Saturday, October 24, 2009

Attacked by swarming bees, killer Pandas and other traffical wild life

Just back from a fabulous road trip across Italy- this time from Rome to Salento - I feel like sharing some firsthand observations from Italian roads and motorways.

Seen through the Scandinavian eyes, Italians drive in a slightly unorthodox way, but if you know their habits, they are not really dangerous, and they are not nearly as aggressive as North European drivers. I have never seen Italian drivers use the middle finger or get into road rage, because of the rotten driving of others.

On the contrary, they are reasonably magnanimous with a tolerance bordering apathy, when it comes to alternative ways of driving. They use the horn only as a warning in hairpin turns, where the use of horn is compulsory. When they are waiting at a traffic light and the first car in the row has not seen the change from red to green. Or when they are greeting friends or celebrating important events like a football victory. Hoots are rarely hostile, and they are never used as a lesson to other takes offence. The Italians leave policing to the police.

One of the first things you notice, when you get behind the wheel in Italy, is the other drivers’ tendency to keep close. Italians have a social disposition. They like to lie close to each other on the beach, big families live together in small apartments, they go on holiday in large groups, and they feel no particular need to keep their distance when driving. If there is free space, there is room for another vehicle, regardless of the need for safety margins and braking distances. This always leaves me breathless for the first couple of hours after entering Italy, but you get used to it by and by.

The bumper to bumper urge also manifests itself in a nasty habit of switching lanes without using signal lights, rearview mirror or sideway glances. In Italy people focus on what lies ahead, so if you see a car that might have an interest in making a sudden maneuver in front of you, you might as well keep your foot on the brake or warn him with the horn or the light before it is too late. Similarly, you don’t have to worry too much about what behind you, for they are probably already busy trying to read your mind.

The advantage a forward looking traffic culture is that it is easy to make way. The zipper rule is used relentlessly, and as long as you take turns, other drivers are almost always willing to let you in. It is an effective form of organised chaos. As long as you remember to show some initiative. No one will pause to wave you forward from a by-road, unless push a little. After all, you might just want to stay there, which also explains why drivers from behind will try to pass a slow driver from both sides.

Mind reading does not work in all situations, when driving in Italy. Sometimes cars change speed or slow down for no apparent reason. Mostly this is due to multitasking, when the driver is texting a message or making a phone call. This kind of behavior is virtually impossible to predict, yet there are signs. This summer I was chocked to see car blocking the brakes, whenever they encountered a sign saying 'Controllo elettronico della velocita'. These warning have been there for years without anybody paying attention, but now they are quite often followed by a police officer with a speed camera or a light blue box that may or may not contain the same equipment. This can really clog up motorway traffic.

Other showstoppers include ‘swarming bees and killer-Pandas’'. Slow vehicles as the Piaggio Ape work bee that is incredibly popular in Southern Italy and the small Fiat Panda with a maximum speed of 100 km/h, if it is going downhill with the wind. These vehicles sometimes can be seen on the autostrada, where there is a minimum speed of 50 km/h in the middle lane and 70 km/h in the fast lane. In the right hand lane there is basically ‘free’ slow speed.

No self-respecting Italian will, however, be seen in the inner lane among trucks and lorries. Teeny weeny city cars are crawling along in the middle lane forcing other cars into the fast lane, where there is a risk of getting run down by a 200 km/h BMW.

Still the BMW knows he must pay attention to all traffic in front of him, so do not do anything hazardous, even if he flashes his lights hysterically.

With these guidelines I get by, and the only time I find driving in Italy really uncomfortable is Sunday afternoon after the traditional family dinners, when you know a lot of the other drivers have enjoyed their wine and ‘amaro’. For Italians the drinking and driving ‘ubriachi’ is always someone else, and I have never seen them refrain from driving, because they have had a couple of glasses of wine.

For a current status of motorway traffic in Italy check the Autostrade homepage. There are webcams, weather forecasts and route planner, as well as an - for Italian web-sites - excellent version in English.

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