The Roman Traffic Scooter Safety Paradox,

or, why I'd rather scoot in Rome.

February 2006

A funny thing happened on the way to the forum: I realized that despite the aggressive driving of  Romans, one is probably safer on a scooter here than, say, Boston, Massachusetts, a city where I have spent time a lot of time on two wheels (and on three,  on four, and so forth).  Given the worldwide reputation Romans have for their driving, this may come as a surprise. However, as I have been "collecting data" on 50cc "twist-and-go" Honda and a 125cc Vespa in and around Rome, day and night, rush hour and weekend, holiday and workday, I have become convinced. Here's why.

First, familiarity. There seems to be almost a scooter for each car in the heart of Rome.  In my own native Boston, even on the most perfect of two-wheeling days cars vastly outnumber motorcycles, and, of course, scooters are all but absent. Thus, Roman drivers are used to having scoots around them. Lots of scoots. Lots and lots. Ahead, behind, and slipping by right beside, so close that handlebar-to-side-mirror contact is frequent.

Speaking of slipping by: perhaps because of the competitive nature of Americans, we don’t seem to like two-wheelers “getting ahead” in traffic. (It’s scary, in fact. Just last month yet another radio station, Live 105 in San Francisco, got in trouble for comments promoting assaults on two-wheelers in traffic. That’s the second such incident in three years that I know of, the other by Clear Channel in September, 2003.) On the other hand, whether Italian car drivers are pleased to see two-wheeling brothers and sisters passing them or they are just resigned to it, lane-splitting is expected in Rome whether traffic is moving or not. And at traffic lights, the rule is that the two-wheelers wiggle and twist their way to the front of the mass to wait for the green light rather than stay put amongst the cars and trucks.

Second, attention. There are a lot of vehicles and a scarcity of pavement. The scarcity is partly because roads intended for foot, cart, and chariot, built by the Romans 2000 years ago, are still in use as car, bus, and truck thoroughfares. (For example, I ride on the Appian Way to get to a monthly scooter meeting. The very same Appian Way where St. Peter, as he fled Nero's Rome, is supposed to have seen a vision of Christ, where he is supposed to have asked Christ, "Domine, quo vadis?" and then been martyred, etc. That was 64 AD. Old road, and typical... "all roads lead to Rome," after all.)

Roman traffic is horrible, and the only way it works is because Romans seem to have evolved this primary rule: "Keep it moving!" No holes are left open, no time wasted at the change of a light, etc. And that means Roman drivers are, perforce, attentive; they have either to get moving or to get bumped or honked at because every other vehicle expected them to get moving. They are not the stupefied SUV drivers with carlengths (SUV-lengths?) ahead and behind that fill American roadways. They don't have, and never have had, an expectation of "personal space" around their cars. Not by other cars, and certainly not by scooters and motorcycles.

And what about "road rage"? If you heard some of the eloquence on the topic on Car Talk at the end of '05, you know that Italians do not take being cut off personally at all. In fact, being cut off isn't really a familiar concept... if someone went in front of you, it was because you didn't get moving fast enough yourself. Fair play. Indeed, I see that drivers get honked at for *not* going in Rome, as opposed to getting honked at for *having gone.* Yes, you can get honked at for surprising another driver, but the honk is the rebuttal, and that ends it.

It's interesting to note that the attentiveness of Roman drivers is, by and large, undiminished by cellphone use. While American researchers are comparing phoning and driving impairment to drinking and driving, Italians, with world-leading utilization of mobile phones (according to the ITU) manage to spend a lot of time on the phone in their world-famous traffic. At least it goes unreported in the media. (I include in that category talking while driving two-wheelers. A common practice is to shove the handset in between the ear and the foam helmet lining for a cheap and simple "hands-free" configuration.)

I seem to have wandered off the point a little... back to it: Third, loved ones. Every driver of every car, truck, bus, or Ape (the venerable and utilitarian three-wheeler by the makers of the Vespa) has any number of children, parents, grandparents, grandchildren, spouses, love interests, soccer teammates or other friends, on scoots. And they themselves are on two wheels part of the time, too. They *care* about the well-being of their two-wheeling intimates.

This is not to say you don't have to be careful. The roads are patchy, construction sites appear and disappear like clouds, pedestrians are as go-go-go as drivers, and sometimes other scooters will be competing for the same square meter of pavement as you, and so on. Nonetheless, compared to the relative lack of familiarity, the obliviousness, and even occasional outright hostility toward two-wheelers by American drivers, this is a relatively good environment for scooting.

© Max Hall, 2006.                                    Back to main page.