I’ve been driving a scooter (or motorino, as they’re called in Italy) in Rome for nearly ten years. That’s a decade of insane traffic, painful tumbles, vigorously exchanged gestures with other drivers and coming back to find your (parked) Vespa dented or with the seat slashed.
It’s also been ten years of always being on time, enjoying privileged routes through the centre of Rome, carefree parking and the comforting notion (particularly as a woman) that you’ve always got a ride home at the end of the night, no matter where you are.
My Vespa has outlasted friendships, relationships, jobs and mechanics. We’re actually inseparable and I love the fact that it looks like a beaten-up piece of junk that no-one would want to steal. It’s driven me to airports and its transported me to the coast and I’m just waiting for the opportunity to try a serious road trip one of these days. I understand why 14 year-olds all over Italy badger their parents to let them get the patentino – the mini license for the under 16s which allows you to own and drive a 50cc motorino. It’s nearly every young Italian’s first taste of freedom – as it was mine, right here in Rome.
Disclaimer: this article contains some light-hearted observations as well as safety tips. Please don’t imitate any of the bad habits you read about here. You may get a fine or a serious injury.
Read on for some essential tips for driving a scooter in Italy, and the top 50 things that only Vespa drivers in Rome could possibly know…
The Essential Rules
1. This isn’t how you should park.
2. Always wear sunglasses when driving a scooter (not in the dark, but definitely during the sunset). They don’t just shield you from the sun – they offer an extra layer of protection if flies or wasps buzz under your visor.
3. Wearing lip-gloss on a scooter is tantamount to having fly-paper on your face.
4. Keep a small towel in your Vespa. Helps to mop up rain / clean dirt. Also see The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
5. Invest in a good pair of gloves with reinforced palms and knuckle protectors and use them all year round. If you can’t bear the heat, summer versions are available from good stockists.
6. Always carry your ownership and insurance documents, as well as your licence.
7. Always wear a helmet and always oblige your passenger to wear one too.
8. Don’t drink and drive.
Obeying the Law
9. The best place to park is in scooter designated parking spots (if an ignorant car driver hasn’t beaten you to it).
10. You’ll see plenty of scooters parking in blue bays – paying car spots – but you could be liable for a fine.
11. Avoid delivery van bays – also due a fine.
12. Park on the pavement at your peril. It’s against the law.
13. Don’t park in disabled spots or right on the edge of disabled spots.
14. Parking on Zebra crossings is pretty obnoxious – and illegal.
15. Bays marked by white lines are the best alternative to designated scooter parking spots.
16. Overtake from the left when driving the scooter and be generous with your indicators when changing road position or stopping.
17. You have as much right as a car to drive in the centre of a lane, but be sensible – if you’re driving at a moderate speed and you sense a car wants to overtake you might want to occupy a road position slightly right of centre.
18. That said, don’t drive so far right that you’re within a car door of parked vehicles. You just need someone to swing a door open to knock you from your vehicle.
19. Not every bus / taxi lane is observed by a camera but you risk a fine if you drive in them, tempting as it is to make the most of the space.
20. Don’t drive the wrong way up streets despite what you see other drivers do.
21. At night, some scooter drivers run red lights if the roads look empty. Still illegal and definitely not worth it for the two minutes you’ll save.
22. You don’t have to display your road tax or documents on the outside of your scooter in Italy (they’d probably get stolen).
23. Scooters can drive in the Centro Storico (historical centre) through ZTL barriers and access many areas that cars can’t – just make sure you’re driving a model which complies with the emissions stipulated by law. You still need to avoid bus lanes and pedestrian areas, such as Via dei Fori Romani.
24. Monday to Fridays, if you want to drive in Rome’s anello ferroviario you’ll need a motorino with a Euro 2 or above emissions certificate. Saturdays and Sundays all vehicles can access this zone but ZTL (traffic limiting) rules still govern certain areas.
25. This isn’t how to park, either.
Safety tips for the Vespa
26. For safe braking, always start with the right hand brake that governs the back wheel, completing the manoeuvre by adding pressure to the left. Use both almost simultaneously for an emergency stop, leading slightly with the right, always.
