Out of Italy: Freedom is Hell on wheels

Click to follow
ROME - At last the day has dawned. From yesterday, 1 October, there is hope, not for peace and quiet in Rome - that would be too much to expect - but at least for fewer decibels to assault our battered eardrums.

Imagine the noise of London's traffic, then add piercing sirens, wailing car alarms, the thump of several car- borne megabases and the racket from what seem to be several hundred power drills. That is a restricted-access area of Rome on a quiet day.

The power drills are the city's 130,000-odd motorini, the mopeds, scooters and motorcycles of less than 50cc that swarm through the city at will, weaving through the traffic, tearing through no-go areas, sailing the wrong way down one-way streets and ignoring red lights.

The motorini are the darlings of the Nineties. Heirs to the legendary Vespas and Lambrettas which motorised Italy in post-war years, they have made an astonishing come-back. It is not poverty that has bred them - for all the current recession - but the daily nightmare of trying to get from A to B.

A huge area of central Rome, the old centro storico, is now a severely restricted zone where only residents or people with special permits can drive during the daytime. Yet many thousands of other Romans work there, do business there, want to eat, shop and have fun there - decentralisation is a problem the old political class never bothered to solve. Buses, despite special lanes, get clogged up in the traffic. Rome has far too many cars and parking is often impossible. Someone has re-named the automobile the auto-immobile, which sometimes just about sums it up. The Rome underground is fast, but there are only two lines.

'A motorino is the only way to get around,' says a friend who has just bought one. They are allowed in the centro storico, they get around fast and you can park them on a sixpence. One traffic expert has found that it takes a car 24-33 minutes to cover 4km (2.4 miles) in an Italian city, while a motorino takes 13.

My friend is in her mid-50s but there is nothing strange about that. Roman oldies have taken to motorini like ducks to water. It is normal for a grey-haired magistrate, a newspaper editor, a top civil servant, a lawyer or even a monsignor to tootle sedately off to work on a scooter, a sleek leather briefcase strapped on the back.

It is not they who give motorini a bad name but the kids for whom the motorino means image, liberty, virility, sex appeal, adventure. You can get your parents to buy you one at 14. And until now, as long as it was under 50cc, you did not have to insure it or display a number plate. You still do not need a driving licence.

'Aaah, what a feeling of freedom]' raved my daughter after her first ride. Freedom, indeed, for many to tear across pedestrian zones scattering old people, children and dogs or to plough across pavements, lawns and parks knowing they are almost impossible to catch. Freedom, for some, to snatch handbags from strolling tourists and zip off at top speed.

And freedom to rip off whatever silencer the factory puts on (and I have my views about those), drill holes in it or otherwise fix it so that your arrival at the local teenage caff sounds like the outbreak of World War Three.

The din is indescribable. Two German friends in their 20s had constant headaches during a sight-seeing visit to Rome, but were afraid to wear ear-plugs for fear of being run over. So they took turns: one wore plugs, the other made sure they stayed alive. Some years back the racket sent one man - a Roman - berserk. He grabbed his gun, ran to the window and started firing, I think without hitting anyone. Sometimes one knows how he felt.

On the whole, though, Italians are remarkably tolerant of noise and not even Rome's environmentalists get as worked up about the din as we foreigners do. 'The motorino is the ideal means of personal transport for a southern city,' declared a man from the Legambiente ecological group. But the noise? 'Oh, yes well . . . something will have to be done about that.'

Now the government is trying to bring the motorino pirates to order. From yesterday, when Italy's new traffic laws came into force, number plates are being phased in so that an offending driver can be identified and punished. It will take nearly a year and might still not work. But at least there is hope.