Monday, September 25, 2006

A thrilling show at every intersection.

I used to live at an intersection like this in North Cambridge, at the corner of Rindge Avenue and Mass Ave. My room was on the second floor, overlooking a junction of five streets; frequently I could hear crashes, broken glass, colorful epithets loudly expressed, delicious local accents. What fond memories.

Extracts from
As Cars Collide, Belgian Motorists Refuse to Yield
A Shortage of Stop Signs And Quirky Driving Rules Create Culture of Crashes

By Mary Jacoby for the Wall Street Journal, September 25, 2006

BRUSSELS -- The intersection outside Isabelle de Bruyn's row house in a quiet residential neighborhood here is a typical Belgian crossroads. It has no stop signs. Now and then, cars collide outside her front door.

"The air bags explode. One car flipped over in the street. Part of one car ended up here," says Ms. de Bruyn, a real-estate agent, pointing to her front steps. Her brother-in-law, Christophe de Bruyn, adds: "In America, they have stop signs. I think that's a good idea for Belgium, too."

The suggestion isn't popular at the Belgian transport ministry. "We'd have to put signs at every crossroads," says spokeswoman Els Bruggeman. "We have lots of intersections."

A traffic rule [is] at the heart of Belgium's problems. It is known as priorité de droite, or "priority from the right."

The law evolved from a rule adopted nearly a century ago in neighboring France, intended to offer drivers a simple rule of thumb: Always yield to any vehicle coming from one's right unless a sign or other road marking instructs otherwise.

That was meant to modernize an even more unwieldy rule of the time: Right of way went to the driver of the highest social rank. Horse-drawn carriages were still in common use, and, after accidents, "it wasn't unusual for the passengers to get out of their carriages and compare their titles and ranks in the nobility," says Benoit Godart, a spokesman for the government-financed Belgian Road Safety Institute.

Even more confusing, a driver in Belgium who stops to look both ways at an intersection loses the legal right to proceed first. Such caution might seem prudent, given the lack of stop signs. But a driver who merely taps his brakes can find that his pause has sent a dangerous signal to other drivers: Any sign of hesitation often spurs other drivers to hit the gas in a race to get through the crossing first.

The result is a game of chicken at crossings, where to slow down is to "show weakness," says Belgian traffic court lawyer Virginie Delannoy. Neither driver wants to lose this traffic game, she says, adding: "And then, bam!"

To make matters worse, cars on many of the smallest side streets still qualify for priority over those on major thoroughfares -- so long as they are coming from the right. That forces drivers on many boulevards to slam on their brakes without warning, and some get rear-ended as a result.

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At 6:19 AM, Anonymous Kerris said...

If you think that is bad. I've been living in Spain for the past 15 months and the two houses that we've rented have both had accidents happen close to them. At the first house, we heard a noise looked up at the main road and saw a car on it's roof, still trying to work out how it happened as the road it was going along is straight, it was a lovely clear day and no other traffic close by. The other major one happend outside the house where we live now car ended up on other side of road parked on the front of a rather large tipper truck.


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