Monday, September 30, 2013

How To Speed In Italy

The Autovelox in Italy is universally despised, unless it happens to be placed, like the one shown below at the entrance to a village where thirty miles an hour may actually be suitable. The orange box in the picture is supposed to be equipped with cameras triggered by excessive speed. So when you see one of these you will apply your brakes fiercely, like you would if you saw a Key Deer, creating the likelihood that you might get rear ended by a distracted driver...but if you tip toe past the box you won't receive a monstrous sized ticket. They say.

In point of fact no one actually seems to know how these things work. Everything I've heard is rumor and supposition and indeed many of these machines don't actually have cameras inside, but as you can't tell from your car the best practice is to SLOW DOWN because no one seems to know how much the fine will be but it may start as high as 200 Euros ($270!) and no one actually knows what the tolerance is, perhaps five percent, perhaps ten percent. Perhaps not. And when you get the letter you are pretty much screwed, unless you are a doctor or politically connected or something.

You will be happy to know the Autovelox fines are supposed to be spent repairing and maintaining the roads, which might also come as a surprise as most Italian roads these days are in a pitiable state of disrepair, worse even than Pennsylvania roads. Thus the hatred of the Autovelox is directed at the fact that it is a tax machine not a safety machine. Some of them have been sprayed with paint which kills their effectiveness dead but of course you don't know it as you sail by at 49kph. Or whatever the speed limit is on that stretch of roadway.

And then there is Italian road design. The road shown below is a main country road, a Provincial Highway (SP- Strada Provinciale) and that means the occupants of this home have vehicles dashing by at all hours of the day and night. They at least have a low stone wall to protect them when they step out, but many homes are built right on the roadway and stepping out the front door is an exercise in derring-do. Yet this is not a country that believes much in active policing. In two weeks and two thousand miles of travel we saw maybe half a dozen police cars.

They prefer to rely on electronic boxes and that takes away the human observation element that I think is so critical in traffic patrol. Maybe I am excessively liberal in my view of speed limits but I don't think five or even ten over the limit necessarily constitutes dangerous dangerous driving. For instance, passing using proper signals, leaving enough space, wearing protective gear and not having a shitty attitude could all mitigate or worsen a ticket encounter. But an Autovelox has no judgment at all and imagine the line of sudden brake lights illuminating the expressway for this blue infernal box:

You have to wonder about the costs associated with driving in a country where unleaded gas, one grade only, costs around $10 a gallon, and most of that is taxes. Insurance and road taxes are not cheap, garage fees for those who live in the city cost money and the ever present problems of theft and vandalism make vehicle ownership somewhat daunting. Yet the roads and streets of the Italian peninsula tend to be clogged with people driving. I find it quite surprising.

Not all roads are busy and I was fortunate to grow up in an isolated area, miles from cinemas, newspapers and police patrols which helped me to practice my riding in peace. I never worried at all about breakdowns or flats, I just went off riding every minute I could get. It was a great place to learn to ride despite the loneliness of the life. And I learned on 50cc machines, then graduated to 350cc and then 650cc, including some off road riding and trail riding. I never dreamed I'd be back forty years later on a 170hp BMW K1200S. Decidedly not suitable for off road work! And quite honestly for the most part I find the national speed limit in Italy of 80 miles per hour quite adeuqate for my middle aged reflexes. Speeds higher than that require extreme attention and are quite exhausting as things move just too fast. It's at the slower speed that sometimes these electyronic boxes are irritating.
It made me smile this year when I arrived in Terni, the provincial capital where Giovanni lives and he fed me lunch and had the motorcycle ready for me, but I was too tired and I fell into a 20 hour coma and he had to go off by himself and hit the hills with his machine by himself. He, like me enjoys the solitude of the ride and the escape from phones and contact with the workaday world. We ride separately and the leader stops at a junction so we can each ride our own rides, no GPS no electrons. One of the great Italian road signs I wish we would adopt in the US is the yellow diamond inside a white border as seen below. It means the road you are on has priority at intersections. Simple and effective.
On freeways we did see a couple of flashing lights from the Polizia Stradale, light blue vehicles equivalent to the Highway Patrol puling over errant motorists, but even here on the toll autostrade there are electronic devices to take your money...Its a system called Safety Tutor and it sucks because it lacks any element of judgement. Again it is surrounded in mystery but the theory is that the Tutor system built-in to overhead signs as shown below measures average speeds between two installations, uually ten miles apart. The idea is if you go over the national 130kph (80mph) speed by an average of more than ten percent you get clocked. All of which seems quite generous as compared to the snail's pace speed limits across most of the much vaster fruited plain we live on...

However the Safety Tutor has a few quirks that Giovanni has experimented with and he has reached his own conclusions about this devilry. It used to be that we zipped onto the emergency shoulder to get around these things but as you can see below the wires now extend the full width of the freeway. Incidentally Giovanni wanted to talk (and smoke) so we stopped somewhat illegally in the emergency pull out bay. While he was lighting up and talking to his wife I walked back to the Tutor to take some pictures I knew I could use on this blog...which is how my brain works.
Giovanni has deliberately tested the system on his many freeway rides and he has come to a conclusion. He says when you pass under the Safety Tutor you should not exceed the limit at all. By doing that you don't trip the system and encourage it to actually go check for your average speed over distance. Also, if you don't exceed the limit at all you can't get a ticket directly for breaking the speed tolerance (whatever that may be!). At first I was leery of this theory trying to keep my average speed low but in the end we both ended up zipping between Safety Tutors and slowing as we passed under them. So far, so good. It takes an enormous amount of work to come close o keeping up with Giovanni on his six cylinder BMW.

