The high-powered, zooming Vespa scooter was birthed on April 23, 1946. Immediately adopted as a symbol of Italian freedom, this revolutionary vehicle helped Italian society drive out of the destruction caused by the World War II. The Vespa offered Italians an inexpensive means of travel, which jumpstarted the country from its post-war standstill and catapulted the people into an age of acceleration that was not only physical, but mental. Citizens once forced to walk everywhere in order to purchase medicine or food could suddenly be seen speeding around town on a vehicle whose name translates in English to ‘wasp’. This new motorized wonder was, and still is, equipped with antennae-like handlebars that crown its wasp-like body.
The New York Times newspaper quickly recognized the Vespa as a true symbol of Italy and Italian pride by calling it ‘the most completely Italian product since the Roman Chariot’. But all stories of glory have their downside. Within the past year or so, use of this innovative prodigy has become, to the dismay of many citizens, restricted by Italy’s newly adopted mandatory helmet law. Anyone riding a Vespa without a helmet faces a hefty fine, and risks losing the prized ‘wasp’ for a period of 30 days or more. Vespas are being confiscated left and right, sparking heated debate between faithful scooter-lovers and the authorities that strive to protect the riders.
Which is more important to Italians—freedom or safety? The creator of the Vespa, a man named D’Ascnaio, would probably argue that freedom is a more essential virtue. After all, this seemingly ordinary moped is what revolutionized Italy after the war—giving the gift of speedy mobility to citizens who could not afford to buy pricey cars. Its brand of freedom became immediately popular, and by the mid-1950s, sales of the Vespa had reached one million. They were being produced in Britain, Germany, France, Belgium, Spain, Indonesia and India. Since 1946, 120 different models have been designed, and now even tourists flock to Italy to celebrate this special moped. Many adventure-seekers long to see the Italian countryside with feet strapped into the Vespa pedals. Guided Vespa tours abound, as tourists and citizens alike chose to view places like Tuscany from the back of a ‘bike’.
But in the midst of this free-riding phenomenon, traffic police and government officials, point to frightening statistics which reveal the scooter’s downside. Vespa-related accidents involving head-on collisions and traumatic brain injuries overwhelmed hospitals daily when helmet-wearing remained optional. In an effort to reduce the severity of traffic accidents, the helmet law, which was not compulsory in 1986, became mandatory in March of 2000. A study conducted by Progetto Casco 2000 reports that during the first 12 months of its existence, this law prevented 180 deaths, as well as 350 serious disabilities and 8,000 hospitalizations. Emergency room visits declined by 40 percent, and Vespa-related head injuries went down by a whopping 75 percent.
In 2005, the ‘Vespa law’ got even harsher: citizens riding single-handed or without a seatbelt are also subject to losing their Vespas. Now, not only can Vespas be confiscated, they can be subject to auction. Despite life-saving statistics, many Italian scooter owners are growing frustrated with what they consider to be a breach in their road-related freedom. Questions bounce back and forth across the collective consciousness. Should individuals be forced to sacrifice their freedom for safety? Have civic authorities, with all these new laws and restrictions, seriously limited freedom? Will the Vespa continue to maintain its symbolic qualities?
A wild beast, though poten-tially harmful if set free, is often admired because it cannot be held in captivity. Undoubtedly, once an animal becomes prisoner to limitations, it loses a bit of its wild magic and becomes disappointingly ‘domestic’. Some of its majesty is inevitably lost. The new helmet laws have helped protect thousands of individuals, but will the Vespa—now slightly caged—continue to be considered the epitome of Italian freedom? Or has it, too, like a caught beast, suddenly become a domestic animal?