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Italy puts the brakes on teenage scooters

Rome Municipal Police check the licenses of teenage scooter motorists in Venice Square on Thursday.Mario De Renzis/epa/sipa / Sipa Press
/ Source: NBC News

Rome woke up Thursday to its usual street scene: thousands of over-heating drivers stuck in traffic jams, an army of ruthless teenagers roaming around on their scooters regardless of traffic lights and pedestrians, and groups of anxious tourists waiting patiently by the side of the road, too terrified to cross it.

But there was a difference — many of those riding the bikes looked as afraid as the pedestrians trying to avoid them.

The reason? At least half a million teenagers, as of July 1, became outlaws. And the Italian police are out to get them.

To the joy of both Romans and tourists, at least 460,000 young bikers between the age of 14 and 17 may be forced to park their vespas, at least until they comply with a new law which forces them, for the first time, to get a drivers’ license.

The penalty for those caught without a proper license — a fine of more than $600 and the seizure of the scooter for up to two months.

"The high figures of road accidents, especially fatal ones, convinced the government to introduce a driving certificate for scooters," said Mariolina Moioli, director general of the education ministry.

Deaths in road accidents in Italy have halved in the last three decades to around 12 in every 100,000 people a year, but the rate of deaths in the 15-29 age bracket has barely changed.

‘Easy Rider’ years over
For decades all you needed to ride a moped was to be 14 years old. Now the “easy rider” days seem to be over for good.

Although the law was announced one year ago, most teens ignored the deadline. And of the 600,000 who attended driving school, only half of them have passed the exams.

The hundreds of thousands of latecomers who have yet to enroll get the official documents are left with a dreadful doubt: should they jump on the saddle and hope for the best, or should they put their tennis shoes on and start walking? 

That is the quandary shared by many teenagers, who gave vent to their frustration on an internet forum organized on the website of the Italian daily La Repubblica.

“I am a 17-year-old student who has regularly attended a driving course, after having paid the fee. As of today, nobody has been able to tell me when I am supposed to take my final exam. Whose fault is that?” wrote Roberto Quattrocchi, a student from Sicily.

Quattrocchi's answer might be found in the latest statistics, which reveal that there are too many bikers willing to take the exam, and too few schools and teachers ready to give it to them.

Waiting list
In Sicily, up to 60,000 youngsters are on the waiting list, while in many other regions the classes are full through October. To solve this problem, the ministry of transport has recently appointed an extra 1,000 teachers.

Many teens, at least for the first day, might decide to pretend that nothing has changed. At least this is what the Minister of Transportation, Pietro Lunardi, seemed to suggest when he asked the police to avoid racing after scooters to avoid more accidents.

The authorities, at this point, will be forced to play a game of cops and robbers with the bikers, hoping to catch the outlaws during normal checks.

“Those who run when they see a cop don’t do it just because they don’t have the new driving license,” Emiliano Bezzon, deputy chief of the Milan police told the Corriere della Sera. “They might have just stolen the scooter they are riding, or might have just made a robbery? What are we supposed to do, watch them go by?”

The answer seems to be “yes,” at least for now.

According to the first reports issued by the authorities at the end of Thursday, only 10 fines were issued in the cities with the biggest problem of teenage driving, Palermo and Naples, and only one scooter was impounded.