Venice gondola pilots to face breath tests

VENICE has announced plans to cut back on congested boat traffic on its Grand Canal after a German tourist taking a gondola ride was crushed to death by a water bus.

Gondoliers gather to pay their respects at the spot where a German tourist was killed in an apparent boat crash. Picture: Reuters
Gondoliers gather to pay their respects at the spot where a German tourist was killed in an apparent boat crash. Picture: Reuters

Joachim Vogel, 50, a German professor of criminal law, was aboard a gondola with his wife and three children on 17 August when a water bus reversed into them, pushing the wooden vessel into a dock.

Vogel, 50, died of his injuries while his daughter was hurt.

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Amid calls for a crackdown on the chaotic traffic on the world famous canal, Venice mayor Giorgio Orsini has now launched a 26-point plan to increase safety and reduce congestion.

It includes bans on mobile phone use while steering, strict limits on when gondolas, water taxis and delivery boats can use the waterway, the placing of policemen to monitor traffic at the Rialto bridge and the introduction of bow propellers on waterbuses to help them steer out of danger.

“I am amazed this crash didn’t happen sooner, people do exactly what they like on the canals,” said Aldo Rosso, a former city-appointed representative of Venice’s gondoliers

Also among the measures – which must be discussed with water users before coming into effect – are spot tests for alcohol and drug use, after the gondolier involved in the collision tested positive for cocaine and marijuana.

“The gondola was allowed to be where it was when it was hit, so it does not look like the gondolier’s behaviour had anything to do with it,” said Nicola Falconi, the current representative of the gondoliers.

Gundula Vogel, the widow of the crash victim, suggested the water bus pilot was to blame. “We continued to shout from the gondola, but the vaporetto hit us and then pulled out without being aware of what had happened,” she said.

Vogel’s body was flown to Germany on Monday, with his funeral planned for Friday.

In the days following the crash, gondoliers reported two more near misses on the Grand Canal. “I feared for my life and those of my customers,” said gondolier Alessandro Secco.

Ugo Bergamo, the city’s transport assessor, claimed that the level of traffic on the Grand Canal had not increased since 2006.

“The problem is people going too fast. Last year, the handing out of fines for going over six kph was halted after a judge ruled the use of speed cameras was an invasion of privacy,” he said.

Matteo Secchi, the spokesman for local activists’ group, said the level of traffic on the canal in 2006 had already been too high.

“It all comes back to how Venice cannot support the tourists who come here, it is a simple question of space,” he said.

More than 60,000 tourists visit Venice every day, more than the fast declining local population.

Mr Secchi said that one of the mayor’s proposed measures – banning small private boats from the Grand Canal – would hit locals. “Those are the boats we use for getting around,” he said. “We don’t block traffic, the water buses do, but us residents are always the last in line.”