On the road in Rome, the Capital town of the “microcar mania”

di Sheila Pierce Ortona

An Italian friend of mine, who grew up in Rome and recently moved back from London, told me that he is terrified of driving here. He confesses to driving his moped over cobble-stoned streets at the speed of an escargot. He fears getting hit. After being tailgated by a plumbing van the other night that kept honking at him to speed up, the driver finally managed to surpass him, and shrieked, “You’re driving so slowly you may as well walk.”

That’s about the way we all feel here on wheels — terrified by the road rage, enraged by traffic jams, and incensed by aggressive drivers. It is enough to make you want to walk.

But, you can’t walk everywhere in Rome and only live the “vita del quartiere.” Rome is huge. The bus transportation is unreliable. And, while the subway system works well, it is not well-connected to this sprawled-out city.

At least once a week in Rome you give up what you were supposed to do because the city simply won’t let you do it. Some locals have found a solution to maddening traffic jams and impossible parking in micro-cars, which I can’t stand, called “macchinette.” These are zippy, noisy and trendy microcars that have invaded Rome like a fleet of mini spacecrafts on a mission from the Moon. Next to a Hummer, they look like a thimble. Smaller than a Smart car and even less sturdy, they are sort of cute, often covered in provocative teenage bumper stickers, and everywhere. They have become the modern-day mini for concerned parents tired of chauffeuring and eager to wean teens of monster mopeds. Their drivers usually range in age from 14 to 16-years-old with eyes more focused on their screens than stoplights. Kids need the same license to operate a four-wheeled mini-car as they do to steer a two-wheeled moped.

These teeny two-seater tin-boxes epitomize Disneyland in the Eternal City. You can drive them into the historic district straight through the ZTL zoning traps, and park them shamelessly, often perpendicularly, in slivers of spots. A combo of a moped with a roof and flimsy doors, they are the antithesis of a mini-van or a station wagon, either of which could squash them with a nudge.

While the old Fiat Cinquecento may have represented la dolce vita era, these mini-cars reflect a gum-snapping, Smartphone-chatting elite that’s a long way from families of five that would smoosh themselves into compact back seats like clowns in a circus act. Since these microcars cost anywhere from 10,000-15,000 euros, they are only driven by a privileged microcosm of Rome. Just when you might think Rome was in an economic crunch, check out some teenage hang-outs in Northern Rome — from Ponte Milvio to Piazza Euclide — and you’ll find traffic jams and parked hubs of these hunks of junk.

Not all of them are electric or hybrid, and many pollute the Roman air with their gas emissions. Mechanics are known to be instructed to alter the cars’ mini-motors to drive faster than their normally-programmed maximum of 45 kilometers per hour. The result is a cacophony of noise pollution from their mufflers, sounding as if they need an Alka-Seltzer.

Italian police reports show that there are more than double the number of car accidents that happen in these mini-vehicles than regular cars. They are expensive to insure because they are easy to break into and steal. A campaign in the Italian courts is in the works to raise the driving age license required for these mini-motors from 14-16 years old up to 18-years-old.

By now, even adults fed up with the challenges of driving in Rome spin around in these microcars as if they were at their kid’s go-kart birthday party. A recent study in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica revealed that 59% of the drivers of these cars these days are in their fifties. Only five percent of the drivers actually range in age from 16 to 25 years old. Furthermore, you can drive one of these cars even if your real driver’s license has been revoked. At these car dealerships, you are asked for your credit card and not your driver’s license.

I love to drive, and I’ve learned how to wiggle through traffic, to double-park, and to honk like a Roman. Our car is my Zen den (where I listen to my American podcasts) and my kids’ confessional booths (where, vulnerable, and weary after a day of school, they unwind). But I’d rather drive among safer cars in the fleet. And I will make my kids walk or take public transportation before I let them drive a macchinetta… Famous last words, many say.

I’m due to update my own Italian driver’s license soon so I may go back to studying for it with my 16-year-old son who just passed the written driving test!!!

Sheila Pierce Ortona

An American journalist temporarily based in Rome, fumbling through the Italian foreign service and motherhood, Sheila Pierce writes about Italy and Expat Life in her weekly Substack-newsletter “Missives from a Metropolis and on her blog (http://www.sheilapierce.com/).

Giornalista americana temporaneamente a Roma, cerca di destreggiarsi tra  le esperienze in sedi all’estero e gli impegni di madre alle prese con una città non sempre facile. Scrittrice e corrispondente, scrive di Italia e di “Expat Life” sul suo blog (http://www.sheilapierce.com/) e in una newsletter settimanale, “Missives from a Metropolis”. Su Altrov’è animerà la nuova Rubrica “Greetings from Rome” indirizzata soprattutto ai lettori non italiani e disponibile, sul sito web, in italiano e inglese.  

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