Let’s talk some more about why I avoid driving in Naples. It’s important to note that not everyone in Naples drives the same way. However, much of what follows can also be said of other cities in Italy.
This blog is full of generalizations, and you’ll notice that it focuses on the negatives. If you are Neapolitan, perhaps already defensive of your driving technique and easily offended, stop reading now.
Here’s a shopping list of reasons why I avoid driving in Naples:
- Neapolitan drivers are erratic, aggressive and highly unpredictable.
- The road signs are often badly located and confusing. Or missing.
- One-way streets seem to appear overnight.
- People double and triple park on the street, leaving their hazards lights flashing as they duck in for a coffee, or to fill a script or grab groceries for dinner.
- Traffic lights are very often a mere suggestion, with some locals slowing down at red lights knowing that other drivers will be running the green light.
- Stop signs are ignored, with cars only stopping to avoid a collision leaving the nose of their vehicle poking out across the intersection. In Naples, this ‘poke out’ is the way to force the oncoming traffic to stop so that you can either join the stream of traffic, or turn across both lanes, making everyone else give way and wait.
- Neapolitans only need to miss other vehicles, pedestrians, walls and other solid objects by a mere millimetre.
- They are constantly distracted by their phones, cigarettes, passengers or whatever it is on the floor or passenger seat that has them not looking at the road.
- Seatbelts are sneered at and considered an inhibition of personal liberty.
- Small people are very often given the front passenger seat. Newborns in baby carriers are placed unstrapped into the front seat, toddlers on driver’s laps and babies are held lovingly by mothers uninterested in the statistics of small people flying through windscreens in the case of an accident.
- The concept of giving way is a just that, a concept.
- When entering a roundabout please speed up. When on the roundabout please slow down and stop to let vehicles enter the roundabout. Giving way while already on the roundabout is about the only time that they actively give way.
- When parking, they like to take up two spaces, parking directly over the marked lines, or in the handicap zone. If possible, they will drive in at an angle, leaving their vehicle askew with the tail end blocking oncoming traffic in complete confidence that they have found the most convenient spot.
- Flashing headlights and horns are used to communicate. It could be a ‘Hello’, it could be a gentle ‘Coming through, look out’ warning, it could be a ‘Get out of the way now! I’m not slowing down’ bullying tactic.
- The white lines on the road that establish the lanes e.g. my side, your side, are generally irrelevant. And in fact, on a lot of roads they just aren’t there.
- Italians overtake when there are vehicles coming in the other direction. The vehicle coming at them needs to move further to the right to avoid a collision. Simple.
- Tailgating is a sport.
- Indicating requires too much wrist energy, so they don’t bother.
- When they need to exit the highway, they make sure they stay on the highway for as long as possible and then at the last minute swerve into the exit lane.
Australians are generally rule followers. We like knowing the rules, and for the most part, follow the rules as we prefer the order, security and predictability that results. That’s not to say all Australians are good drivers, but if it were a competition…
The police in Australia actively police our roads. We get fined for speeding. We get fined for not wearing seat belts. We get fined for distracted driving like holding a mobile phone, texting or eating while you drive. We get fined and possibly jailed for driving under the influence with alcohol and drug testing in force. And we would NEVER dream of travelling with a baby in a vehicle without a car seat, strapped securely into the back seat. We indicate, we stop at pedestrian crossings and red lights. We pause to give way at Give Way signs and as we enter a roundabout.
In this part of the world, it appears that the police are not very interested in enforcing the road rules or issuing fines.
In fact, there are three different types of police that can issue fines and infringements for roads, driving and the use of a vehicle.
The Carabinieri, the Army police, kitted out in their military style, formal navy and red uniforms, bring a little spark of fear to your gut every time you see them pulling over cars. Not because they are looking for speeding, drunk drivers or passengers without seatbelts. But because they are checking papers, insurance documents, drivers’ licences and walking around looking to delay your journey, impose their power and find some obscure reason to confiscate your vehicle.
In Australia we understand that the police service provides a community service and protects Australians. The same cannot be said for the Carabinieri.
There are also the Vigili Urbani, effectively traffic cops. In our village, they block off certain streets when it is school pick up time, or for the Sunday markets. They direct the traffic at major intersections during morning peak hour. They sit in their heated police car at the entrance to the historic centre, watching vehicles entering the one-way street the wrong way (including me, let it be said). They occasionally issue parking fines but every night the village is full of illegally parked vehicles.
