It’s school pickup time and I offer a lift home to my friend and her two kids. Like us, they are a non-Italian family. We realise that giving them a lift would mean fitting six people into the five spaces of our car. We discuss putting one child on a mum’s lap with a seat belt around both. We know we could manage, it’s just a two minute drive to their house. But she wants to play it safe and decides to walk home with one of the kids instead. Four in the car, all belted up. That’s fine.
Up in this Tuscan hilltown we call home, the roads are mostly narrow and twisty and you soon learn how to park in awkward spaces. Reaching my friend’s place, I carefully edge the car backwards alongside the railing outside the building. The trick is to squeeze it in just enough to feel you’ve made an effort to allow the neighbours space to pass, but not so tight that a child can’t open the door to squeeze out. All the same, I pull in the driver-side mirror. To be on the safe side.
As I’m reversing/squeezing, I see coming up behind me a white Smart car – one of those “urban”, very small cars that older Italians love and still manage to drive fast. The car really is tiny and the driver takes up most of it. Or… what’s that? … do I see two drivers? There is one large man, but he seems to have the face of a six-year-old. In fact that is a six-year-old, a boy, whose hands are also on the steering wheel. He’s sitting on the driver’s lap.
As the B side of my brain keeps moving my own car, the A side is asking a few things. Is that six-year-old driving that car? Is it so small that there’s no seat for him? Is it physically possible to even get a seat belt around him if he’s on someone’s lap? Do a car like that even have seat belts?
Of course it must. It’s a smart car.
At this stage, having spent seven months driving here everyday I’ve become used to seeing the optional use of seat belts. After years of living in Norway and Canada, where it’s unthinkable to even have the wrong sized booster seat for your child, this has been an eye-opener. It shouldn’t be. I suspect in most parts of the world, seatbelts are optional or ignored, and I’ve – shock, horror – even seen kids go belt-free in Ireland.
It’s fun, but really quite pointless, to reminicise about my childhood car memories – as the youngest of four siblings and many cousins, I was often the one perching uncomfortably in the middle bit of the back seat, inching towards the front-seat adult conversation, or simply just placed on the floor. Seat belts weren’t much of an option, they came in only in, um, 1992. Ah sure, there was less traffic, it wasn’t so dangerous back then. We like to think.
But my heart is in my mouth now when I think of my own kids being driven around in hazardous circumstances. My nine-year-old was driven to and from a party here one evening and was more excited to tell us afterwards about the seating arrangements in the car: coming home there were eight people in the car, who sat on laps or in the boot/trunk, or if they were in a seat with a seat belt, there was no real need to belt up.
Several Italian friends have been shocked by my birthday party story. According to my sources, seat belts laws are definitely enforced here and indeed you often see the other extreme of safety- the highest-end car seats in place for every child well into teenage years.
But every day you can see all variety of seatbelt neglect. Some of the variations I have seen with my own eyes, especially along the school run:
- Child moving around in back seat or front passenger seat, presumably not belted in.
- Multiple children moving around, ditto.
- Child sitting on driver’s lap, possibly belted? Probably not.
- Child sitting in the boot/trunk or perched up in the back window.
- Infant held onto the mother’s lap in the back seat, both of them sitting perpendicularly with back to the window (still trying to figure that one out)
As for mopeds, they almost seem safer as I see the child and adult always wearing a helmet and moving at a reasonable speed.
And of course the school bus jaunts off on trips with no seat belts in place (still no doubt a common scenario in many countries) and my kids seem to enjoy the bumping around involved in it – they choose carefully who they get to sit across from. Indeed my younger first became aware of the seatbelt-optional rule on a quick trip to Rome three years ago when we asked her in the taxi: why won’t you put your seatbelt on? Her answer: well the driver’s sure not using one so why should I?
Note to readers: Driving in Italy is offering me more than one blog post, to mention at the very least the near-constant use of cellphones. More to follow…
Back at my friend’s house, I watch the Smart car pull up to the building opposite and the child jumps out to press a button. The Italian-style protect-all-my-property-gate opens slowly and the boy stands to the side while his grandfather (or father?) hooshes the car up the little driveway. Reappearing with a little scooter, he sets the boy up to scoot around on the road before they head into the house. The older man sees my car, still carefully reeling into position, and his arm immediately goes out to protect the boy, to wave him away from my car. There’s little danger of that, I have my eyes glued to him, whizzing around happily on his scooter.
Or maybe his grandfather knows that the kid can drive better than he scoots.
Wash your Language is a blog about real life and language, by an Irish-Canadian exploring the change in pace in Italy after years in Norway. I offer web copyediting and proofreading as well as translation from Norwegian to English and Italian to English. Read more.