- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 14, 2005

ROME — For decades, the noise of Italian youths bumping their Vespas down the country’s cobbled streets at all hours has been part of the national soundtrack.

In Naples, however, the distinctive sound of the scooters is to disappear after they were banned last week from entering the center of Italy’s third largest city.

The problem is not congestion, or even noise pollution, but crime: scooters have become the getaway of choice for bag-snatchers and the favored vehicle for ride-by attacks by the Mafia.

Disguised beneath crash helmets, thieves and hit men attack their victims before weaving away through traffic jams and narrow alleyways.

Last Tuesday, urged on by local magistrates, squads of police officers erected a series of roadblocks around the tourist-packed Decumani district, a mazelike area at the heart of Naples that dates back to Greco-Roman times.

To avoid a $90 fine, riders must now disembark and push their scooters — and, indeed, motorbikes — through the center unless they can prove that they live inside the restricted area.

“Our goal is to give tourists and citizens more security,” said Nicola Oddati, Naples’ councilor for traffic. “We cannot have people visiting our city coming under attack, and then returning home with a bad image of a stunning city that is marred by a backdrop of lawless violence.”

In recent weeks scooters have been used in a spate of high-profile crimes, including the murder of Emilio Albanese, a 69-year-old retired engineer who was fatally beaten outside his house by two youths who followed him home after he withdrew a large sum of money from his bank. His killers made their escape by scooter.

An Austrian tourist was recently robbed of a Rolex watch worth $12,500 by thieves on two wheels, while a senior police officer was injured after he tried to retrieve his wife’s handbag and was dragged along by the getaway scooter.

In one recent incident, two hit men riding a scooter gravely injured Vincenzo Del Mastro, 25, a suspected Mafia member, and shot a 58-year-old passer-by in the leg.

The scooter ban will run for a two-month “probation period.” If it proves effective, there are plans to extend it to other crime-plagued areas.

Other measures introduced to tackle crime include restrictions on the sale of pocketknives and deploying plainclothes police officers on their own, specially souped-up, pursuit scooters.

Although City Hall says the scooter ban is a success, claiming that opportunistic bag-snatchers all but disappeared the day after it was introduced, it drew howls of protest from Italy’s Two Wheels Association.

The group says law-abiding scooter users are being penalized over what is essentially a law and order problem. “Legality is restored in other ways,” said a spokesman, “such as by trying to deprive delinquents, and not honest citizens, of their liberty.”

Italy’s love affair with the scooter dates back to 1946, when the engineer Enrico Piaggio revealed its first ever incarnation, the Vespa, at Rome Golf Club.

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