Looking fabulous and playing it safe - in that order

A new Italian law requiring helmets for motor-scooter riders is putting fashionistas on alert.

When reason fails, appeal to vanity.

At least, that appears to be the tack that supporters of a new helmet law for Italy's ubiquitous motor-scooter riders are taking. The law, which went into effect 10 days ago, is intended to bring Italy into line with its fellow European Union countries.

But here, where being hip and fashionable often seems to take precedence over personal safety - existing seat-belt laws are widely flouted - wearing a helmet is seen as positively unmacho.

Ah, but a helmet by Giorgio Armani or Dolce & Gabbana might just change all that.

"If the helmet becomes a status symbol, everyone will be ashamed not to have it, like not having the cellphone," says Carlo della Torre, editor and publisher of "Seduction Magazine," an Internet periodical that dispenses tips on love and romance. "They would feel naked."

Like going out without their Ray-Bans, perhaps? Today's helmet prices can undoubtably compete with designer shades. Helmets start at $60 and quickly rise to $1,000, with styles from classic to military to high-tech.

Even the Italian underworld hopes to profit from a trend toward designer headgear. In Naples, a city noted for its pirated films and compact discs, the market is being flooded with tens of thousands of fake designer helmets, according to the daily La Repubblica.

Certainly, there's no better place for a socio-cultural experiment in making safe scootering a fashion imperative.

There are half a million motorcycles and motorbikes in Rome alone, more than any other European city, and a recent spot check of the downtown area showed that the new law is being carefully observed (except for an express-mail deliverer, who presumably thought he needed his ear free to talk with headquarters on his walkie-talkie).

But compliance at this stage may have more to do with financial penalities than fashion. The Italian government promises a sharp crackdown, and the penalties are stiff: $70 if an adult is nabbed without a helmet; $120 if a young person is not wearing a helmet (with the possibility of seizure of the scooter for three months if the offense is committed in an area considered dangerous); and $50 if two people are found riding the same scooter, a practice that until now has been as Italian as pasta.

Ilaria de Grenet, a member of the Italian nobility who organizes some of Rome's most fashionable parties, is enthusiastic about the new law.

"I think it's very, very correct," she says. "Especially for the young people, who aren't afraid at all of what can happen to them."

Behind the drive to helmetize are government statistics showing that about 380 people a year die in motor-scooter accidents (70 percent of whom were not wearing helmets), and more than 18,000 are hospitalized.

But the helmet law poses another fashion dilemma: What hairdo will do?

Some hair stylists here are anticipating that short haircuts will come into fashion. Many Italians express concern about how to keep their hair in place while donning and doffing a skid lid - and even about possible damaging effects of "closing off" their hair from the environment.

Ms. de Grenet, who says, "I live on the motor scooter," sniffs at all this. "I have had very thin hair since I was a child, so for me the helmet doesn't help," she says. "But who cares."

Raffaele Viglietto, a Neapolitan doorman, doesn't buy the fashion argument. "The important thing for me with my family is that I'm safe. I don't care about being fashionable," he says.

But he adds that his younger cousin doesn't like putting on a helmet, because it messes up his hair.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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