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From The Times 

February 09, 2003

Italy raises speed limit to save lives on motorways

Martin Penner, Rome

IN A novel road safety measure Italy aims to raise the speed limit on some motorways to 93mph, despite having one of Europe’s worst records for accidents. The transport ministry says higher speeds improve traffic flow and help motorists pay attention. 

“All psychologists and doctors say people who go faster drive better and are more careful,” said the transport minister Pietro Lunardi. Only 9% of fatal accidents were caused by speeding, he noted. “Where it is safe to go faster, it is the right thing to do.” 

The change will come into force on three-lane motorways from January 1 next year, when the speed limit will rise from 130 to 150km/h. An article in the official journal of the Carabinieri police politely questioned whether this made sense in a nation where most drivers “believe they are closely related to Michael Schumacher”. 

EU figures show Italy is second only to France for annual road deaths, with 112 per million inhabitants. But the government says that is probably well below the actual figures, which it believes top France’s. 

In 2000, the latest year for which statistics are available, 6,410 people died on Italian roads, compared with 3,580 in the UK. 

Last week Schumacher, Ferrari’s Formula One world champion, joined a campaign to get Italians to drive safely and wear seatbelts. Shocked by recent carnage, the five-time champion begged drivers to stop emulating him. 

“I love driving, I love battling wheel-to-wheel and trying to get to the curve first,” he said. “But these are things I do in races. Driving on roads is different — you can never be sure what will happen next.” 

The government is considering random breath tests on young people in nightclubs. Scores of accidents happen at weekends as clubbers return home the worse for wear from drink and drugs. 

After one particularly gory weekend Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister, said people who caused accidents may have their vehicles confiscated. The complex highway code should be made “legible” and studied at primary school, he added. 

European bishops gathered in Rome last week for a conference on Christian comportment on the roads. They have begun putting together 10 commandments for road users, beginning with: “Thou shalt not kill, even at the steering wheel.” 

Pontificating about road safety only goes so far, said Emily Baker, a British teacher who has lived in Rome for 15 years. “Italians are actually pretty good drivers, but taking risks at the wheel is in their blood. I don’t think there’s much you can do about it, apart from take the bus.”

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