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Driving Lessons in Napoli

It's hard to say which city or country has the worst drivers in the world. The Portuguese have one of the highest death rates. Egyptian drivers don't bother with their headlights at night. The Greeks don't appear to have ever passed any traffic laws. And New Yorkers have not yet figured out why turn signals were installed on their cars. So we asked Doug Lansky, our Vagabond Traveler, to place his bet.

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Dear Rudy,

Most Europeans nominate the Italians for this award. But the Italians I confronted told me the worst drivers are in one specific city. "If you can drive in Napoli," many told me, "you can drive anywhere." So I made the journey and rented a red Ford Fiesta, where Renato, the deputy manager, volunteered to give me a lesson.

"Okay," he explained, as I adjusted the rear-view mirror, "driving in Napoli is like a video game. You just have to relax, stop thinking and feel it in your stomach."

I fastened my seat belt. "What are you doing?" Renato asked accusingly. "You want to look like a tourist? No one in Napoli wears seatbelts." This was Lesson Number One.

I unbuckled. Renato said that when the seatbelt law was passed, years ago, people started wearing T-shirts with a black stripe painted across the chest.

I had a death grip on the steering wheel as I pulled out from the curb and narrowly missed colliding with a speeding scooter that seemed to come out of nowhere. "They are mosquitoes," Renato said. "Just ignore them and they will buzz around you." That explained why most of the cars in the area look like they've been ravaged by a cat with titanium claws.

We came to the first traffic light and I began to slow down. "Now what are you doing?" Renato asked. I pointed out the stop light. "Don't worry about it," he assured me.

Lesson Number Two: Traffic lights are just colors here, and should be obeyed no more than Christmas decorations.

Drivers approach intersections like New York pedestrians: a cursory glance both ways during the approach, and if there's not a car barreling down with intention to kill, you're safe to cross.

Renato explained, "If everyone followed rules, they'd be stuck in traffic for hours."

"But they're stuck in traffic for hours, anyway," I pointed out.

"Well yes, that's true," he admitted.

Lesson Number Three: Acoustics. In Napoli, the horn is not just a warning device, but a musical instrument, and Renato played it beautifully. When we passed a voluptuous woman walking on the sidewalk, he reached over and hit the side of the horn, delivering three short, cute squeaks. Later, five machine-gun-style honks got the attention of his friend on the other side of the street. One quick blast warned a driver not to cut us off. And when we were in a crowd Renato reached over and honked with a short double-tap to the center of the horn, and everyone moved out of the way.

Watching some Napolitano drivers squeeze past me on the right, drive up on the curb, and triple park, I wondered aloud how they ever passed their driver's tests. "They probably didn't," Renato answered. "Up until a few years ago, anyone could buy a black market license for around $600."

As we arrived back at the Avis desk, I asked Renato if it's tough to run a rental business since roughly 10 percent of the cars come back with dents. Not really, he said. Some people, mostly New Yorkers, love to come and drive here. To them, it's a sport.

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