If you will excuse a personal observation, I answer: European driving has not deteriorated a bit. It has remained uniform ever since the end of World War II, when the first Messerschmitt three-wheelers and Topolinos and Citro�n Deux Chevaux appeared on the scene. It has remained uniformly orribile. One reason is that the great mass of Europeans are still unaccustomed to cars and driving. At heart, they are bicyclists, horsemen, pedestrians.
Another reason is that they have their cars all mixed up with their pride and their passions, not unlike Americans, but they have neither the skill nor the good roads nor the traffic systems to save themselves from their own wild impulses. "I hate to admit it," says Businessman Klaus Dietrich of Frankfurt, "but every European, when he buys his first car, he gets that crazy gleam in his eye and he says to himself, 'This is my car! Now I show them!" This will go on for another 50 years at least, and then we'll—how you say it?—we'll cool it."
Says a transplanted Viennese, Franz Spelman, "We're just not used to cars, and we're still overexcited by them. We haven't reached the point that you Americans have, where the car has become a normal daily adjunct of life. A car is still an event in Europe, and we get carried away. Sometimes on slabs."
To attempt a driving trip in Europe these days is to undergo a trial by trauma. To begin with, most Europeans drive tiny, high-rpm cars that whine and spit and snap, giving you the feeling you're trapped deep inside a big generator and may never get out. The cars are underpowered and overdriven; the same tiny "Seat" (Spanish-made Fiat) that blocks your way for six miles of uphill mountain driving will fly by you at 80 mph on the first available downward pitch. And Lord help you if you don't get over and let him pass! Por Dios, you will see tailgating brought to a fine art, unmatched even in the Lincoln Tunnel. In France, it is an everyday occurrence to look in your rearview mirror and see a Simca halfway up your rear bumper, or a lane of Renaults and Citro�ns and Matras tooling along at 85 mph as though they were welded together tail to nose.
If an Italian friend is correct, then the Christian religion must take some of the blame for such deadly European nonchalance. He asked to take the wheel of my rented car, and we careened down a two-lane road in the Dolomite Mountains at top speed, only occasionally drifting into the correct lane. "Hey," I hollered. "Why, Claudio...."
"I know what you are thinking," my friend said calmly as he nipped the wheel a millimeter to the right to miss a hill-climbing truck. "But you are wrong. God will protect us till He is ready to take us to His side."
"Is it against the rules to give Him a little help?" I inquired in a squeaky, whiny voice.
Claudio turned and looked at me disdainfully. "Give Him help?" he said. "You are typical American person, to think He needs your help! A shame on you for such thoughts!"
Claudio's fatalism is trans-European. An American expatriate talks about Teutonic drivers. "They figure it's all in the lap of the gods. You'll be driving along a two-lane highway and suddenly an oncoming car'll pull out to pass, maybe 50 meters ahead. There's only one way you can miss him, and that's to get off the road, run up on the shoulder. It's like a game of chicken, except that if you lose you're dead. Another thing the Krauts do: when they want to pull out and pass, they pull out and pass! They don't use the mirror, and they don't turn their heads to see if somebody's already in the passing lane. They just don't worry; God will protect them. Last fall an American insurance executive was driving from Munich to Innsbruck on a two-laner, and he was passing a line of slow traffic when one of the slower cars pulled out, shoved him across the shoulder and down into a meadow. He was killed. It was in the lap of the gods, but the gods took the wrong person."
One bright Italian day, when most of us were younger and more foolish, I was driving a typical European toy car—a Fiat 1100 convertible—up the Autostrada del Sole near Rome. "Let's see what she'll do," I said to my wife, and floored the gas pedal on a long, flat stretch of road. We whirred along at 140 kph (87 mph), and just as we were passing a lumbering old truck, the truck driver swerved out and ran us off the road. Before the little car could be brought under control, we had torn up about 200 yards of fine Italian grass, and we were both quivering with terror. My wife was first to speak. "That's—the closest—we'll ever come—to dying—in a wreck," she said breathlessly. She was right, except that five minutes later, a few miles farther down the Autostrada, we underwent exactly the same experience, at a slightly lower speed. This time the offending truck driver shook his fist at me for committing the unpardonable: I had tried to pass him.