The Wrong Side of my Car

A blog about Auckland City, its streets, and culture shock

4 Oct 2015

A collision of speed limits and politics

Let me tell you a cautionary tale about what can go wrong if politicians start meddling with the traffic rules.

A popular topic of talk back in Belgium are the speed limits. Why they are so slow. Where you got your latest speeding fine. How much over the limit, and how much euro? Many people consider speeding fines as unavoidable as next Monday. And that forest of speed limit signs. Meet the Belgian driver’s best friend:

Maximum 70 km/h

Those signs haven’t always been there. 20 years ago speed limits were simple. We had areas called “bebouwde kom”. The reason why had since long been lost in the mists of time, although some people still remember it had something to do with villages, or houses. There wasn’t really a difference between inside and outside. You just saw houses. And more houses. And signs to tell you where these areas start:

Bebouwde kom

And for some reason, also since long forgotten, you have to slow down to 50 km/h in these areas. Outside the “bebouwde kom” you could drive at 90 km/h.

Fast-forward to 2001. It was generally known that traffic in Belgium killed quite a few people. Around 143 per million people each year An embarrassing number when comparing with some of our neighbours. The Netherlands: 67. Germany: 91. United Kingdom: 60. So our politicians decided to do something about it.

The politician widely, um, credited for tackling this problem is the late Steve Stevaert. In a lot of traffic deaths a contributing factor was excessive speed. To improve this, he proposed lowering the speed limit on most streets from 90 to 70. You could hear the people howling and groaning from space. “Why? Do you have any idea of how much time we are going to lose? That’s just bullying”.

Like it or not, Steve Stevaert was right. Driving in a built-up street at 90 km/h is a stupid idea. It’s dangerous. There’s people backing out of driveways. Maybe the odd pedestrian crossing the road. If you hit a pedestrian with your car, the faster you go, the less chance he has to survive:

Speed (km/h) versus survival

There’s a few different numbers to be found on the internet, but they all have one thing in common: 90 km/h is way off the chart. And at that speed you don’t have much time to react to surprises (i.e. to slow down). In essence a speed limit is a compromise between allowing drivers to travel quickly, and keeping the people around these drivers safe.

If your country had the foresight to put all the houses together in those things called towns then the compromise is quite easy. You will drive between towns most of the time. Between towns you can drive fast. Within the town you drive slowly. And, aha, that is the original meaning of the “bebouwde kom” (literally: “built-up area”), and the reason behind the lower speed limit.

In Belgium, with our long ribbons of houses, even in rural areas we travel on built-up streets most of the time, which makes this compromise a bitter pill to swallow, either for the drivers, or for the people living in all those ribbons.

Until now this story sounds all logical. But that’s before all the intricacies of Belgian politics get in the way.

Since we had this problem in large parts of Belgium, the logical course of action was lowering the default speed limit outside the built-up area. Soon, the national speed limit signs you would see at the Belgian border would look like this:

Wait, did anything change? Nope, enter our tangle of Belgian governments. The government in charge of these speed limits is the Belgian government. Steve Stevaert is a minister in the Flemish Government, and apparently the Belgian government didn’t feel like doing him a favour at the time. So changing the national speed limit was not possible.

The Flemish government was however responsible for maintaining the network of old national roads, the N-roads. These were, together with the motorways, the main connecting roads between the towns and cities. They were allowed to change the local speed limit as they saw fit. So they went ahead and started putting up local speed limit signs along the entire length of the network. According to Belgian traffic law a local speed limit has to be repeated after every intersection, so that means a lot of signs.

So, what about the local roads and streets? There the local councils were in charge, so nothing changed there as well. Not yet.

Which gave us that embarrassing situation where on the main roads were full of speed-limit-70 signs, but on the more local roads the limit was still 90. Imagine that awkward moment at the driving school when the student asks why the limits are that way.

And no I didn’t switch the speed signs.

The next step was writing letters to all the local councils, telling them they should lower the speed limits. The problem is, they skipped a step. A very important step. Make some guidelines which they can follow for deciding what the speed limit would be on a given stretch of road.

Sure enough the local councils got to work—most of them. Some councils actually figured out it’s a good idea to lower the limit to 70 in the built-up stretches and leave the rest at 90. At others, not a single damn was given and on most streets the limit remained 90. Yet other councils lowered the limit in their entire area to 70.

For drivers chaos ensued. You would be driving 90 through a winding residential street, and 5 minutes later it’s 70 between a few corn fields. Now there was a second invisible and meaningless line where the speed limit tended to change. The council boundaries. It didn’t make the job of driving schools and the police of explaining or enforcing any easier.

And as I said, the standard signs only tell you the limit to the next intersection. That means they will need a lot of signs. But there is another kind of sign:

Zone 70

A “zone” continues until a sign telling you it’s the end of the zone. Some councils used these, so they wouldn’t have to put up so many signs.

It didn’t take long before some councils decided they could boost their reputation as “councils caring about safety in traffic” by lowering the speed limit to 50 in some streets. Others figured out they could redirect longer distance traffic to neighbouring councils by lowering the speed limit on connecting roads. So one by one, they started changing all the signs again. Meet the Belgian’s driver second best friend:

If 70 is not slow enough…

More chaos ensued. Some councils would allow 70 on built-up stretches, others 50. There is still the odd council allowing 90 on stretches which are not built up. Some councils just lowered the limit to 50 in their entire area. Some councils would put up a lot of the normal signs, some would use the zone signs.

Suppose you’re now driving on one of the few stretches of road without houses on the sides. Maybe the limit is indeed 90. Maybe you’re in a zone 70. Or a zone 50. Or maybe you’re still in a “bebouwde kom”. Who knows? You’ll get your fine if you get it wrong.

Did this plan actually work? People do drive a lot slower than 20 years ago. Traffic deaths also decreased, but we didn’t catch up with our neighbours. Whatever the case, with a minimal amount of thought we could have achieved this with a lot less chaos.

And we’re not yet at the end of this sad tale. Now there is talk about changing that national speed limit anyway. Then the councils can do another round. Take down all those 70 signs and maybe even put up the occasional 90 sign.

Let’s see how long it will take to clean this whole mess up.

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