It was just over a year ago that many Italian motorists found themselves putting on their seatbelts for the first time in their lives. The much-heralded points system had arrived.
The main novelty contained in the highway code introduced last July was the introduction of a British-style points system (patente a punti), whereby drivers who lose 20 points have their licences confiscated. Points are deducted for any number of offences exceeding the speed limit by over 40 km/hour, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or driving on the hard shoulder, for example, mean a loss of ten points. Overtaking on the right, running the lights and failing to buckle up will lose you five. The points system was part of the government drive to meet the European Unions goal of halving the number of road accidents by 2010. Italy had one of the worst road safety records in Europe: 6,736 people died in road accidents in 2002 (the year before the new highway code came into force), according to the national statistics institute ISTAT, against 3,431 in Britain (department for transport figures), which has roughly the same population. But has the new code made Italys roads safer?
Overnight the number of drivers belting up around Rome appeared to go from 10 per cent to somewhere in the realm of 80-90 per cent, scared into submission by fear of losing five of the precious 20 points.
However, driving in Italian towns and cities does not seem easier than before. In the weeks following the introduction of the points system, every day brought new stories of drivers losing excessive numbers of points. The leader was surely the 23-year-old man from Milan who was reported to have lost a staggering 234 in one go.
By the end of September last year though, police reported that accidents were down 22.3 per cent, the number of injuries had fallen by 23.4 per cent and deaths were down 19.2 per cent.
The improvement seemed too good to be true, and sure enough complacency has already set in, with the number of accidents creeping back up again. One year on, accidents are down only 14.5 per cent over the previous year, injuries are down by 17.9 per cent and deaths are down 18.8 per cent. According to these figures, that still means 857 peoples lives have been saved in the last year and 24,505 less people have been injured. But the number of people who lost their licences over the last year, 85,691, is only six per cent more than the year before. So has the new points system really changed how people drive?
Piero Caramelli, director of the traffic police, says that while it has helped reduce some driving offences, Italian driving habits are hard to break, like speeding. There is still a tendency to go too fast, and speed not only causes accidents, it also makes the consequences of accidents caused by other factors worse.
Drivers in Rome have mixed opinions. Sergio Mancusi, a 31-year-old lawyer, insists he already drives carefully and wears his seatbelt, since the day three years ago when he was caught and fined. But as for others on the roads? People wear seatbelts more, he says. Going more slowly? Maybe not, but on the motorway they go a bit slower and they dont jump red lights. At the beginning I saw a difference.
Gaia Regola, 27, lives in Rome but comes from a quiet part of Tuscany. She hasnt seen any change in driving discipline: Its always chaos here, its always a mess, she says. As soon as the light goes green they beep their horns at you, they dont respect right of way. Theyre rather domineering.
Franco has been driving a taxi in Rome for 36 years, and says he is one of the few cab drivers who hasnt lost a single point. He is out on the roads all day long and says he has seen a difference: We are a bit calmer, a bit more careful when driving, but the scooters arent. They are always frenetic in the traffic, on the streets, passing you on one side and then the other.
Indeed now it is the turn of young scooter drivers in Italy to feel the force of a government crackdown. Until 1 July, 14-year-olds could take to the roads on their motorini or in their micro-cars without any kind of training, test or licence, so it is no surprise that around half the road accidents in Italy involve two-wheeled vehicles.
Those days are gone forever. Now 14- to 17-year-olds need a mini-licence or patentino to drive scooters, obtained by taking a short course and passing an oral test. Despite having a year to prepare, a combination of disorganised teenagers and an ill-prepared system meant that on 1 July hundreds of thousands found themselves banned from the roads. They faced the choice of hanging up their keys until their test date comes round, or driving uninsured and risking a 516 fine (2,065 for repeat offenders) and having their scooters or micro-cars compounded for two months.
Federico Schiano, 16, is one of many teenagers angry that they were promised free courses at public driving schools, only to find that there werent enough places. It would be much fairer if they had delayed the law till September, he says, to enthusiastic shouts of exactly from his friends, hanging out on their scooters on a Rome street corner. No one I know has the mini-licence. The law is absurd because Ive been going around on my scooter for two, no, three years; it cant be possible that they dont let me use my scooter.
He is in the majority in Rome. On day one of the patentino, two out of three 14- to 17-year-olds in Rome still didnt have one and the streets appeared slightly quieter as a result. Around the country more than 100,000 teenagers had proved exactly why the mini-licence was so necessary, by failing the ten-question multiple-choice test, where you only need six correct answers to pass.
Transport minister Pietro Lunardi was resolute that he would not allow teenagers more time. Meanwhile, his deputy went a step further, saying the test should be made harder. It now remains to be seen whether the new measure will make Italys roads any safer this summer.
For a comprehensive list of transgressions and penalties
see the Automobile Club dItalia website, www.aci.it and click on per circolare; for casualty statistics see the ISTAT website, www.istat.it.