Education Matters: Of roundabouts, Vespas and sheep

Editor's Note: Numerous instances of plagiarism have been discovered in Dan Kimber’s “Education Matters” column, which ran in the News- Press from September 2003 to September 2011. In those columns where plagiarism has been found, a For the Record specifying the details will be appended to the piece.

Just to follow up on last week’s travel notes, a few words on driving in Italy.

I’m a firm believer in playing by the rules of my host, whether it be a family, or a nation, that has invited me in for a visit. After two weeks of driving from Milan to Florence to Venice and many parts in between, I was just beginning to learn different laws of yielding and passing and blending with other cars and pedestrians — and even contending with the millions of Vespas that absolutely rule the roads in Italy.

Vespa, a brand of motor scooter, means “wasp” in Italian, and that is a perfect match for these vehicles that buzz in and out of traffic, coming out of nowhere and completely unhindered by the rules of the road that cars must obey. Boys, girls, men, women, the very young and the very old — everyone, it seems, rides a Vespa in Italy. They do add a certain element of adventure to driving in the country and for every Vespa, there is one less 3-ton vehicle on the road. That’s good news for everyone.

I re-acquainted myself with Italian intersections (roundabouts) and, here again, I think we can learn from our friends across the sea. Rather than have half the nation’s cars waiting at red lights at any given time, there is constant movement as vehicles enter and merge with each other in a circular pattern and exit, most often without slowing down. The continuous flow of traffic saves time and saves an enormous amount of fuel that our red-light/green-light stopping-and-starting system wastes.

On the other hand, I wasted a good amount of gas looking for places in Italy where road signs are confusing or, more often, non-existent. My direction-finding ability is not good under normal circumstances and, even equipped with a GPS chip in our phone, I managed to get lost/misdirected more times than I’d care to admit. I’m chalking up some of that to a cheap chip. What other explanation could there be for a voice that tells me, “Please make a U-turn,” while I’m driving on the autostrada (their freeway)?

Europeans spend much more for gas than we do, but they’ve been making more fuel efficient cars for decades. Now that we here in America have our first real mass-produced, fuel-efficient car, the Chevrolet Volt, GM has limited its production, causing dealerships to run up the sales price as much as $20,000 above the suggested price. They are also claiming a $7,500-tax credit intended for the general public by exploiting a loophole in the federal program. Hooray for good old American enterprise.

I’ll switch gears slightly but stay with another four-wheeled conveyance that Italians handle differently than we do. I refer to shopping carts at supermarkets that require one euro (about $1.50) to use, which is then refunded automatically when the cart is returned to the same area. No need to hire someone to hourly round up carts and, best of all, no one takes them off the property and leaves them strewn around the neighborhood.

I seem to recall that the last time I mentioned another country (Canada) in a favorable light, a few readers suggested rather pointedly that if I like it so much, I should pull up stakes and move there. This sounded like a throwback to a popular bumper sticker in the ‘60s, “America, love it or leave it.”

I never quite understood that mentality, which seemed to equate unconditional, unquestioning acceptance of one’s country with patriotism. That kind of blind adherence puts me more in mind of a flock of sheep than free-thinking human beings. While we are indeed a nation of innovators, part of our claim to greatness comes also from our ability to learn from others and adapt to different ways.

I’ll keep that in my own version of an American creed, but may just draw the line if I am ever asked to trade in my car for a Vespa.

DAN KIMBER taught in the Glendale Unified School District for more than 30 years. He may be reached at

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