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Tiny Sicilian Town is Giving Homes Away—Literally

Property hunters and bargain hounds take note: If you're in the market for a Sicilian escape, the tiny town of Gangi has a deal for you. Act now and you could get a historic home for the low, low price of nothing at all (up to a nominal fee).

Gangi has been shrinking for centuries. Starting in the late 1800s, emigration from Sicily to America was heavily encouraged by agents for trans-Atlantic ocean liners. Between 1892 and 1924, about 1700 Gangi residents landed in New York, according to records at Ellis Island. Not huge numbers, but still a sizable portion of the dwindling population, which dropped to 16,000 by the 1950s and today hovers around just 7000.

The years of exodus left many old buildings empty and susceptible to degradation. The homes have a unique three-story structure, called pagglialore, that once housed donkeys on the ground floor, chickens and goats in the middle, and the farmer's family on the top. Now, town officials are trying to find owners to give these long-empty structures new life.

Gangi isn't the first Italian town to try to drum up residents for abandoned buildings with a can't-miss deal. A few years ago, the Sicilian town of Salemi announced plans to sell properties ruined in an earthquake many decades before for a single euro each; the offer never came to fruition. A similar initiative failed in Carrega Ligure, a town in the Piedmont region, after the local government learned that, by law, the municipal administration can only sell properties for market value—no less.

It's a poor track record, but steps have been taken to ensure no such fate befalls Gangi. The local government won't actually buy any of the empty homes outright, but will act as a mediator between buyers and sellers. And to ease potential new owners wary of the notorious Italian home-buying red-tape, there's a team in place to help streamline the process.

"The bureaucracy is what worries people most, but we don’t sell a house and leave people alone," Alessandro Cilibrasi, a local real estate agent who assists the municipality in the initiative, told the New York Times.

And besides, it's already working: More than 100 houses have been given away or sold for less than market prices. The majority of these have gone to Sicilians looking for a weekend getaway, or to other Italians. There are about 200 similar properties left on the market, with a sizable waiting list for interested owners.

“We don’t want people just because they have money,” Giuseppe Ferrarello, the mayor, said. “We want to know what you’re going to do with the houses.”

One of the things you have to do with the house is renovate—right away. The offer for the free homes [PDF] comes with a stipulation that buyers must begin renovations within a year of purchasing and complete the work within four years.

But in the end, Ferrarello is sure the work will be worth it, comparing the island's interior to Italy's famed great heart: “Umbria has nothing on Sicily."

[h/t New York Times]

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Big Questions
How Are Speed Limits Set?
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When driving down a road where speed limits are oppressively low, or high enough to let drivers get away with reckless behavior, it's easy to blame the government for getting it wrong. But you and your fellow drivers play a bigger a role in determining speed limits than you might think.

Before cities can come up with speed limit figures, they first need to look at how fast motorists drive down certain roads when there are no limitations. According to The Sacramento Bee, officials conduct speed surveys on two types of roads: arterial roads (typically four-lane highways) and collector streets (two-lane roads connecting residential areas to arterials). Once the data has been collected, they toss out the fastest 15 percent of drivers. The thinking is that this group is probably going faster than what's safe and isn't representative of the average driver. The sweet spot, according to the state, is the 85th percentile: Drivers in this group are thought to occupy the Goldilocks zone of safety and efficiency.

Officials use whatever speed falls in the 85th percentile to set limits for that street, but they do have some wiggle room. If the average speed is 33 mph, for example, they’d normally round up to 35 or down to 30 to reach the nearest 5-mph increment. Whether they decide to make the number higher or lower depends on other information they know about that area. If there’s a risky turn, they might decide to round down and keep drivers on the slow side.

A road’s crash rate also comes into play: If the number of collisions per million miles traveled for that stretch of road is higher than average, officials might lower the speed limit regardless of the 85th percentile rule. Roads that have a history of accidents might also warrant a special signal or sign to reinforce the new speed limit.

For other types of roads, setting speed limits is more of a cut-and-dry process. Streets that run through school zones, business districts, and residential areas are all assigned standard speed limits that are much lower than what drivers might hit if given free rein.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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School Buses May Soon Come with Seat Belts
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The days of school bus passengers riding unencumbered by seat belts may soon be over. This week, the federal National Transportation Safety Board made a recommendation to state agencies that new, larger buses should come equipped with lap and shoulder belts, as well as automatic emergency braking and anti-collision systems.

Traditionally, most large school buses have allowed students to ride without being secured in their seats. That’s because the buses are designed to surround passengers with shock-absorbing, high-backed seats spaced closely together, an approach referred to as "compartmentalization." In an accident, kids would be insulated in an egg-carton type of environment and prevented from hitting a dashboard or window. For smaller buses—usually defined as weighing 10,000 pounds or less—belts are standard.

The Safety Board’s conclusion comes at a time when recent bus crashes—including one with two fatalities that took place in New Jersey just last week—have reopened discussion as to whether larger buses need belts. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration maintains that the compartmentalization of larger buses provides adequate safety, while the American Academy of Pediatrics argues that belts should be mandatory on all buses in the event of high-speed collisions or rollovers, where the high-back seats would offer less protection.

For now, the National Transportation Safety Board’s suggestion is just that—a suggestion. No states are required to follow the advice, and there’s considerable expense involved in retrofitting older buses with belts. Currently, eight states require seat belts on large buses.

[h/t ABC News]

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