Due to a peculiar twist of Italian law, children as young as 14 can legally drive special minicars, even though they can't get licenses until they are 18. Because the vehicles are classified as small mopeds, they don't require a license to operate.
Niccolo turns the key and holds tight as his little vehicle shudders forward, making a noise like a diesel lawnmower grinding long grass. This isn't exactly a Ferrari, but the snubbed-nosed, 2 1/2-meter (8-foot) minicar isn't bad for a teenager's first wheels. What is worrying, especially to pedestrians who brave the screeching cars and mopeds zinging by on Italian roads, is that Niccolo Cantaloni, 17, is too young to get a driver's license. Yet what he is doing is quite legal. Thanks to a twist of Italian law, kids as young as 14 can drive so-called minicars, which are much smaller and much slower that normal cars. Even adults whose licenses have been revoked, or who wouldn't qualify for a license because of health problems including bad eyesight, can drive minicars.
Niccolo cruises through tight traffic after school in his bite-sized auto - without wearing his seat belt and with just one hand on the wheel. His minicar is convenient: No more waiting for buses or being chaperoned around. But Niccolo tells a troubling story about a 16 year-old buddy. "My friend just killed someone on the street," he says. "Not with a minicar but with a moped. Yet he can still drive a minicar. "It's not like a 14-year-old is going to be thinking about what he's doing, and he'll make a ton of mistakes that an 18-year-old wouldn't make."
The number of minicars in Europe has remained steady at about 250,000, and the clientele is mostly among the elderly. But in Italy, which has the most permissive licensing laws on minicars, sales have gone up for years, a minicar manufacturers group says. To explain the vehicles' popularity, one need only look at Rome, a city of daunting hills and woeful public transport that traditionally has prompted teens to hop onto profoundly dangerous mopeds. Many parents who can afford minicars, which range from 8,000 to 13,000 Euros ($10,000-$16,000), believe they have found a safer alternative. These vehicles - known as "quadricycles," "microcars," and a variety of other names - aren't exactly normal automobiles. First, they are small: They sit low to the ground and have just two front seats and two gears, drive and reverse. Second, they cannot legally go faster than 45kph (30 mph), though kids here say most are souped up, with some going more than 110 kph (65 mph). Third, they must not weigh more than 350 kilograms (772 pounds). And drivers without licenses are not allowed to have passengers in the car, though the rule is widely ignored.
Minicars still haven't gotten much attention from Italian legislators. Because they are classified with mopeds, separate registration or accident statistics don't exist. The government has considered requiring licenses for small mopeds, and therefore minicars, but officials acknowledge they are still coming to terms with the new trend. The European Association of Manufacturers and Importers of Quadricycles says minicars are almost twice as safe as normal autos. But traffic safety advocates say the low age limit adds to the danger because young people are more likely to get into accidents. "They could always hit a pedestrian, harm a bicyclist. These are things we see every day on the streets," said Patrizia Quaresima of the Italian Association of Road Victims and Families.
mom bought him his French-made Aixam "Evolution" for about 8800 Euros ($11,000),
believing it would give her more peace of mind than seeing her son roar off
on a 1000 Euro ($1,250.) motor scooter. Some people including Quaresima, the
road safety advocate, wonder whether it's worthwhile at all to allow kids as
young as 14 to buzz around town in their own rides at a cost of thousands of
Euros. " I think children of a certain age should be going around by bus or
with their parents," she said. "But today it seems that's no longer in fashion."