Speed traps, the curse of modern motorists, finally have caught up with those Italian drivers reared on the belief that a squeeze on the accelerator is preferable to a stomp on the brake.
In what was widely considered an act of treachery, parliament last month passed a new law that limited highway speeds to 65 mph and rural road speeds to 55 mph, and imposed a $1,100 fine for any driver caught going even 5 mph too fast.The law replaced an old speed limit of 95 mph that no one ever bothered to honor. It was accompanied by hints of further legislation on compulsory use of seat belts and talk of enforcement of a 3-month-old law on drunk driving.
"No one knows about this law because the Health Ministry forgot to tell us what levels of alcohol establish the sobriety of a driver and the Interior Ministry has not yet decided how it intends to measure this level," said Antonio Testa, head of parliament's Transportation Committee.
The new speed limit was approved on the eve of the annual vacation exodus, when an estimated 20 million Italian drivers traditionally bundle the bambini, Mamma, and Nonna (granny) into their cars, pile sundry pleasure craft onto their vehicle roofs, and set out at breakneck speed for their favorite seaside resorts.
Not this year. Highway traffic crawled. Drivers of fast cars complained that the new laws not only made their vehicles obsolete but also clogged the spark plugs.
Carmakers, who had been praising ever faster turbo engines, talked about bankruptcy. An auto manufacturer withdrew his ad for a new model capable of hitting 160 mph.
"I can toss this into the junkyard now," lamented Patrizio Solari, pointing at the Porsche that he tunes each weekend.
Italians, however, are notorious for devising schemes to circumvent laws. According to the weekly Panorama, the 312 new Italian-developed infrared radar traps, known as Autovelox, cannot read license plates sprayed with hair lacquer.
The lacquer produces a mirror effect for the radar camera, obliterating the numbers, but it does not work in the dark or on cloudy days. The same publication also pointed out that Autovelox traps do not work in tunnels.
Some motorists began blinking their headlights to warn oncoming traffic about imminent speed traps. The scheme worked until 52 drivers were fined last week for illegally "blinking" in daylight.
Drivers became even more paranoic last week after it was reported that Autovelox had caught 6,470 speeders since July 26 and that the standard $1,100 fine had been imposed on each offender.
As Italian drivers were grumbling about the new speed limits, their counterparts in West Germany - the only nation in Europe that has no speed limits - charged that the laws were an attempt by perfidious Italians to extract solid deutschmarks from honest German tourists.
The Foreign Ministry even hinted it would not pass on the notices of fines to those West Germans whose license plates were captured by Italy's radar cameras.
"The measure is a violation against hospitality and the legal principles of good faith," complained West German Transportation Minister Juergen Warnke.
Italian diplomats immediately responded that the real reason for West Germany's reaction was anxiety over the market in Italy for Porsches, Mercedes and BMWs.
Because of the imminent strain in relations, Italy set a two-week moratorium on fining foreign offenders.
Parliament, perhaps to avoid riots, promised that the new speed law would be in effect only until the vacation period ends on Sept. 11, a promise no one believes.
Although opinion polls found that two-thirds of Italians questioned welcomed the speed limit for the vacation season, the country is radically divided on whether it should be made permanent.
The entire nation appeared to participate in the debate.
"I love going fast. It's an egoistic requirement, maybe a trifle infantile," admitted Franco Piro, the deputy leader of the Socialist Party.
"Poppycock," retaliated Silvia Costa, a Christian Democrat. "Speed is a masculine myth which fortunately is going out of fashion."
Not so for millions of passionate ragazzi, lovers of the controlled slide and the nerve-tinkling overtake, drivers who sit one inch from the back fender of the car in front, cut in with a hair's breadth to spare and disregard red lights and no-passing signs.
For those highway gladiators the law is simply additional evidence that influence from the rest of the boring world continues to spoil La Bella Italia.