Posted by: 4initalia | May 12, 2009

It Happens

It does happen. For all the joking about lunatic Italian drivers, they seem to be making some inroads on the pedestrian population. We live above a traffic circle, and the street usually whirs with Fiats and SmartCars and bicyclists and trucks. Sometimes the trucks are comically small, with a single wheel in the front, two in the back; they they look like cars from Richard Scary’s animal towns. Frequent sirens whine hysterically as they hurtle to the latest crisis. And I always wonder, as I enter the crosswalk, whether I’m going to make it to the other side without being snuffed into the pavement like a cigarette.

Last week, after more than the usual noise from the traffic circle, I saw a car accident in the bureaucratic stages of cleanup. There were a few police vehicles blocking off the area, and a lone car with an ominous hood concavity. Because only one car was surrounded by police tape, I assumed that the car had hit a pedestrian. When the police were through, two marks indicated the position of the car’s wheels, and a circle on the concrete pinpointed the impact zone. So it happens.

As I waited beside the crosswalk for traffic to clear, honking drivers careened around the accident scene toward me. Why slow down just because someone may have died? How clever to use the city’s resources so efficiently.

This morning, only days later, I was brushing my teeth with the window open. There was a surge of sound, I felt desperate wheels straining to spread rubber over the road, and a dull thud. Three beats of silence, and then the scream. Oh, no, someone’s been hit by a car.

There was deep moaning, and a woman yelled “BAMBINA!”

I climbed to the roof. A young woman, doughish in drapey bluegray polyster, stood in front of a little green car whose dull paint was faded to a sickly shade of pea. Beside the car, pulled over to the curb, was a rectangular yellow bus, neatly compact, like the one my kids ride to school. The driver wore a crisp blue uniform. Fortunately, the bus was empty. Out of the car tumbled a dessicated blonde, and a bloated woman with burgandy hair, probably the driver’s sister.

In front of the car, screened from my view by a tree, was the pedestrian, who was still lying in the road. I hoped it wasn’t a child.

I was amazed by two things: how long it took the driver to light her first cigaratte, and how long it took the police to send their only squad car.

In the U.S., a downed pedestrian would have required the assistance of at least one fire truck, a rescue vehicle, an ambulance or three, and five police cars. For accidents, we “cop up.” Here, a rescue vehicle discreetly pulled off to the side, rescue workers hunched over the victim, and the ambulance arrived and silently parked behind them. There was a lot of discussion about the best way to lift the patient. Finally, a backboard was placed on top of the gurney, and the poor woman, her neck locked in a brace, was lifted into the ambulance.

The ambulance left without using the siren, which made me wonder what all the others are schreeching about. The victim was taken to a hospital, where her treatment was funded by tax dollars. At home if the pedestrian was uninsured, the hospital would lose a fortune treating her. If she was insured, she’d lose months, and maybe her house, fighting about what treatment was covered. Also, responding to accidents costs Modena a lot less than at home. Why all the fuss about socialized medicine? It cuts way down on emergency vehicle traffic.

The victim was taken away, and still the police hadn’t arrived. Finally, a single car labeled “Polizia Municipale” pulled up and discharged three thin cops. In the States, the officers would be steroidally beefy and swaggering with testosterone, they’d have their whirling lights flashing, and the radio would be bristling with calls for backup. But the Modena officers were no more imposing than the bus driver. They listened to the women, and to the man. They didn’t interview bystanders, although a white-haired woman in a bright red cardigan seemed to have seen the whole thing.

There was a lot of arm waving from the partcipants, but there was no real disagreement over what happened; the car driver was trying to pass the bus on the left, and a woman walking across the street stopped her. This wasn’t going to end well for the driver. The cops conferred at the back of their police car, a streamlined hatchback. It was hot standing in the street, so the three women sat on the curb, and the brunette curled into herself and cried. The other two women pointed their faces at her coiled back, but didn’t raise a hand in comfort.

The cops measured and discussed and drew marks on the road, and the women waited. The bus driver was issued a citation, and as he walked past he leant to give each woman a gentle clutch. Finally, the cops finished the paperwork, and the women got back in the car. As the driver’s sister slowly pulled back into traffic, other drivers scuffed the chalk marks from the accident not yet over, and blaring horns protested the unaccustomed slowness.

It happens. Maybe Italians can think about why it happens so often, and Americans can think about why it ends so badly.

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