I don't know that speeding is something everyone should indulge in but for me I'd rather drive fast and pay attention than drive slow and feel free to fiddle with my phone or make up or whatever else comes to mind. But there again I am no fan of high visibility clothing as "protection" either. My theory is that you have to look out for yourself, take responsibility for yourself and expect nothing from other road users, which is I suppose a rather conservative way of looking at driving. Taking responsibility for your own actions! Luck plays a part, good manners play a part and paying attention is huge. Also don't be in a hurry, for when you speed to "make up time" or to catch an appointment is when you go wrong. Speeding for the fun of flying when conditions warrant is a reminder that in the middle of civilization we can be a little bit beastly without hurting anyone except ourselves and our wallets. But that too can be too much freedom in a world corseted by fear of being different. I know I take a few days to adjust both when I go to Italy and when I come home. I am astonished when I am in Florida how angry people get when you pass them, instead of driving their own cages they speed up to cock block you in their huge lumbering trucks and I miss the accommodating Italians who expect a rider on a motorcycle to do the passing fast and safely and on their own terms. Then when I am in Italy I get tired of the pushing and shoving in lines and miss the orderliness of home. The grass is always greener!

The irony of this next photograph is that a few hours later we were once again pulled over in an emergency turn out. That time it was for a broken motorcycle, this time it was to have a smoke and a chat near Ferrara. Not actually in the historic and lovely ( I am told ) city...for we spent perhaps 45 minutes discussing family values and why child raising is so complicated as traffic flashed by, accelerating noisily as they passed the Safety Tutor.

Joe Cool gearing up for another stretch at a hundred and ten miles an hour. he has never fallen off a motorcycle in four decades. How he has managed I just don't know.

To get a real taste for Giovanni's Latin flair on a motorcycle you should ask my wife about the time she rode with him down the old Roman Road known as the Via Aurelia, riding between two opposing lanes of traffic sliding between two lines of cars in the turning lanes at 180kph. She was laughing the whole way, I fell back gritting my teeth wondering if I really was too young to die. Always ride your own ride and with Giovanni as your guide that means catching up at the next junction. Always.

Vote Early, Vote Often

I am not a resident of the City of Key West so I shall not be voting tomorrow.
The big question facing voters is whether or not to approve a study to consider whether or not to widen the main ship channel into Key West harbor.
If the voters say yes that would set in motion the search for funding, supposedly none from the city itself, and then  if the study supports the notion of widening (and who doubts that it would?) then will come the hunt for permits and so on and so forth. All this to allow dredging of the ship channel to allow more and bigger cruise ships.
The sentiment against widening the channel is fairly obvious: we don't need bigger cruise ships bringing more people to an already crowded corner of the island and besides dredging will most likely cause more damage to the marine environment.
 The sentiment in favor of dredging seems to come mostly from business interests in the city, which seems hardly surprising. That the Federal Government would require an Act of Congress to issue permission to essentially create a new ship channel does not seem to pose a problem to the backers of the study.
 I think its  easy to have a knee jerk reaction in favor or against any possible dredging (I'm against it at this stage) but the question this debate raises in my mind is what sort of vision or growth plan does the city of Key West have? As far as I can tell there is not now nor has there ever been a plan to map out the city's future.
I have always liked the idea of creating a pedestrian zone in the evening at least on Duval Street. I think it would be fantastic plan but proposals to try such a thing were abandoned after merchants excluded from the proposed zone complained it would be too successful and would take customers away from their stores. Only in Key West is a sound urban plan ditched for fear that it might work.

The vote will tell all but I suspect going into the election that a majority of city voters oppose the study. One local business has been flying the opposition flag with a message that "Enough Is Enough" and I think a lot of people feel that way. Cruise ship passengers bring money to the city but there is a lot of sentiment, rightly or wrongly that they don't spend much, don't spread it around and being known as a cruise ship destination denigrates the city's quality of tourism appeal.
 The paper's local cartoonist Mac hit it on the head last Sunday as s/he usually does.
But even if there should be a hidden majority in favor of the study, and motives in this town are  frequently obscure at best, it doesn't mean dredging starts next week. If the study proposal is approved it would mean that the path to considering what to do next would be open. And that is one big reason opponents would like a solid no vote tomorrow, to shut everything down before it starts.
The fact is however that developers never give up. I've seen this over and over again and I'm sure you have too. If the study is voted down this time I'm pretty sure it will come back again in some different form. 
What it comes down to is how does the city want to look as the future becomes the present? Should Key West be a resort for the rich, a playground for the privileged or should it stay as is? Or something else? I wish this vote whichever way it goes would open up a debate about the future of the city.
Me? I'd like to see more bike paths, a pedestrian zone on Duval, maybe most of the street with cross streets allowing traffic and  then I'd like to see the city handle the homeless problem. Not the working poor who get more help than you might expect in this very expensive town.  I'd like to see the police the courts and  social services address the actual bum problem. The mayor wants to create a day center to help integrate the homeless into the working world, but I fear the professional mooches who call Key West home would have none of that.
 And in the end we all have wish lists I suppose. I like to think that these are the good old days and whatever happens in the vote they will continue.