Reflections on Italy: Driving

by Berck

Don’t believe anyone who says the Italians are bad drivers– they aren’t. In fact, they’re excellent drivers. They sit upright in their seats, they pay attention to their surroundings and are prepared for whatever the road might throw at them. They are active, not reactive drivers. Americans who say Italians drive poorly certainly shouldn’t be driving in Italy, and probably shouldn’t be driving anywhere. Now, the Italians certainly take risks, but they are generally calculated risks. When many of the streets are so narrow that a car and a truck cannot pass without carefully planned maneuvering, merely driving anywhere at all is something of a risk. Italians do not leave 500 feet of space in front of them, but they generally do leave enough space so that they can react as necessary. US drivers manuals are written with the idea that, “What if the car in front of you suddenly comes to a stop?” Instead, one should think about the realm of possibilities. If the car in front of you is similar, then they will not be able to stop so that you cannot stop behind them– you merely need to leave enough space for reaction time. But as long as you’re driving actively and the other drivers are reasonably predictable (they are in Italy), then there’s no need to waste space. And in a lot of ways– that’s it, things work in a predictable fashion. Unfortunately for me, it takes some time to get the hang of what’s predictable around here.

For instance, roundabouts with multiple entrance and exit lanes can be a bit confusing. If there are the same number of entrance and exit lanes, it’s not too much of an issue to enter from the left lane and exit from the left lane. But if you enter from the left lane and there’s only one exit lane (common), you’ll have to find space to merge in order to exit. Roundabouts took me some time to get used to, especially considering the constant flow of traffic. Entering and exiting a circle could take less than 10 seconds, even in a large one. In that time, it’s critical to know who has the right of way and who doesn’t. If you fly into a circle and you didn’t have a clear path (traffic in the circle has the right of way), you’ll clearly cause an accident (or at the very least get honked at). If you stop before entering a circle, you’ve lost precious momentum needed to get your 0.4 litre 60hp vehicle moving again and you’ll need a huge gap to enter, not to mention you’ve just missed the purpose of a roundabout. What’s hard to remember with all the fuss is that the only thing that matters is what’s to your left. Nothing on the right side matters unless you got in the wrong lane to begin with. You can’t take the first exit from the left lane, and you can’t take the second exit from from the left lane unless there’s two exits. Signaling would be immensely useful on a roundabout, and the Brits, for instance, are very good about it. Unfortunately, the Italians almost never signal on a roundabout, and when they do, it’s in a totally useless and/or incoherent manner. This is perhaps my biggest complaint, but I think it only bothers me because I haven’t learned to judge as easily by the line someone’s taking through the circle which exit they’re going to take, something that takes practice.

Driving slowly is rare, but generally acceptable as long as you make it as easy as possible for someone to pass you. In my 1,500km of driving here, I never saw someone in the left lane on a multi-lane road unless they were passing someone– it simply isn’t done. If you’re not passing, you get back over into the left lane. The autostrada seems to readily accommodate speeds from 35mph all the way up to 150mph or faster with little difficulty because people stay right. If someone behind them wants to go faster, they wait until the faster car passes before pulling out to pass. They’ll also pass with a reasonable speed differential– none of this passing someone doing 75mph at 76mph.

Lane usage takes all sorts of getting used to. In general, roads only have a center stripe if there’s enough room to ensure that the road is wide enough for two large vehicles to pass, which isn’t terribly often. The rest of the time, there’s no center stripe, which doesn’t mean that the road is one-way, it means that you can’t relax and be prepared to stop in case there’s not room to pass an oncoming vehicle, even though you may both be doing 60mph. There’s always time to stop assuming you take reasonable care, and you obviously slow down while making 90 degree turns around buildings.

Are they crazy? They are aggressive and will pass given the slightest opportunity. If you hesitate or leave too much space in front of you, expect to be passed. They generally won’t pass around a blind corner, but they will certainly pass at times that do incur a bit of risk which generally managed.

But then there’s the folks on the two-wheel motorized vehicles. The fast motorcyclists do, mostly, appear to be insane, lack good sense, or simply have no fear. On larger roads, they drive down the centerline, and some smaller ones they pass without an inch to spare in any direction. I never followed a two-wheeled vehicle, they are always off to one side or another, fitting in the spaces between the cars like some sort of puzzle.

I did, eventually, nearly take one out. I’d been driving around the town for a couple of hours, was tired, and desperately trying to find our hostel. I was on an empty road and decided to turn left somewhat spur of the moment. There was no one behind me as I braked and turned left. No one behind me because the motorcycle had just started to pass me, and as I turned left I brushed his rear wheel, which caused him to wobble a bit. He never stopped, just turned around and looked at me, and just kept on going. It was certainly my fault, and I’m glad that he wasn’t injured. I’m not sure why I never saw him approach behind me, and unfortunately the bike was way too quiet.

My only other incident while driving was just slightly scraping a hubcap along a wall while trying to hug the outside of a turn so as not to hit a motorcycle between me and oncoming traffic. All things considered, I can’t believe I didn’t scrape up the car any more. I was glad to have gotten the more expensive no-deductible insurance and would recommend that anyone else driving in Europe for the first time do so as well– we’re just not used to driving with this sort of proximity to other vehicles, walls, hedges, buildings…

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