Driving the Italian Way!
Okay, let’s get some stuff straight before we start:
First, Italians are not crazy drivers, any more than any other nation. They’re just misunderstood. The national psyche is set to “Appassionato”. Italians are animated people, so when you share the road with them, things can seem a little crazy.
Second, they drive fast, some of them, okay, most of them; but for the most part, they know what they’re doing.
Third, your nerves are shot to hell for the first few months of driving here, not because Italians are out to kill you, but because you think they are. Italians are well used to dealing with foreign drivers on their roads and they hardly ever kill them.
Fourth, they use the whole road and are often found:
- Straddling the centre line, until a car comes the other way.
- Right up your exhaust pipe.
That said, my Italian driving experience has been confined to the villages and small towns of Lazio and Umbria. I know very little about driving in places like Rome or Florence, so while my perspective is limited, I have evolved as a road-user, for better and for worse.
Another thing I’ve noticed is the lack of aggression. I’ve seen mild frustration and once or twice, hand signals calling into question the parentage of another road user, but I have never seen anger or anything approaching road rage.
Near Death Experience, Italian Style.
In Italy, the whole road is up for grabs when there is no oncoming traffic. In Lazio, I came to the conclusion that we (I do it as well, now) drive in the middle of the road because the place where you’re supposed to drive is usually in pretty bad condition.
The smoothest ride is off the beaten track. You can’t err to the right because the verge might vanish and you’ll fall into the abyss. So, you tend towards the middle, your left-hand wheels on or over the centre line, your right-hand wheels on the smooth track between the crevasses and potholes where the road surface has failed from over-use.
This is a happy place; until someone comes the other way, doing the same thing.
Italy is a mountainous country. The roads are winding, twisted affairs. Blind corners, blind rises and hairpin bends abound.
Ergo: On average, you have 0.25 seconds to get back to your side of the road. But that’s okay. There are two of you in the mix, so that’s a total of 0.5 seconds. Neither party was fully on the wrong side of the road in the first place, so, Eh! Molto tempo.
After a few months of this, you and your passengers become used to it. Your adrenal systems evolve; you no longer freak out at the near misses. The point is, you missed or were missed, you’re alive; move on to the next thing – which might be a thirty-two wheeler and a hairpin bend.
Missing Cars, Avoiding Buildings
In Italy, dodging other road users is one thing; missing buildings is another required skill.
Along any otherwise normal road, you’re likely to be suddenly presented with a building, or a culvert, or a random piece of masonry lurking mere centimetres from the edge of the road.
This is probably common throughout Europe, but drivers hailing from newer countries – like anywhere else in the world – are likely to be startled by how close seemingly immovable structures are to the edge of the road.
It’s a Heritage Thing
What is now the rural road network was tramped into existence down the centuries by people and their animals going to and from towns, villages and farms. Modern roads have simply been squeezed into the same pattern. What used to be plenty of space for two people on foot is now plenty of space for traffic. Cars are a recent addition; just the latest tick of the clock, really.
A great spot for a house or barn centuries ago is now a hair’s breadth from passing traffic.
Potential hazards are sometimes marked with an arrow suggesting you stay on the road, but often, they aren’t.
While these obstacles are usually easy enough to miss, Sod’s Law says there’ll be plenty of space when you don’t need it and a building in the way when you need to duck a speeding delivery van.
Watching the World go by
In the villages, houses were built to the edge of the road, their front steps walk out into the traffic and the road narrows by a metre or more. In my first few months of driving in Italy, I subconsciously expected to see vehicle strike marks all over the place.
I can still remember the day it dawned on me that there were no signs of car paint on any of the steps I had driven by. Of course that sparked an era of obsessive step watching which led nowhere.
Benches to chill on are another hazard to be accommodated by the unwary foreigner. Italians love to chill out, especially of a long, hot summer evening. Benches are scattered around the place without any apparent planning. They’re just there, where you were hoping to drive. When the less strategically placed of them are occupied, you have to be really careful not to trim any toes or clip a kneecap or two.
How to Avoid Being Shafted
Tailgating is a national sport. Speed isn’t a factor, so whether you are moving at 10 KPH in a parking lot or 120 KPH on a freeway, you can expect to be tailgated.
To the newbie foreigner on Italy’s roads, this feels like hell. All the “What if…” scenarios race through your brain and you start obsessing about what’s in your rear-view mirror.
I was put out of my misery by this little gem of Italian motoring wisdom: “In front of you is your problem. Behind you is not your problem.”
As Essential as Espresso
Driving in Italy is a total rush; when you get used to it. It’s as vital to the Italian experience as having an espresso in Rome.
While I’ve become a “middle of the road” kinda guy, I’m well able to leave tailgating to my fellow road users.
What is not apparent from being on the road here is how rigorous the Italian driving tests are, but that is a story for another post. It will be worth the read!