Monday, May 2, 2011

Roadside Hazards

The other day my wife signed for a heavy piece of registered mail addressed to me from the Municipal Police of Todi.  Opening it with some trepidation, I discovered that three months earlier, a speed measuring device (Velox) had clocked and photographed me going 74 km/h (considered 69 km/h with the benefit of the doubt discount) in a 50km/h zone right in front of Tuder Green, a gardening shop in Ponterio we’ve frequented since it opened about three decades ago.  Although someone did tell me about this speed trap, the warning apparently came too late.

In the ten years since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the world has been taken over by an obsessive need for a sense of safety and security, no matter at what cost.  Thus, we now need to strip off half our clothes at airports and surrender our rights regarding illegal searches and seizures.  The other noteworthy event of the past decade was the economic collapse, often referred to as “the great recession”, which has also spread from the US to the rest of the world.  Just which of these two phenomena is responsible for the recent speed control craze isn’t clear.  It may be both, but from the size of the fine (€177) and the number of these machines cropping up, it looks like some municipal authorities think they’ve discovered a foolproof way to overcome the budget crisis.  As wonderful a place as Italy is, it isn’t perfect.  A certain percentage of Italians still suffer from that post WW II syndrome “if the Americans do it, we have to do it too”, a malady that has led to the widespread diffusion of problems such as heroin addition, obesity, urban sprawl, SUVs and now, a drivers license points system.

In fairness to the Italian police, I must point out that, unlike their American counterparts who seem to take pleasure in trapping unsuspecting motorists from hidden outposts, our defenders of public safety put warning signs and flashing lights on the speed traps.  The idea seems to be to make you slow down rather than to cull the quicker drivers from the herd.

If you live in Italy or you’re thinking of visiting and driving here, there are a few things you should know about Italian speed limits.  They’re never posted; they’re seldom enforced (until now), and they are mostly unrelated to the reality of either the road conditions or the actual speeds at which people drive.  There are four basic speed limits in Italy: 130 km/h on the autostrade, 110 on the superstrade, i.e. limited access four lane highways, 90 on country roads and 50 in towns and cities.  Virtually none of these are ever indicated by signs, with the exception of the 50 km/h limit in towns.  You’re supposed to know them.  However, there are many little round signs with limits that take precedence over the standard limits for certain tracts.  I’ve always assumed them to be friendly warnings, applicable as if written in miles, not kilometers per hour.  If you’re on a country road and a sign indicates curves ahead with a “50” sign, a reasonable interpretation is that a safe speed on the curve will be 50 mph rather than the 31.25 mph that the law actually requires.  Until now, this has worked out just fine, but there is one area of occasional conflict.  As noted, the speed limit on country roads is 90.  Italy is a densely populated country and there are few roads along which no houses are built.  Indeed, most country roads are built on what were originally paths that connected isolated houses.

Last week, in returning home from Perugia, my ultra conservative wife suggested, as usual, that instead of taking the superstrada E45, we take the country road along the crest of the hills through Marsciano.  She despises fast roads, along with airplanes, trains and virtually any mode of transport faster than walking.  Once again, I acquiesced to her request since the back road, while slower, is scenic and more pleasant.  Just off this country road, new residential compounds have been littering up the countryside and it seems the local authorities have decided that this entire thirty-kilometer stretch now consists of towns.  Velox machines have sprouted up faster than mushrooms or wild asparagus this spring.  We counted about ten or twelve of them in this stretch.  The road hasn’t changed.  It’s still a country road with a few houses along it, but it’s now one long speed trap, virtually unusable to go anywhere.  Even my speed-hating wife kept exclaiming, “This is sick!”

Although we noted several years ago that western Lazio is longer safe to drive through, the first sign of this ominous trend appeared in Umbria around the start of the year when one of these Velox machines was conspicuously placed a few hundred meters before a long smooth curve just below Ilci, about eight km north of Todi on E45.  The speed limit on the road is 110 and traffic normally moves along at an average of 120.  The curve sweeps through a change of direction of about 90 degrees and, judging from the number of lights, signs and reflectors lining it, one can suppose that a few people have gone off the road here over the years.  Nevertheless, the curve is easily and safely negotiable at 120 km/h by any vehicle capable of passing the required motor vehicle inspection.  The curve has been assigned a 90 km/h limit.  We now have the spectacle of drivers on the straight stretch of road before the curve jamming on their brakes when they see the device ahead and provoking panic stops by out-of-town drivers unaware of the trap.  How long before the first massive multi-vehicle pile-up?

