Although Via del Teatro di Marcello, which runs into Piazza Venezia, is a big street with a lot of traffic, theres no traffic light. One day, while hoping to cross, I saw some young tourists step into the street and, without a glance toward the on-rushing cars, walk across as though they were strolling in a meadow.
Fortunately, the cars were able to stop in time and the tourists reached the other side without even realising how close they had come to death. I dont think those tourists were from New York. In New York, if people step into the street without looking to see whats rushing toward them, the cars will aim at them. Admittedly, this is partly for the sport, but its also done to teach pedestrians a lesson. If they are hit because of their careless way of crossing, the next time, assuming they survive, theyll be more careful.
All cities have what I call their way of dancing with traffic. In Rome, as in New York, before you step into the street, you have to judge how long it will take a car, travelling at a constant speed, to reach the point where youll be when youve stepped into the road. Will it have time to stop? Is there enough room for it to manoeuvre around you? (Ability to manoeuvre is what makes it a good idea to practise crossing in front of motor scooters before crossing in front of cars.)
While in New York the car will slow only imperceptibly, Rome drivers dont consider it a loss of face if they give the impression that they dont really want to run you over. This means that even when a car is only half a block away, and going fairly fast, you can cross the street.
A superficial look at Romans gives the impression that theyre walking across without looking out for the traffic. But if you observe closely you begin to see the subtleties.
Ive been living in Rome for over a year and a half and at this point I have a rudimentary understanding of how to cross the street. However the other evening I wanted to go to Piazza Mazzini but I couldnt manage to get through the numerous cars circling around the square at speed. There is a pedestrian crossing but somehow its never made me feel safe.
I asked Giorgio for advice. Giorgio is a Roman who is studying English with me in order to pass the test for his tour guide licence. A bright and responsible young man, he plans to be a knowledgeable and honest tour guide.
The first thing I wanted to know is why Romans think pedestrian crossings will keep them from being hit. I told Giorgio that Ive even seen Romans stand in the middle of the street on the central white line, waiting for an opportunity to get to the other side. I sit on the bus and watch the cars rushing past them, in both directions, and Im terrified for them.
This is actually one of the best ways to cross the street in Rome, Giorgio said, because its very rare that theres a break in traffic in both directions at once. Before stepping into the street, look to the left and, if there arent any cars coming or if theyre far enough away from you to stop in time, you can cross the first half of the street. After you reach the centre, you look to the right and, when you can, cross the other half.
The rule that gives precedence to pedestrians at zebra crossings, Giorgio explained, is taken seriously and respected by drivers. If you are struck while on the crosswalk, the penalties for the driver are very severe. If you are hit crossing elsewhere the penalties are less severe for the driver, but there are also penalties for the pedestrian.
I told Giorgio that in New York we do something we call hugging the car in front. We start to cross when one car is just about to pass the point were at, passing as close to the back of it as we dare, giving us the maximum time and space before the next car can reach us. Ive done that here with success and wanted to know whether this is also common in Rome.
No, Giorgio says, if you do that, sooner or later a driver will stop and get angry with you because they are usually nervous with the other cars and with pedestrians. Arguments in the street are on the agenda every day. If youre a woman, they wont hit you. If youre a man, they could send you to hospital, said Giorgio.
Another good way to cross the street, Giorgio suggested, especially for the beginner, is to do as the Romans do. Go to the corner or to a pedestrian crossing and wait until you see Romans cross. Stick as close to them as you can to make it more difficult for drivers to pick you out as a tourist and hit only you. Crossing at the traffic light is useful mainly as a bargaining point when youre in court with a driver who has struck you.
I asked Giorgio for one last piece of advice for non-Romans who want to cross the street. Giorgio laughed. Good luck! he said.
Picture: There are numerous strategies for crossing the road in Rome, but none of the guarantee safe passage.