Last week, I was in Italy, which is this country where things happen in a manner that’s very different to us in the United States. There are many examples of this on the roads alone — like, for example, when people actually move out of the passing lane after they’re done passing. This is a novel concept, and I think it would be amazing if we could adopt it here in the United States, but unfortunately it has never really caught on, sort of like the metric system.
Of course, Italy is also known for its rather creative problem solving — in contrast to the process-obsessed Germans — and its colorful, emotive, excitable people, and so I knew I’d be in for a treat when I happened upon a car accident there on Tuesday night.
Allow me to set the stage: I’m driving along "SS 583," which is a local road that connects the city of Lecco to the small tourist town of Bellagio along the shores of Lake Como. This is a mountain road; it’s unbelievably winding and tremendously narrow, to the point that when a bus meets a van on this road, both move as far over as possible, fold in their mirrors and pass one another at a walking pace. Imagine the Pacific Coast Highway, except with 10 fewer feet for vehicles to drive on. It’s terrifying. Naturally, the Italians drive on it at roughly 60 miles per hour in all conditions.
So I always expect to see an accident, but the worst thing I’ve ever seen is someone who ripped off their mirror on a building. But not on Tuesday night. On Tuesday night, I came across a smashed diesel hatchback that had hit the guardrail at serious speed. Fluids were pouring out, the airbags had deployed, and the front tire and suspension were a few feet away from the rest of the vehicle. I was the very first car on the scene after the accident happened.
But I wasn’t first on scene for long. This accident happened in a small town — and even though it was about 11 p.m., the town emptied to go see what was going on. Men and women poured onto the scene, seemingly from everywhere. At one point — I swear I am not making this up — an old woman who lived directly above the scene opened up her shutters and began shouting to the people down below, presumably trying to find out what was going on.
Of course, I don’t know what she was actually shouting, because I don’t speak Italian — but you didn’t have to speak Italian to figure out what was happening next. The car had crashed in a way so it was blocking the entire road, meaning traffic couldn’t pass in either direction — and cars were starting to back up behind us. And, so, a team of Italian men who had assembled on the scene (two or three of whom were smoking cigarettes despite the diesel fuel clearly leaking from the car) began attempting to lift the smashed car to move it out of the way of the road. I joined in (because, almost literally, When in Rome…), but it wasn’t happening: The car was too heavy, and we weren’t exactly the most physically fit group of car lifters you could find. We gave up, having not moved the car an inch.
So eventually we found someone in the crowd who spoke English, and she told us the police were coming, and someone called a tow truck, but the tow truck was still 30 minutes away. With no way to go around the crash — Google Maps said the alternate route to our destination was an even narrower mountain road, and that it would take nearly 50 minutes — we decided to wait to see what happened next. The occupants of the crashed car had gotten out, and seemingly uninjured, meaning the primary concern at this point was simply moving the vehicle.
Interestingly, the police showed up almost immediately after the attempted move, and an ambulance arrived within a few minutes. When I heard the sirens, I assumed this meant the car would be moving soon, so we could continue along our way — but when the police showed up, it was clearly not to be: They were driving some sort of old diesel-powered Fiat hatchback, which probably couldn’t have towed a mattress. We’d be waiting the full 30 minutes for the tow truck.
A few minutes earlier, a diesel-powered Jeep Grand Cherokee had appeared on the scene as just another member of the traffic jam. The next thing I knew, the police were retrieving two things from their trunk: chalk, to mark the precise location of the vehicle as if it were a dead body, and a ratchet strap. Were they going to attempt to pull it … with the Fiat?
Indeed, they weren’t. The police handed the ratchet strap to the Jeep owner, who had a tow hitch, and next began the most Italian part of this most Italian accident: With a full audience gathered around, the Jeep owner secured one side of the strap to the disabled hatchback, and then used some sort of hook to secure the other side of the strap to a towrope they had lying around.
I watched in horror. As someone who has dabbled in tow-strap purchasing for off-roading purposes, this looked like the single most dangerous setup I could possibly imagine: The hook legitimately looked like it was designed to haul one of those ride-along children’s vehicles, or possibly something made of Lego — and I wouldn’t have guessed the rope they were using was rated to tow an ATV, much less a disabled car with three wheels. This didn’t seem to bother the Italians. They hooked things up, and then I literally ran away, fearful that the hook would snap and go flying somewhere, at some huge velocity, with maximum danger.
But, indeed, the hook and the tow strap succeeded: The 50 or so people that had assembled on scene all watched as the Jeep began pulling the hatchback, repeatedly smashing it against the guardrail and scraping the pavement in the process. Pull, scrape, smash, pull, scrape, smash, and all with an audience, some of whom were in pajamas, watching this impressive event occur. Once the car was out of the way, the police didn’t bother to clear the debris: With tons of fluid lying on the ground, along with bits of headlight and plastic, they simply sent us — and all the other assembled vehicles — on our way. The scene was clear, a 17-year-old Jeep Grand Cherokee was the hero, the town went back to sleep, and I was reminded why I love Italy so much: Because you never really know what’s going to happen next. Find a car for sale
Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.