27. Cobblestones transform into a surface resembling oiled ice when wet. Go slow after a shower and brake as slowly as possible, ideally by releasing the twist throttle or very gently squeezing the brake levers.
28. Driving a scooter with your wheel in-line with the tram tracks is a recipe for disaster. If you have to cross the rails, try and cut across them diagonally rather than falling into the groove as you will have no traction if you need to brake.
29. Don’t ride in high heels – it isn’t worth it. Take them with you and wear a pair of flats for the journey, leather if possible and definitely closed-toe. If you have an accident, there’s less chance of breaking bones in your feet or turning your ankle.
30. Tall people (especially men and especially riding pillion) may negatively affect your agility driving through traffic – the longer your legs, the more your knees stick out sideways. Try and judge accordingly.
31. If you’re the passenger, tuck your feet into the side of the scooter, using footrests or footpads where possible. Don’t let your legs float astride of the motorino because other vehicles weave very close and it’s a short route to an unpleasant accident.
32. Invite your passenger to clasp your waist or hold the top box base behind you. Don’t let them hold your shoulders as it can be unbalancing and never let them ride side saddle.
33. Even in the summer, always wear a jacket when driving a scooter and if possible, cover your legs. Motorbike gear or leather is the best, but a denim jacket can be a good summer stopgap. It won’t save your life but it might protect your skin if you fall off, and even summer nights can get chilly if you stay out until the small hours.
34. Even when it’s tempting to drive in shorts or a short skirt remember that you’re incredibly vulnerable on a Vespa. I have a pair of shower-proof over-trousers that I often slip on if in skirts or shorts, even in dry weather, just to protect my knees. Also great for the end of the night when it’s cooler.
35. When it rains in Rome, it sometimes resembles monsoon season in India. Invest in a bike “skirt” and fitted gloves, or rain-proof over-trousers, paired with a cagoule or other waterproof. Hoods on jackets can collect water but are useful when you arrive at your destination and you need to make a dash inside.
36. Full-faced helmets are safer than half-face helmets but the visibility isn’t always as good. Consider investing in a full-face helmet for the winter at least – when it’s cold and accidents happen more regularly.
37. You don’t need a windscreen in Rome – the weather’s mild all year round. Some drivers prefer them but remember that they get dirty and impede visibility in the rain.
38. Don’t listen to music through ear-pods on a scooter. Your sense of hearing can be a lifesaver on the road.
39. Using your horn frequently is really obnoxious in some cultures. On a scooter, it’s common sense. Don’t use it to urge drivers to be prompt at green lights or catch the attention of an attractive pedestrian. Do use it to announce your passage when driving over crossroads if the visibility isn’t great, as a gently nudged warning to tourists or pedestrians wandering in the road, and to alert cars that are breaking the law or who don’t seem to have noticed you.
40. It’s always a good idea to put a chain or immobiliser on your scooter at night.
41. Waterproof seat covers for scooters – which can be safely trapped around the edges – not only keep off the damp, but can help save your seat from splitting in hot sunshine.
The Fun Stuff
42. Wrapping your arms around your favourite squeeze and driving through the centre of Rome is one of the best experiences you can have (and one of the most romantic, let’s admit it!)
43. The sunset over the Colosseum is best observed from a moving vehicle.
44. You don’t need air-conditioning in the summer if you own a scooter.
45. Vespas have the best internal storage if you’re big on bringing a lot of stuff along on the ride.
46. Add a top box, known as a bauletto in italian, if you want to carry a second helmet for a passenger. It’s also useful for picnics and rainproof gear.
47. Some people put a cotton square inside their helmet to keep their hair clean and cause less damage to their hair-do.
48. Always tuck long hair up inside your helmet, to stop the ends from getting dry and brittle.
49. Drive past Trinità dei Monti for one of the most breath-taking routes through the city.
50. This is designed as a fun guide and doesn’t substitute knowing and observing the law – Testaccina can’t be held responsible for any accidents or problems arising from your scooter escapades. Be smart and be safe to enjoy your Italian experience – and most of all – have fun!