Crossing the street (without getting killed)

February 15, 2015

Cross at your own risk!

In the seventies and eighties, Italy was under siege from bomb-throwing, homegrown terrorists. This danger that has now more or less ceased, and although serious crime, once very limited, has now admittedly increased, one has to laugh when  fellow Americans ask if I feel safe here, and laugh even more heartily when Italian journalists compare this or that Italian city with Chicago in the 1930s. In 2013 there were only 34  homicides in Rome, giving it a lower murder rate than either Amsterdam or Glasgow (not to mention the top 60 US cities. BUT, in the same year, there were 56 pedestrian deaths. So the worst danger you face when you visit here, aside from that represented by the very able pickpockets on some bus lines and a few knots of thieving gypsy children, may well be that of crossing the street. Here’s some advice on how to do that safely and effectively.


  • 600 pedestrian deaths a year
  • 21,000 injuries
  • 30% die on zebra crossings
  • half of these are seniors

I know the title of this post seems facetious, but it surely is not a joke to the surviving relatives of  pedestrian victimes.  Just a few days ago, on January 3, Mario Mortai, 77, and his wife of over 50 years, Maria Giacchino, were killed by a drunk driver in the Rome suburb of Ostia while crossing on the zebra stripes. Every year, in fact, 600 pedestrians die on Italian streets and another 21,000 are hurt. Thirty percent die while crossing on the strisce (stree-shay) and more than half of those who die are (inexplicably) men over 65. True, the number of pedestrians hurt  has declined over the last ten years, but the overall number of pedestrian deaths in Italy as a whole has been more or less stationary since 2004 (before that it was significantly higher).

Compared with the US where around 4,700 pedestrians die each year, that figure may not seem enormous. But for Europe, it is a lot, and it probably creates a greater echo in a smaller country like Italy where most newspapers and news programs are national in range and orientation. In fact, the ongoing problem has led one well-known Italian TV personality, Piero Angela, to lend his talent to a “We are all pedestrians” campaign for safer driving and more careful street crossing. Furthermore, in Italy, where pedestrian deaths account for close to 15% of overall traffic-related deaths, 43% of these deaths occur in cities. The European average is only 34%. The 56 pedestrian deaths in Rome in 2013,  were twice as many as  those in Milan and six times as many as those in both staid Turin and crazy Naples (where almost no one obeys any  traffic regulations).  The Lazio region is, in fact, the worst region for pedestrians followed by Lombardy and Tuscany. Other than Rome, the worst cities to be crossing streets in are Catania and Messina in Sicily.


(and some other parts of Italy)


First of all, if you are British, or have spent significant time in the U.K., forget home and remember that you are in a different place; in other words, do not expect Italians to so as the British do: bringing their cars to a dead halt the very instant a pedestrian places his or her foot on the white, intersection zebra cross lines, known here in Italy as  le strisce, the stripes. That kind of courtesy is definitely not the Italian way, particularly in larger cities from Florence on down, with an overall lack of attention increasing exponentially as you travel further south. Naturally, not all the pedestrians killed in 2013 met their end on the strisce, but a good number did. And despite the fact that the Italian Codice della Strada (Traffic Code) makes clear that drivers are OBLIGATED to stop for pedestrians, indeed to stop even for pedestrians who have just begun their trek across, many, maybe even most, do not and, inexplicably, this noncuranza (indifference) is getting worse. In fact the Italian way of observing the stripes generally involves:

  • ignoring them all together;
  • driving right by you if you have only barely begun your trek
  • passing right behind you if are out of impact range but haven’t yet got to the other side.
  • Some people, of course, and most bus drivers (but not taxis), do indeed stop for pedoni (pedestrians) but caution is always urged.

As is the case with most traffic rules, including stop signs (and sometimes even red lights), many Roman drivers act as if the strisce were an optional, even though one can indeed be fined for not giving the right of way to a pedestrian on the zebra stripes. Given the lack of attention by the city police in many Italian towns this does not, however, happen very often. I, myself, did once receive a fine for allegedly ignoring a pedestrian, but  I immediately realized that my “crime” had occurred on the afternoon of the same day my motorbike had been stolen and fortunately I had the police report to demonstrate my innocence. Usually, in fact, I make a point of coming to a full stop, particularly in downtown Rome, where stymied tourists need more than a little help.



One idea is to stand for a while on the curb at a busy pedestrian crossing and try to learn from the aplomb that most Italians demonstrate (ignore the over 80-contingent since the elderly, even if Italian, are probably as scared as you are). If there are Italians crossing, just scurry alongside them. If you are on your own, or surrounded by other benumbed tourists, the trick is to get up your courage and stride confidently into the fray because if you just stand there waiting for drivers to stop, you could be there, well, for quite a while  Alternatively, if you don’t mind being tagged immediately as a “furriner”,  or as a dork, hold out your arm, palm up and out in a stop gesture, and hurry across. Making eye contact with drivers is also not a bad idea since Roman drivers will then be forced to realize that you are a fellow human being and not merely an obstacle to get around.


The WORST thing you can do is to look undecided and stop in the middle of the crossing, like a deer caught in headlights. Drivers won’t know what to do and it can become truly dangerous. For the same reason, do not stop and start. Furthermore, do not become aggressive as it will get you nothing but a ruined vacation. And remember –  and this is important – the zebra stripes are not always zebra stripes.  Some simply mark a crosswalk at an intersection governed by a traffic stoplight, a semaforo, which always – and I mean always – takes preference. The fact is that Italian authorities have never bothered to find a way to differentiate between genuine pedestrian zebra stripes and those that look identical but are there simply mark a crosswalk at an intersection.

So let’s make it simple. If there is a working traffic light, then this is NOT a pedestrian crossing and you do NOT have the right to cross on a red light, all the while scowling at those you have labelled as discourteous Italian drivers. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen visitors, mostly Anglosaxons, shake their fists at Italian drivers when they insist –out of ignorance – on crossing against the red just because there are white stripes painted on the ground. When it comes to the REAL pedestrian lines, you can instead scowl as much as you want at the discourteous, but don’t let self-righteousness get in the way and prevent you from being very, very careful.

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2 Comments on Crossing the street (without getting killed)

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  • Lisa Kramer Taruschio says:

    It also bears mentioning that Italian sidewalks are completely useless, at least in a small city like Macerata, where I live. Italians will choose to walk in the road–preferably pushing baby carriages or strollers. Don’t ask.

    • Sari Gilbert says:

      Tell me about it. This is one of what I see as unsolved mysteries. In some of the older parts of Rome, for example where I live, often there are no sidewalks. So it’s clear that people have no choice but wo walk in the street. But where there are sidewalks, they still often walk in the Street even, as you say. with babt strollers. When it’s more than two people, I think the answer might be that people don’t want to give up the possibility of walking side by side (Italian sidewalks are rather narrow). When it’s a single person, there is no explanation for why people would expose themselves to the dangers posed by erratic drivers. And thanks for writing.