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Red Light, Green Light


When is a red light not a red light? When you’re driving in Italy. It’s a timeworn joke, one that would have launched me into a strenuous bout of eye rolling just a few days ago.
But Rome’s subway crash, which killed one and injured hundreds on Monday, happened because in Italy’s capital a red light does not mean “stop!”

Rosso permissivo: a “soft red,” that’s what it’s called in Italian subway jargon. Here’s how it works: Train A is speeding along. Train B is coming along behind it. To keep Train B from waiting in a dark tunnel while Train A lets passengers out, Train B technically has a red light but doesn’t stop, instead marching on at a much slower speed, up to 15 km (about nine miles) an hour.
During morning rush hour the other day, Train B had a “soft red” but chugged along at about 25 km an hour and hit Train A. (There are three investigations to sort out exactly what happened). Most reports in English say that a train ignored a red light and hit another one standing in the station, but that’s clearly only half the story.
When a red light in a transport system isn’t “really” a red light, it’s a miracle there haven’t been other accidents (this is the first major one in about 50 years of operation). This is the kind of eppur si muove (“and yet it moves,”) feeling that pervades a city like Rome, relegating it to one of those nice places to visit but improbable to live in.
The concept comes to us from Galileo, who was asked to deny his heretical scientific findings on the movement of the earth around the sun. He grudgingly agreed, but on his way out reportedly muttered, “and yet it does move.” The catchphrase is used a lot in Italy, to underline things that shouldn’t work — bogged down with such evident chaos — but somehow do.
And when does a red light district not mean sex? When you’re in Amsterdam. The normally humor-deprived folks at Greenpeace convinced the city’s famous sex district to switch bulbs from red to green to save energy. This new green light idea could well catch on: Go! for sex, it makes perfect sense.
Tough times ahead for daltonics, though.

Share  Posted by Nicole Martinelli at 8:26 AM | Permalink

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