Yesterday I had to cross Rome at 7:30 am. It was a Sunday and I was almost alone on the route through Trastevere, along the Lungotevere, up past Parioli, to the Salaria area and finally Piazza Vescovio. What a feeling to buzz along with no traffic admiring the sights in the early morning light.
Yes I drive in Rome. Lots. Everywhere. From the historic center into the hinterland, the raccordo anulare and out of town, even without a navigator.
I have been driving in Rome for so long that it seems normal, but I know that driving here puts many foreigners out of their cultural comfort zone -- “they don’t stop at red lights, there are no lanes, cars cut in”.
It is true that you can’t sit back, put on the cruise control and sleep at the wheel. You have to be on your toes and aware of everything that is going on around you 360° all the time -- pedestrians wandering across the middle of the road while concentrating on their cell phone conversations, motorini weaving in and around until they find their way to the front of the crowd at a red light only to take off just before it turns green, cars merging in without making eye contact, cars cutting in when you leave just barely enough safety distance – it is certainly a different relationship with the road and approach to driving.
Several cultural factors come to mind.
Rules and their particular application. For us, rules are rules and should be followed by everyone in the same way, all the time, with no exceptions. Here there is a different relationship with rules. They are guidelines, often applied in varying degrees according to the particular situation at hand. So when I (rather foolishly) stopped as the light turned red instead of slipping around the corner to the right, the car behind me passed on my left and turned right in front of me. If no one is coming, why stop.
Sense of personal space. We all feel uncomfortable at some point with the Italian propensity to stand just a bit too close. Same concept goes for cars. They just have a different sense of personal space not only around their bodies but also their cars and they tend to get just a bit too close for our comfort.
In group / out group. All those other people out there on the road just do not enter into their inner circle of the people they acknowledge – friends and family. Anyone outside of this inner circle practically doesn’t exist. So if you don’t exist in their scheme of things, they certainly won’t notice you as they merge into your lane or slip into the space you had left on purpose between your car and the one in front of you.
Words of advice. Keep your eyes moving from the back mirror to both side ones and develop intuition and instincts to second guess where the cars around you will gravitate --- there actually is a underlying system to it all and a kind of fluid dance-like quality. They understand each other (again, it is about context and the hundreds of antennas that follow them around) and actually drive in a rational way – to them – we just have to discover the rationale.