Yet there’s some order to the apparent anarchy – at least on motorways, and provided you’ve got the aggression required to fit in.
Trucks and slower drivers keep to the outside lanes. Undertaking is frowned on. Speeding is almost universal; if you follow the motorway’s usually 130kph speed limit you will create a rolling traffic jam. And a frightening one, because Italians have tailgating down to a fine art.
But the tailgater is sending a message; I seriously want to get past, move over. And cars do – provided you’re close enough. Follow the half-second rule and clearly you’re dithering. Sit close enough to count the driver’s dandruff and he’ll clear out the way.
Speeding tickets? Yes, there are cameras – each topped by a picture of a policeman. And yes, you can be stopped for speeding, though if you’re in a Ferrari or Maserati you’re more likely to be waved on.
As for round town, the degree of mayhem depends on where you are. The further south you go, the greater the apparent chaos.
The only way to make much progress through Rome is to drive where you want to and damn the consequences. Need to turn left but not sure if the oncoming traffic has a red or green? Rocket out regardless. Herringbone traffic jams are common when traffic ignores lights, and at one crossing I saw a policeman trying to create order but completely blocked in himself by cars which drove right past his restraining hand.
The rules we’re used to just don’t seem to apply, which can get you into trouble. One journalist who stopped a Ferrari press car for a pedestrian crossing was rear-ended, the driver that caused the smash saying it was his fault for stopping the Ferrari “without warning at a red light”.
Driving half a million dollars-worth of car through Rome’s mayhem can be frightening, especially when you see the amount of almost universal panel damage. Much of it’s caused at slow speeds, by parking (touch-parking is common) or by the narrow width of the alleys – leaving our hotel the rental car touched a vehicle each side. Could have been worse, both parked cars’ mirrors had already broken off so they were narrower than designed to be…
So, what’s the fatality rate like, then? Better than NZ’s according to the figures I found. In 2008 Italy had 81 road deaths per million population – NZ had 85. Like us, Italy is trying to cut its figure. It’s considering breath testing at nightclubs, and changing the speed limit. Unlike us, the limit may actually rise.
For Italy is experimenting with 150kph on some motorways, with the aim of increasing it from 130 this year. Transport Minister Pietro Lunardi says higher speeds improve traffic flow and help people pay attention; he says only nine per cent of the country’s crashes are caused by speed.
Not everyone agrees with this strategy and even the church is getting in on the debate, with a conference of European bishops last year putting together 10 commandments for road users including, “Thou shalt not kill, even at the steering wheel”.
Read previous Girl TORQUE columns here.