My new company is offering me a company car. I can choose from BMW, Mercedes Benz and Alfa Romeo among others. And I’ll refuse. Driving in Belgium isn’t particularly fun. I rented a car on my first visit and again for a couple of weeks when I was moving in, so I know. It’s not that you have to get used to driving on the other side of the road, or the other side of the car – and therefore the other side of the lane. I picked all that up in ten minutes, after only a few mistakes in the airport grounds – no accidents. No, the problems are the local laws and their lack of enforcement.
I’m told that there’s a 1 in 100,000km chance of being booked in Belgium, and the locals take full advantage of that fact. In an effort to reduce speeding, the local authorities took drastic action. They didn’t put more police on the road, or make a blitz on offenders. Instead, they introduced a law that gave right of way to cars coming in from the right – the theory being that everyone would have to slow down at each intersection in case anyone wanted to pull out in front of them, or even cross in front. Naturally, this caused more problems than the speeding. I’ve seen traffic jams caused by a car who tried to turn left onto a main road and pulled out in front of a car on his side of the road, blocking it. The offender couldn’t go any further either, as he was blocked by a bus coming from his right and wanting to turn left, who in turn was blocked by the second car. None of the three could then move forward, but they couldn’t reverse either, as traffic was banking up behind them.
This situation is almost guaranteed on a roundabout where the law means anyone on the roundabout must give way to anyone entering it. Obviously, this whole situation was impractical, so the powers decided to make some exceptions and marked some side streets with white triangles to indicate that they don’t have the right of way. Over the years, the number of these exceptions has grown to include the majority of side streets in Belgium. Now that it’s almost the way it was before, everyone assumes they have the right of way. When I drove, I’d find myself dodging trams and being pushed along at an uncomfortable speed by honking locals, then suddenly have to slam on the brakes to avoid a car pulling out in front of me from a sidestreet.
By comparison, cycling in Belgium is a dream. Actually, it’s a dream compared to cycling anywhere – everywhere I’ve been, anyway. It’s the national sport and cyclists are honoured. I’m used to living the law of the jungle when cycling – watch everything and stay away from anything bigger than me – but Belgium is going to spoil me. Just this morning, I was out in the rain – real rain, not the spray that one of my American colleagues calls ‘Brusseling’ – making the 20 minute trek into the government office, and cars were watching out for me. I’d approach an intersection with the car coming in from the right. My subconcious would do all the calculations and determine that it would be well through by the time I got there, but the cars always stopped. I can’t have been that easy to see, even with my lights on, and they had the right of way, but they were looking and stopped because I was on a bike. Compare that to Australia, where the driver would probably have timed his approach to hit me, then got out to scream at me for the damage I’d done to his car.
Belgians treat pedestrians the same way. Cars that would stop for a cyclist rarely acknowledge a pedestrian trying to cross the road. When they do, it’s to glare a challenge at them. ‘Don’t get in my way!’ For me, crossing the road is even more difficult because I can never remember which direction the cars will be coming from. When driving, you have a steering wheel to orient you, but as a pedestrian, I step out onto the road and naturally look right – a learned response. Unfortunately, that puts me right in the way of the driver glaring at me from behind.
All up, you’re better off on a bike.