The traffic doesn’t stop until you step into the street. This maxim rules the life of Roman pedestrians. That makes things difficult for those of us from another culture where the rule is: Don’t step into the street until the traffic stops. Drivers here see you and prepare to stop, but they don’t halt their cars until your feet are firmly off the sidewalk.
Romans on foot approach a crosswalk without pausing. They step into the traffic, and like Moses parting the Red Sea, they manage to interrupt its flow. The cars move around them. The key is to avoid pausing because drivers often judge a pedestrian’s pace and aim their cars ahead of or behind the stride without actually stopping. A pedestrian who dawdles risks death.
Despite the number of years I’ve spent here, I still find crossing the street a challenge. When I first arrived in Rome, I would walk great distances to find a traffic light. That ploy is not a guarantee of safety, however. At many Roman crosswalks there is a pedestrian “Walk” light while cars have a turn arrow allowing them to traverse it at the same time. One such intersection lies in my daily path just outside my front door. I usually cross the street twice to avoid that dangerous spot.
My lifelong stratagem for crossing the street fails me, too. I stand looking left, watching for a break in the traffic. I see one five cars along and wait, keeping my eyes on the spot. Usually, one of two things happens. First, a car ahead slows to give me a chance to step into the traffic, disrupting the entire flow so that the break I’ve anticipated closes up. The driver who has paused becomes disgusted with me and speeds up, and there’s no place to cross. The other scenario is even more annoying. Another pedestrian often steps up to my right, out of my line of vision. That pedestrian strides into the traffic, which stops. I have my eyes focused ahead and don’t notice until it’s too late and the traffic has started again.
My usual strategy is to join somebody else and cross with them. Just last week I approached a particularly harrowing crosswalk over a busy thoroughfare. The traffic from the left careens down a hill and around a curve so that you can’t see too far back. The traffic from the right speeds up the hill and around another bend with an equally short line of sight. I spotted a school group about to cross and tried to catch up, but I failed. I shuffled around until a lone, leggy young woman approached, and I stepped behind her has she plunged into the traffic.
Romans step into the traffic in the middle of the block, too. When I’m walking with someone who does that, my heart races. A couple of years ago I was in London with two Italian people. Now, crossing the street in England is a challenge because you have to remember to look right for oncoming traffic. These two people started to plunge into the traffic mid-block. They would surely have been killed before my eyes if I hadn’t pulled them back. Londoners expect people to follow the rules.
I am braver about crossing the street now, but if all else fails, I wait for a nun or a mother with a baby carriage.