Ciao! Police and pollution bring Italy's love affair with the scooter to an end

IT IS A scene that has been immortalised in the movies and snapped by delighted tourists from around the globe. The white-helmeted policeman on his pedestal in Rome's Piazza Venezia gives a languid flick of his gloved hand, and a horde of motorised hornets surges across the intersection.

In the Italian capital nearly half-a-million people ride motorini, the generic term for scooters. Their vehicles range from the pedal-assisted Ciao through rustily dignified Vespas to the latest neon Japanese variety. Ever since the scooter prototype, the Vespa, hit Italy's roads shortly after the Second World War, the motorino has come to mean much more than just transport. It has been a tool of seduction, an initiation rite, a fashion statement.

But the future for the motorino is looking grim. After decades of tolerance, traffic police are cracking down on scooter drivers' antics. Insurance premiums are shooting up, and the two-wheeled machines are being blamed for much of the pollution in Rome and other Italian cities.

In the past the brashness and the sheer number of motorino drivers meant the vigili, local traffic police, made little effort to enforce the rule of the road. Now offenders are being fined for running red lights, taking short cuts down one way streets and invading pedestrian zones. And while motorini on footpaths used to be considered as much a part of the Roman landscape as the drinking fountains, vigili are now handing out pounds 30 parking fines.

Insurance premiums for motorini have gone up by an average of 50 per cent over the past year; by 150 per cent in some cases. Insurers say accidents have doubled in the past five years, a claim which will not surprise foreign drivers who have witnessed testosterone-charged teenagers swerve in and out of the traffic.

Consumer groups protest that it is not all the riders' fault. Potholes, oil slicks from tour buses and Rome's basalt cobbles, which become treacherous at the first drop of rain, share the blame. But insurance companies are offering no-claims bonuses for the first time, and giving better terms to those who wear helmets.

Anti-pollution legislation, however, is the biggest threat to the traditional ways of the motorini. The government has just approved a package of measures to bring Italy into line with European standards. As of next year, mayors will have the right to ban scooters as well as cars from circulating if pollution reaches dangerous levels, defined as more than 10 micrograms of petrol fumes for every cubic metre.

Owners of motorini, who have always thought they were ecologically correct, are now being told that 50cc two-stroke motors pollute twice as much as cars with catalytic converters. Scooter and motorbike associations have taken out advertisements to complain that they are being criminalised. Whatever the laboratory results, they say, a motorino consumes less petrol and therefore pollutes less.

Manufacturers have known for some time that Italy would have to conform to EU anti-pollution standards by next June. But while they produced "green" scooters for export, they continued to turn out the old, poisonous models for the lucrative home market. To avoid being unseated by the clean-air drive, motorini owners will have to trade up. The new millennium models, four-stroke or fuel-injected two-strokes, cost at least half as much again as the standard scooter.

"I think it's really sad" said a pony-tailed artist, who takes his mongrel on his 1979 Vespa. "I know we need to do more to keep our air clean, but I just don't think Rome will be the same with these new motorini. They all look the same."