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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 April, 2004, 11:09 GMT 12:09 UK
Italy fails on 'no deaths' road day
By Suzanne Bush

It was a tough challenge.

To mark World Road Safety Day on Wednesday, Italy - home of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, and a nation well-known for its love of speed and reckless behaviour behind the wheel - was set the target of no deaths and no injuries on the roads for just one day.

Rome traffic
Italy's chaotic roads kill an average of 18 people a day
No injuries was always going to be impossible, but, it seems, so was no deaths.

By the time most people had woken up one person had already died in the early hours of the morning.

Another didn't survive the morning rush hour.

But by midnight the number of deaths was 12 - a third lower than the average 18 who die on Italy's roads every day.

This is a country where most vehicles seem to sport a dent or crumple of some kind, where an average of 925 people are injured each day.

Drink-driving is common practice, and if you are involved in an accident on a Friday or Saturday night your chances of survival are half that of an accident at any other point in the week.

Virtually every weekend sees new horrific images on the TV bulletins, showing weeping relatives and the mangled wreckage of a car full of young people who failed to make it home after a night out.

Guiseppe Cesare
We drive too fast, we don't respect the safe distance between the cars. We do a lot of things we shouldn't do when we drive
Giuseppe Cesare
Italian Automobile Club
On Wednesday, however, the idea was to get every road user to pay more attention, in an effort to prove that these accidents can be avoided.

It was the brainchild of the Italian Automobile Club, ACI.

"We drive too fast, we don't respect the safe distance between the cars. We do a lot of things we shouldn't do when we drive," ACI spokesman Giuseppe Cesare explained.

"We don't think when we drive and we don't pay enough attention to what we are doing when we're in our cars, and on two wheels and when we are pedestrians."

As a result, the death rate here in Italy is above the European average of 11 people per 100,000 who die each year.

This is lower that in America, but far more than on the roads of Britain, Sweden and Holland, where they have managed to bring the death rate down to 5-6 people per 100,000.

For drivers and pedestrians in Rome though, the streets on the "no deaths" campaign day were no different to any other day.

There are hundreds and hundreds of cars, it's impossible to drive normally, so that's why we break the rules
Cesar Tredesco
Rome motorcyclist
"It's like a normal day for me," said Cesar Tredesco, donning his motorcycle helmet before braving the traffic of central Rome.

"We don't like the rules, so that's why there are so many accidents. There are so many of us, there's a lot of traffic, so you must go fast because we don't have time.

"There are hundreds and hundreds of cars, it's impossible to drive normally, so that's why we break the rules."

In fact, few people disputed that Italians deserve their reputation behind the wheel, and all put it down to this one problem.

I think that in Italy there is a problem when it comes to respecting the rules
Stefano Lentini
Politics student
"We don't respect the laws in the street," said 28-year-old politics student Stefano Lentini.

"In other countries, for example in Germany, they drive faster than us, but I think that in Italy there is a problem when it comes to respecting the rules."

Carmen Ruperto, who had come to Rome yesterday looking for job, agreed. "I think it's a cultural inheritance. In general Italian drivers are not very polite - and for example they keep going when the traffic lights are red."

All this means it's not just dangerous for those driving. The everyday activity of crossing the road also becomes a challenge to master, particularly for those from countries where traffic usually stops at pedestrian crossing.

Briton Sarah Oldham has been working in Rome as an English teacher for two years.

She says she still can't work out exactly how the crossings work in Italy, and on Wednesday getting to the other side of the road was no easier than usual.

"The light went green for the pedestrians and I checked nothing was coming, but as I walked out I got beeped by two cars who obviously thought they had right of way," she said.

Throw into the mix the fact that 14-year-olds can currently drive scooters or microcars - a vehicle similar to a Smart car - without even a licence or a driving test and it is easy to see why Italian roads are so chaotic.

Penalty points

In an effort to reach the EU target of 50% fewer accidents by 2010, last year the government introduced the penalty points system for driving licences.

It had an immediate impact. Overnight Italians actually started wearing their seatbelts, scared by the prospect of losing their licences.

Despite the occasional story of people losing as many as 234 points in one go, in just the first three months there were 21% fewer deaths, 22% fewer accidents and 25% fewer injuries.

But less than a year on, the accidents, deaths and injuries are already creeping back up.

It's obvious that more needs to be done. The "No deaths, No injuries" day may not have met its target, but at least it proved that it is possible to bring down the average of 18 deaths a day.

And maybe Michael Schumacher can be an example to all.

When he came to Rome to visit the Italian Automobile Club, he had to ask the driver who picked him up at the airport to slow down, because he was so worried.

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