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Belgium Launches Drive for Safer Roads : Traffic: The country has one of the worst accident records in Europe. The new regulations seek to reduce fatalities.

REUTERS

When a reporter tailed the car of Belgian Transport Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, he noted that the chauffeur committed 16 traffic violations in 45 minutes.

The incident in September gave Belgians a chuckle at the expense of the man in charge of their road safety.

But, with one of the worst road accident records in Europe, Belgians don’t have much to laugh about. Now, Dehaene has launched a campaign to make the country’s roads safer.

“I have driven and walked in Portugal, Peru, Indonesia and India and in Rome, Manila and New York,” Brussels resident Jon Jenkins wrote in a recent letter to a Belgian magazine.

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“In my 22 years of driving experience, this is the worst place to drive or walk.”

Recently leaflets titled “The roads--battlefield or peace?” have been pushed through every mailbox in Belgium. Published by Dehaene’s ministry, they explain new regulations aimed at cutting the death toll on the roads, almost 2,000 last year.

Belgium tops the league of European Community member states for the annual total of deaths and injuries--nearly 90,000 last year in a population of just under 10 million. Road accidents, almost half of which are caused by drunk driving, are the single biggest killer of Belgians between the age of 18 and 24.

It was only in 1977 that Belgium introduced a compulsory driving test. But the test is considered more a necessary evil than a practical guide by many.

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Red lights are treated casually. Cars are likely to cut across in front of you with no warning, or perhaps a peremptory blast on the horn. Drive at anything close to the speed limit and people will hurl abuse and flash their lights at you for getting in their way.

Dehaene’s proposals include cutting the alcohol limit for drivers, halving the speed limit in densely populated areas to 20 m.p.h., introducing a penalty-points system for drivers that can lead to a driving ban, and an overhaul of the driving school system.

He unveiled the plan two years ago and hoped to have much of the legislation in place by early this year.

But the government’s program has fallen behind schedule and it has spent $650,000 on leaflets--as much as the annual road safety budget--because not enough Belgians knew what was happening.

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“Recent polls showed that public awareness of these measures was rather low,” said Ruddi Dieleman, spokesman for the Belgian Institute for Road Safety.

Dieleman denied that Belgian drivers are more aggressive than others in Europe. “When I drive in Germany, for example, I have the feeling that there is a line of Mercedes trying to push me off the road,” he said.

He said Belgium, one of the world’s most densely populated countries, had a problem because too many houses and buildings were built close to roads and this increased the number of accidents.

But he also said the police had not always pursued traffic offenders vigorously enough. Jenkins, the angry letter writer, agreed. “Drivers are constantly reminded that . . . illegal behavior does not usually result in punishment,” he wrote.

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Police had been unwilling to take blood tests from suspected drunk drivers, Dieleman said, because of the time and administrative effort involved. New electronic breath tests will be introduced, which will be much quicker for police to use.

The legal limit for alcohol in the blood will be cut from the current .08% level--which is California’s limit now--to .05%.

Dieleman said Belgium’s many multilane carriageways and motorways encourage fast driving. The country also suffers due to poor traffic signs and road design.

The reorganization of driving schools will be in full effect by next year, the new alcohol limit in the second half of next year, and the penalty points system--already used in many other European countries--will be introduced in 1992.

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Front-seat safety belts have been compulsory in Belgium since 1975, although many drivers simply ignore the law. By next year, back-seat passengers will also be required to wear belts.

But many crashes in Belgium occur as a result of a fanatical adherence to the rule of priorite a droite (priority to traffic joining a road from the right).

Even if signs clearly indicate that the driver on the main road has priority, most Belgians assume the rule allows them to join any road from the right, often unannounced and at high speed.

There are no plans to change this law.

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What about the minister’s chauffeur? Was he fired for breaking so many traffic regulations?

“Oh, no,” said transport ministry spokeswoman Monique Delvou. “The minister said that if he sacked everyone in his office who had committed a traffic offense, there wouldn’t be anyone left.”


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