I'm starting to plan my 2014 Spring Break trip. Two years ago I went solo to Greece. I'm thinking about going to Sicily this time. Maybe flying into Rome, renting a car, driving to/aruond Sicily and back to Rome. I've heard that Sicily can be risky, especially in a rented car. Any suggestions?
First of all there are no particular risks in Sicily, with a car rental or not. In spite of the mafia, Sicily is safer than Most places in the US. For example, Palermo, with 800,000 residents has half the number of murders of similarly populated San Francisco. The only problem I see what your plan is renting a car in Rome and driving to Sicily from Rome. That's way too much driving in my book. I would fly to Sicily, then rent a car in Sicily and visit the island. You can fly to Sicily with Alitalia from Rome. Or you can fly there using one of the many low cost airlines that connect the island to several European airport. Sicily has 3 international airports: Catania, Palermo and Trapani. The last one is basically a Ryanair base. Go to Wikipedia, search for those airports and you can find all your flight options with the corresponding airlines.
No particular risks driving in Sicilia, except in regards of parking on some rough neighborhoods around Palermo or Catania. But you have no reason to go and park there (it is like an European visitor going to the Bay Area and being concerned about risks in rough areas of Oakland). I'd rent a car in the island, though, unless your intention is to visit other places. The drive + ferry from Roma to Messina alone takes at least 7h. There is plenty to see though if you break your driving from Roma with 2 overnight stops.
How much time do you have on a spring break? If it's around ten days, follow Roberto's advice and fly between Rome and Sicily, you will save almost two full days.
Take your Gamin from home, and load the maps of Sicily from the U.S. before you leave. Also get a good Michelin map as a back up. If you arrive in Palermo, tour the city for a day or two before you pick up the car, then pick it up at the Palermo airport (you DON'T want to drive inside of the city). If you arrive in Catania, same advice. Sicily is wonderful.