by Roderick Conway Morris

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Where All Roads Lead to Confusion

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 9 April 1993
New York Times
Traffic Policeman on the pedestal in Piazza Venezia, Rome



Italy's traffic regulations go back at least as far as Julius Caesar's 'Lex viaria. 'On Jan. 1, the latest update, 33 years in the making, came into force. The New Highway Code was intended to rationalize and streamline earlier regulations, but instead has become a subject of heated debate and national confusion.

Just going to a bookshop in search of a copy of Nuovo Codice della Strada will alert you to what lies ahead - you are confronted with a vast pile of different versions of the code, accompanied by large legal tomes of commentary and interpretation.

Some provisions are straightforward enough.Speed limits have been set at 130 kilometers per hour (80 miles per hour) on autostradas, 110 on main roads, 90 on secondary roads and 50 in towns. It is worth studying the small print to discover that you can now be fined for speeding on the basis of the time printed on your ticket from the autostrada tollgate. On the other hand, you will get a substantial discount on any traffic fine if you pay up within 60 days.

From the end of the year, fines for not wearing seat belts will be quadrupled, on autostradas doubled. Child seats for under-4s will be compulsory, and under-12s will be allowed to travel in the front seat only with a special child seat belt. No more than three cats or dogs can be transported at a time. Only hearses may be drawn by more than four horses.

From July, motorcycles and scooters willhave to have license plates - thus ending the anonymity so treasured by motorized bag-snatchers. Fines for minors not wearing crash helmets have, inexplicably, been reduced.

A dozen new regulations are aimed at pedestrians. Skateboards and rollerskates are forbidden on sidewalks. Groups of pedestrians blocking other foot traffic may be fined. Jaywalking, Rome's most popular dangerous sport, is outlawed - though one can only hope that basically law-abiding citizens who leap into the road to avoid speeding scooters on the sidewalk will be treated leniently. Kissing, cuddling and more ambitious acts of intimacy in moving vehicles are prohibited. Hand-held mobile phones are also forbidden at the wheel.

Regrettably, the code announces the phasing out of Italy's distinctive license-plate prefixes: MI (Milano), NA (Napoli), TO (Torino) etc., and 'Roma' (the only city spelled out in full). Thus will be lost not only an invaluable means of amusing children on long journeys, but also an indispensable, at-a-glance means of confirming one's prejudices about Italian regional characteristics.

Roberto Ciampicacigli, the director of the research institute Censis Servizi, which does a yearly study of the attitudes and behavior of Italian motorists, is watching the results of the new code with particular interest.

Greater controls and fines, Ciampicacigli said, certainly improve drivers' behavior, but the Italians' bad driving habits are slow to change. 'Last year 84 percent of our sample admitted exceeding speed limits,' he said. 'As for seat belts, which have been obligatory for several years, 85 percent said they never use them.'

It has also emerged from Ciampicacigli's research that Italian women drivers, traditionally much safer and more considerate than the men, are now 'adopting a more male attitude to driving - the implications of which are entirely negative.'

Censis's latest surveys have revealed that safety features have overtaken cost as the most important consideration when Italians buy a car. 'But even this,' said Ciampicacigli, 'is not necessarily a positive trend, because many drivers, rather than driving well, think they can delegate that responsibility to technology - and still survive if they do get into an accident.'

A number of aspects of the new code, Ciampicacigli said, will have to be clarified or modified. 'And, probably like most people, I'm afraid I have become more aware of its anomalies than its general content.'

This is certainly the view of the EC Commission in Brussels - to which the code was not submitted in advance and which is now citing 21 articles considered incompatible with Europe-wide legislation.

By now popularly regarded as 'il solito pasticcio all'italiana' (the usual Italian muddle), the new code has, however, achieved at least one notable success.

When a traffic patrol near Lecce in Italy's deep south saw a motoristtoss a piece of paper out of his window - a specific offense under the new code, carrying a fine of up to 300,000 lire (about $190) - they set off in hot pursuit.The litterbug's car, driven by an off-duty postman, turned out to be stuffed with stolen mail bags.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023