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Monday, May 27, 2002
Italy: Driving as a popular contact sport

By Ward Sanderson, Stars and Stripes
Stripes European Travel, Thursday, May 16, 2002

Ward Sanderson / S&S
When trying to make a turn, a common strategy of the southern Italian driver is the mole maneuver: nose blindly shoved into the muck, all scurrying insects best make way.

Joe Gromelski / S&S
As if other drivers weren't enough of a problem in Italy, there are other obstacles to be on the alert for -- like these cows wandering on a mountain road late at night.

Driving in Italy can mean great roadside wonder.

It can mean hugging the cliffs as you corkscrew round the wedding-cake tiers of the Amalfi Coast, the sea placid and blue below; seeing the cool Renaissance green of the Tuscan countryside drift past windows; marveling at the might and jut of the Alps as you gain on Switzerland.

Italian driving can also mean madness.

The postcard dignity of Italy vanishes during rush hour, particularly in the south. For every Ferrari, you come across millions of dented, one-headlighted, Road-Warrior wrecks. The more dents, the more care you should exercise when encountering a car and its driver ó because that guy has nothing to lose, and heís been there before.

Italian driving is a contact sport. Often traffic lights are only suggestions.

Letís start with the scooter.

Scooter pilots know a secret those of us anchored by four wheels do not. Roads are not linear. When traffic stops, the liberated Vespa can not only still pass, it can do so between lanes or by buzzing laterally between bumpers. This results in body fractures and the loss of sideview mirrors, but keeps things rolling.

There are some stunts a Vespa cannot perform that a Fiat can. Fiats can execute the mole maneuver. A driver wants into the next lane. There is no blinker to indicate this. Instead the driver drifts into your lane, and then into you, assuming that once pressure is applied you will surely surrender your spot. The mole noses into the muck and the insects scatter.

The mole maneuver is akin to the get-the-heck-outta-my way method, employed when a driver doesnít want to pass you, but instead wants your car to sprout helicopter rotors and fly. You recognize this tactic when your rearview mirror reflects only the image of a growling grille, just inches from your suction-cup Garfield. You are driving 90 mph.

There is also a stratagem called the super-speed-diagonal zip. This is used when cars enter a highway. Basically a car will be in the entrance lane but its driver desires the fast lane. Instead of gradually merging, the driver simply plots a diagonal course and punches it. Again, no blinker. Mathematically, itís very efficient.

Italian highways have two speeds: Slow and Turbo. The angst of Slow mode creeps up during commute time. Itís not due to the amount of traffic per se, but because the traffic is interacting with toll booths and drivers attempting and failing at the super-speed-diagonal zip, then resorting to the mole maneuver.

The resulting anarchy turns the three lanes into six. One evening before a Naples soccer game, cars were so backed up that scalpers stood right in the middle of the highway, waving their wares unafraid.

Turbo time is another thing altogether. That happens during the wee morning hours, usually after youíve breathed a sigh of relief because there are no other cars around. When you do encounter another driver, however, he will be so overjoyed with all this free space that he must occupy as much of it as possible. Heíll swerve from lane-to-lane at 100 mph or more, nearly clipping you and rocking you in his air wake, as he executes a flawless super-speed-diagonal zip.

If you try Turbo yourself, beware of the reverse gravitational curve. The reverse gravitational curve comes into play when your car meets a turn that is banked the wrong way. Instead of being banked in a way that uses G-force to adhere you to the road, it is banked in a way that will flip you over. I once asked a cop about this. He shrugged: "Drainage." Curves are banked in whatever direction will send rainwater to the sea.

There is also a polar opposite of the speedy zipper. The ambler. The ambler, well, ambles at approximately 15 mph while gesturing and yelling at children, a spouse or a mobile phone. Often ambling is accompanied by gawking, typically at roadside wreckage. An ambler is also very likely a straddler, one who prefers to drive atop lane lines rather than inside them.

This probably all sounds terrible. It is.

But some foreigners master the art, going bananas like everyone else.

I remember riding in a friendís rusting Alfa Romeo hatchback during Slow mode. Weíre making a go at the mole maneuver but having no luck. So this guy, Chad, honks the horn. Suddenly thereís a symphony, tubas from the trucks and clarinets from the Citroens. Everyone, but everyone, now honks along.

I look at Chad. He is beating on the horn, grinning with evil glee. Why? I wonder. Why did you start all this honking when none of us can move anyway?

"You gotta get in the game, man," Chad says. "You gotta get in the game."

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