So, does Italy’s number of road fatalities reflect these observations? With 11 deaths occurring per 100,000 population, Italy’s numbers are just about average in Europe (Association of British Drivers, http://www.abd.org.uk/safest_roads.htm). But when looking at the road fatalities occurring only on motorways, the visitor’s fears seem to reflect more than mere paranoia. Here, Italy shares the top spot on the table with Portugal, arriving at a sad statistic of almost three times as many fatalities as Germany, and over six times as many as the UK.

It is nevertheless surprising – when considering the reputation of Italy’s roads and drivers – that the country’s road fatality numbers are not off the charts in each and every statistic. My personal view is that italians prevent many of the potential disasters on the road by generally being, if not courteous, at least highly skilled drivers. Your attempt to get cars to stop for you if you are waiting to cross the street is likely to fail, but if you take the matter into your own hands, and confidently cross the street while making eye-contact with the approaching drivers, they will avoid you, allowing for your safe crossing to the other side. Because italian drivers need to be alert at all times to random objects appearing out of nowhere – predominantly motorcycles and pedestrians – their skillful dodging while maintaining a healthy speed is even more impressive than their ability to create a parking spot in the most unlikely space.

To be safe on an italian road, then, the visitor must not only look both ways, but also keep up with the italian speed and attitude. Thrilling only if one belongs to that obscure number of adrenaline-junkies.

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