While many of my peers have taken up golf, I’ve always considered driving as my preferred sport.  It doesn’t burn many calories but then, riding around in a golf cart doesn’t either, and both activities give one the opportunity to develop eye/hand coordination while viewing the better scenery that is out there.  Over the years, my cars have mostly been modest family sedans but in the mix there were two Porsches and a Mini DeTommaso, which provided some of the most joyful moments of my life.  Although it has yet to attain the status of golfers’ paradise, for a century Italy has been the world’s Mecca to people who love to drive.  I realize that some of you will dispute that, but the joy of driving isn’t about rules, cruise control, tranquility or safety.

My ninety-seven year old step-mother has taught me that with time one must renounce certain habits and pleasures and just accept life for what it still offers.  She’s given up Caribbean cruises as too fatiguing, although she did relapse for one final cruise, and recently she’s accepted her doctor’s advice to renounce her daily mood enhancing afternoon martini.  Ironically, she still drives.  

Others have urged me to seek the positive side of things, and while this goes against my genetic make-up, I will try to make the effort.  Possibly Italy can overcome all the local government revenue shortfalls with the new Velox windfalls.  The safety crusade may help to limit urban sprawl in that lovely countryside between Perugia and Marsciano, since there will be no way for people living in those new developments to get to work on time.  With a major reduction in driving, I may be able to coax another five or ten years, or whatever is needed, out of my 18 year old Peugeot.  Failing that, instead of seeking one of those low mileage used Minis or Alfa Giulias that I’ve been lusting after, I may be able to settle for an Ape.  For those unfamiliar with the Ape, it’s a little three-wheeled truck, seating two and powered by a lawn mower engine, that country folk use to transport bottled water, beehives and gas bombole.  They drive drivers of four-wheel vehicles mad but when everyone is driving at the speed of an Ape, the stigma will be gone.

The authorities have taken other measures to assure our safety.  In the past, roadside grass was cut down early and late in the spring.  Wildflowers grow happily here and from April through June, poppies line the sides of the roads as well as proliferating in the fields, creating a real distraction to drivers who should be concentrating on the road.  A better way has been found.  Instead of the early cutting of the grass, it’s simply sprayed with herbicide, which turns the grass to a sort of strawberry blond color and retards further growth.  Not only does this limit the distraction of the wildflowers, but it also saves on government manpower.

Finally, I’m happy to report that here in Acqualoreto we’ve come upon a way to cut down on speed without resorting to heavy fines or expensive electronic devices.  Two years ago, the five kilometer road from Acqualoreto down to the river road was in deplorable condition.  After many complaints about the potholes, the Comune finally repaved the worst stretches of the road.  The road seemed almost new, allowing us to get down to the valley in practically no time at all.  Then, early this year, the road started to heave.  It seems as if some mysterious power in the earth wanted to collaborate with the authorities to slow things down.  It’s better
than Velox.  The Comune has rushed in with more and more speed limit signs, first 30, then 20, finally 10.  Apparently they have no signs indicating 0 but there are signs indicating that traffic can proceed in only one direction at a time, one of those rare times that the road signs reflect reality.

Who knows where all this will lead?  Personal changes tend to become irreversible so I’m afraid my days of pleasure driving are over.  Societal changes, on the other hand, come and go like the tides, so some day Italy may return to a semblance of normality.  Will roving bands of disgruntled young men brandishing tire irons destroy the electronic Big Brothers faster than they can be replaced?  I rather doubt it.  Italians have become as passive as Americans.  Just as when government workers, who are prohibited from striking, shut down most activity by “working to rules”, I can envision Italians organizing to “drive below limits”.  This will bring the economy to a screeching halt and force an easing of policy.  

Meanwhile, I think we’ll look for a garden shop in a safer neighborhood.