Driving in Rome: After a year driving in “the most dangerous city in Europe,” I have a surprise
I’ve done some pretty crazy things during my travels. I scuba dived during a shark feed. I climbed Kilimanjaro. I did a 24-hour Amazon Jungle survival course. I even woke up one morning in Bakersfield. But some are saying I am now topping them all. I’m defying death as never before.
I am driving in Rome.
I didn’t buy a car. I’m retired. I’d have to come out of retirement just to afford Europe’s gas prices. But I’m a member of Car2Go, Rome’s convenient car rental service where you can pick one off the street, drive it where you want and leave it anywhere in the city. I can drive from my apartment in south-central Rome to my girlfriend’s on the west side and drive us into Centro Storico for under 20 euros. That’s less than a taxi and much less than an Uber. It’s a nod to Marina who finally chafed at doing all the driving in a relationship when she’s battling traffic every day to her office near the Vatican. It also appeases my male ego after more than a year of getting carted around like a 12-year-old boy.
I retired to Rome 3 ½ years ago knowing it — and Italy — has the same reputation for driving as Saudi Arabia does for crime. It’s unforgiving. Rome is Daytona on cobblestones. When you get into a car in Rome, you bring your insurance, your blood type and your will.
Statistics backed up its reputation. As recently as 2008, the United Kingdom-based Road Safety Insurance Foundation called Rome the most dangerous city in Europe. In 2006, Rome had 21,000 collisions resulting in 28,000 injuries and 230 deaths. According to the World Health Organization, that was double per capita of the United Kingdom and four times that of Netherlands.
In 2013, Rome’s 14,622 accidents were 31 percent of Italy’s 14 largest cities, according to ISTAT, Italy’s statistical arm. Rome’s 140 fatalities way topped Milan’s 32 and Naples 31.
This reads like a Pentagon report from Afghanistan.
Keep in mind part of it is Italians’ obsession with cars. Ever since a small-town mayor in Piedmont named Giovanni Agnelli helped start Fiat in 1899, Italians have been car crazy. Alfa Romeo. Lamborghini. Ferrari. Italians feel they’re as sexy as the cars they drive. Italian automobiles symbolize Italian culture and chic as much as art and clothes. The sensuality of the Italian automobile borders on lust.
In reality, driving in Rome is about as sexy as a hiding in the trunk of a Pinto through a war zone. The traffic is bad. The roads are worse. Lamborghinis and Ferraris? I’ve never seen a Lamborghini or a Ferrari in Rome. No one dares. Rome has more potholes than wine glasses. Combine that with 2,000-year-old cobblestones and you could break an axle and testicle just driving across town.
According to Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading newspaper, Romans annually fill out 1,000 applications for compensation from damage caused by roads. The city of Rome reportedly spends 45 million euros on road maintenance a year. On what? Fertilizer? I don’t see it. I once looked into a pothole near the Colosseum and saw a gypsy family having lunch.
You don’t see nice cars in Rome because after awhile they aren’t nice cars anymore. The Roman army couldn’t have put as many dents in the fleet of cars than the cars put in each other. And that’s just from parking. I’ve walked down streets and seen a car parked between two cars with no more than one inch of space in front and back. Romans are either the greatest parallel parkers or the helicopters airdropping cars into place have somehow missed my field of vision.
They also triple park. Huh? Yes, triple park. Two cars — not one, but two — will pin another against a curb. When I hear a horn blow for five minutes straight, it’s not stuck. It’s the guy with the car on the inside curb. Eventually, two guys will appear and release his car like a caged animal and all three go their separate ways, without profanity or hand gestures, as if this was part of their day, which it is.
As writer Bill Bryson once wrote, Romans “park their cars the way I would park if I had just spilled a beaker of hydrochloric acid in my lap.”
Yet in Rome everyone has a car. There are 1,000 cars for every 1,000 people. Paris has 415, London 398. London has twice the metro population of Rome’s 4.3 million.
As a result, the traffic can make a genteel, patient Roman bite through his cappuccino cup. According to Corriere, every Roman spends 227 hours a year in traffic jams. That’s more than 28 working days. I’ve been on buses passing stuck motorists doing everything from texting suicide notes to making pasta amatriciana.
Yes, I take buses. And subways. And trams. And regional trains. From a European standpoint, Rome’s public transportation is as inefficient as the government that runs it. Its Metro subway system has only three lines, obviously limited to the amount of underground space holding 2,000-year-old ruins. Nevertheless, the lines cover only 40 kilometers, compared to 192 in much-smaller Stuttgart and the 408 of the blackberry bush that is the London Underground map.
But I’m from the U.S. where about the only people who take public transportation are the poor, the crippled and the drunk. Even the environmentalists drive.
So I think Rome’s transportation system is fine. I pay 250 euros for a year pass anywhere the buses, subway, trams and regional trains go. At 1.50 euro a trip, the pass is paid off after only about 4 ½ months.
Still, there’s nothing romantic about standing with Marina at a bus stop.
For the past year, when Marina and I have a special night in Centro Storico or get dressed up for an occasion, I’ll go grab a Car2Go. I’ve driven all over Rome more than a dozen times, “defying death” as never before, and have a remarkable conclusion to make.
Driving in Rome is no big deal.
I have had no accidents, no close calls, no screeching of brakes. Not once have I been driven into a fruit cart. I have found Roman drivers do not drive any faster than anyone else, are as courteous as any I’ve met and don’t run stop lights as I’ve read so many times. People let me cut in front with a polite wave. They don’t tailgate.
I know this sounds like going to Syria and not hearing gunfire, but it’s true. I have nothing to report. Sure, motor scooters fly around me like gnats. I’ve been honked at a couple times. I’ve yelled “MORTACCI TUA! (meaning “YOUR FAMILY HAS DIED” but only for practice and to impress Marina with my growing vocabulary in the Romanaccio dialect of conversational profanity).
Parking remains a problem. Rome was built 2,000 years ago for horses, senators and soldiers. It wasn’t built for cars in repose. But Car2Go uses Smart cars. They’re tiny, two-seaters with only enough storage space to hold my International Driver’s License and Marina’s jacket. While they do nothing for manhood, they do wonders for parking. I can park it perpendicular to a curb or merely move a cat and slip it onto someone’s windowsill.
The biggest problems I have are with the roads. It’s like driving after an earthquake. There are so many holes, so much cracked pavement, that driving is as smooth as sliding down a gravel hill. No one drinks while they drive in Rome because no one can hold a bottle upright in the car. Also, they are so old the lane markers have worn off. You don’t know if you’re on a two-lane or three-lane road then suddenly you find yourself five abreast at a stop light. That’s about it.
So don’t be afraid to rent a car here. Get tired of the crowded buses and subway? Grab a Car2Go. Drive down Via Fori Imperiali and gaze at the back-lit Colosseum at night. Go up Via della Conciliazione and see the vision of St. Peter’s fill your windshield. Cruise along my own Lungotevere and see the lights of the monuments splash off the Tiber River. You have nothing to fear. Honest.
Now watch me get in a head on with a Fiat.