I tend to praise the behavior of American drivers while I am in Italy, and yet I am amazed at how badly some people drive when I am in the United States. Greener grass I suppose.
“Mixed Signals” mixed media on paper, 2000
Driving in Italy is interesting. I mourn the way it used to be before the European Union began tightening its iron fist of bureaucratic restrictions in all areas, but especially regarding the roads. Back in the good old days it was every man for himself, which, if you were young and agile with excellent reflexes, was a magical world for drivers. Old people in small three-wheeled vehicles that require no license were above the rules, and the rest of us were well-aware that the hares needed to avoid the erratic and oblivious turtles. Lights flashed, horns blared and fingers were displayed, two-lane roads magically morphed into six-laners. If you needed to be somewhere in a hurry, you could press the accelerator to the floor and hurtle along at breathtaking speeds. At 110 miles an hour you could be there in half the time! It was fabulous.
Now, things have changed. Speeds have been reduced as technology has been developed to monitor behavior. Since the introduction of scale-able points on drivers’ licenses, all the fun is over. The highways are no longer raceways, and everyone inches along at or below the designated speed of 130 kilometers an hour, about 80 MPH, wary of the “Tutor” system of monitoring all drivers’ speeds between two random points. You never know where this monitoring starts or where it ends, and amusingly folks who don’t understand how it works will hit the brakes as they pass under the highway-wide signs announcing that their passage in fact is being spied upon and recorded. Small towns have discovered the Midas-like potential of speed cameras for producing revenue. You will never know until months later, when a crisp picture of your car and you shows up in the mail with a hefty fine. The speed limits on secondary roads are often ludicrously slow: warning signs will suggest slowing to speeds which will get you killed if you observe them, and drivers learn quickly that they travel at these speeds at their own peril. Of course the overall effect is that occasionally there is a warning sign which should actually be heeded, and accidents will inevitably occur. Curves are rarely banked, which is incredibly dangerous, and is in fact my number-one pet peeve. Just look for the flowers at the side of the road telling you that the curve is deadly. Other curves, such as highway access ramps, often will be inconsistently-shaped and morph from a large and comfortable cloverleaf to a hairpin suddenly and without warning. Most roads are totally flat, so if it rains, you can count on them being covered with inches of water in no time at all.
The best place to practice your driving in Italy is the supermarket. Get yourself a cart on a busy day before lunchtime and learn to maneuver the aisles. People will not make way for you. They will stop and block everyone else for no reason. They will leave their cart parked in the center of the aisle and wander off to chat. They will veer off suddenly at drastic angles and back up without looking. They will play a subtle game of chicken, poker-faced, as carts pass and nick each other’s wheels. And yet…the ballet of people and objects is wonderful to behold. No one gets angry, the flow is constant and everyone ends up in a formation similar to a line at checkout. This is how we drive here.
I have to thank my long-time friend Ann for her metaphor about driving in Italy; that it is amoeba-like, a constantly changing formation which adapts to itself and flows over the road. Each driver takes into account all other drivers, everyone is constantly vigilant and prepared for unexpected movement. Lanes are only suggestions. I think of American roads, with everyone gripping the wheel and blithely staying within the lines of their lane, confident that if they adhere to the rules all will be well. Wouldn’t it be better, on the highway for example, that if someone needed to move out of the first lane into the second, that you should anticipate and move into the third? I am convinced that an accident, even if caused by “the other guy,” is everyone’s fault. If the final goal is to avoid contact with another vehicle, then why wouldn’t this be the case?
I will admit that I am always ready to criticize the fast cars which pass me with two wheels in my lane, and yet I understand not to take this personally. Almost everyone here will drive on the center white line if there are no other cars near, and often even if there are. And I do hate it when I come around a curve and find one lane blocked by a clot of stopped cars, a group of daytrippers munching on sandwiches, conferring with each other and smoking. And my favorite annoyance, someone out for a drive on a narrow road, scrawny elbow out the window—the glass rolled halfway up to avoid drafts—crawling along at fifteen miles an hour. It might appear that they have never noticed their rear-view mirror, but I can assure you that they not only know that there is someone behind them, but they are enjoying this small moment of megalomania. I have known people to hang a white cloth out the window of their car, a universal sign that someone is on their way to the emergency room, in order to bypass slow traffic.
So my theory about driving is as follows: If everyone is constantly vigilant, there will be fewer problems on the roads, wherever you find yourself driving. If you know that there may be unexpected occurrences ahead, you will be better- prepared when they happen. Yes, that is a goat up ahead. No, I don’t believe that group of people standing in the road are planning on moving out of the way. Isn’t that guy in the three-wheeler going the wrong way? If everyone followed the rules and stayed within their designated lines, oblivious of the organic nature of traffic flow, wouldn’t their smug complacency eventually lead to more rather than fewer accidents?
“Navigate” oil on canvas, 2008