Neapolitan drivers are erratic drivers. Sometimes it is because they are avoiding potholes, huge holes that can easily swallow a wheel rendering the underside of the car damaged. The condition of the roads is a major problem, with a huge network of roads, streets, alleys and laneways that is both underfunded and financially mismanaged (read corruption).
They are also erratic drivers because they are chronically distracted. Indeed, Italians are distracted as a whole nationality. Sweeping generalisations are occasionally true while also being ironic. Their mobile phones distract them. They hold them while they drive. They talk into them. They text while driving. They use apps while driving. They spending more time looking at their phones than they do at the road. They drive, talk on the phone and smoke cigarettes while driving. The list goes on.
Italians are famous for talking. They are social, talkative beings. Very often, this need to socialise means they are always talking to someone on the phone, even when they could be spending a quiet moment in the car on their own. They don’t really do quiet, alone time; especially in the car.
Many Neapolitans will insist that they aren’t distracted, that they have amazing peripheral vision and are able to constantly anticipate and avoid incidents ahead, on the side and from behind. I beg to disagree. When they wander onto the wrong side of the road, or slow down to 5km/hour instead of merging onto the highway at an appropriate speed, or clip an oncoming vehicle with their side mirror, or drive 50km/hour in excess of the speed limit or nearly run over a child crossing the road, I have to disagree.
The speed limits in Italy don’t really make sense. A reasonably well-maintained state road in the country, away from built up areas, that might have a speed limit of 80 km/hour or more in Australia will be limited to 60 km/hour and sometimes even 40 km/hour where we live. And that’s when you can even spot the speed signs to know what the speed limit is. Gigi often complains that he doesn’t know what the speed limit is when we are on unfamiliar roads. The signs are missing, covered in weeds or located out of sight.
There are plenty of permanent speed traps around. The traffic will be happily doing 120 km/hour one minute and then suddenly everyone slams on the brakes to crawl along at 60 km/hour for the upcoming speed trap, only to hit the accelerator as soon as they pass by. Speeding is a problem, with bully drivers weaving in and around the traffic on all roads, flashing their lights and beeping aggressively if they don’t have a clear path.
The most confusing experience on the roads must be using a roundabout. In the rest of the world, drivers slow down as they approach the roundabout, giving way to vehicles already on the roundabout. In Naples, you enter at speed but once you are circling the roundabout you pause, or indeed stop, to give way to vehicles about to enter the roundabout. This interrupts the flow of traffic and creates confusion, frustration and uncomplimentary hand gestures. Roundabouts are the most illogical, and dangerous pieces of road infrastructure in and around Naples.
Most people resist wearing seatbelts. In Australia the public campaigns of the 70s and 80s now results in us automatically reaching for seatbelts when we sit in a car. Our children our instructed that a car won’t start unless everyone is wearing a seatbelt. Neapolitans have not been brainwashed with the seatbelt road safety message, and while they may sometimes wear them in the front seat, they certainly don’t believe that are required in the back seat.
The thing that upsets me the most though is when I see babies and children floating around inside cars. Especially when they are in the front seat and unrestrained. Children are often on the driver’s lap, ‘helping’ drive. Babies will be on an adults’ lap, and you rarely see a properly installed car seat in the back seat. I don’t know if it’s because when children play up it’s just easier to put them up front on someone’s lap, or whether people genuinely think it’s safer.
There are also a lot of dogs in Italy that seem to be fully qualified drivers as well.
In short, if you are a responsible driver who learnt how to drive in Australia and you want to drive in Naples, just do the opposite of everything you’ve been taught. Ignore all of your driving muscle memory or you’ll surely end up in an accident, or a pothole or facing the wrath of a belligerent bully who doesn’t understand that drivers are a community and that consideration and generosity makes for a safer, more enjoyable driving experience for all road users.
What are they good at when it comes to roads? They experts at building them in foreign countries, because the roads in southern Italy are for the most part a mess. And driving? Well, they all seem to follow the same anti-rule approach to driving but it is so counterintuitive that I prefer to leave it to the experts. Experts like my darling husband who has an amazing ability to drive according to local conditions and mentality wherever we are.
Chauffeur, where to next?