Previously in Atlantic Abroad
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by Gregg Easterbrook
"Of all Europeans, Belgians are considered a menace behind the wheel," the European Wall Street Journal noted recently. They got that right. Belgium is said to be a staid little country, but the driving environment resembles that of the movie Mad Max. Living in Brussels, I have become accustomed to cars roaring at 60 miles an hour down side streets, careening through red lights (sometimes simultaneously from opposing directions), and regularly pulling around other vehicles stopped at intersections. Drivers are not required to stop for school buses here, and it's common to see even mothers with kids strapped into car seats madly accelerating to shoot past school buses disgorging first graders. Until May, 1996, not pedestrians but cars had the right-of-way at crosswalks, and if a car ran down a pedestrian, that person was liable for damages to the car. My family is snug in a Volvo, though I sometimes dream of trading it in for a Humvee -- the model with the .50-cal turret on top.
Americans may not believe it, but they number among the world's best behind the wheel. The European Conference of Transport Ministers recently confirmed this, though inadvertently. The ministers issued a statement boasting that in 1995, Western Europe had twice the population of the United States but only about 20 percent more road fatalities; this, the ministers declared, proved that Europeans drive more safely than the benighted Yanks. Actually the numbers show the reverse. Europe has twice as many people as the United States but only about half as many cars; its greater total of fatalities comes from a much smaller base of passenger-miles.
Belgium has the highest accident rate on the continent. Carrosseries, or body-work shops, seem to be ubiquitous, and for all I know they anchor the national economy. I've never seen any form of speed enforcement here, and when roaring along on motorways at the national speed limit of 120 kilometers (75 miles) per hour, I have been passed as if stationary by drivers who apparently believe their names to be James T. Kirk. And the old marque-based lane hierarchy is breaking down. Drivers of Porches, Mercedes, and BMWs used to expect -- when rocketing along in the left lane -- that other drivers would jump out of their way. But now you're as likely to see a tinny little Renault Twingo (essentially a golf cart with a roof) racing up behind you at 90 miles an hour, madly flashing its lights for you to get out of the way while there's still time.
Belgium's roads are especially disagreeable because the country clings to the preposterous priority-right system. Cars advancing from the right hold the right-of-way even where a side street joins a major road. This means that as drivers approach an intersection they frantically speed up in order to jump ahead of the traffic flow. It's a formula for accidents: priority-right creates a national mania for people cutting one another off in traffic. Drivers pulling out of parking spaces don't feel obliged to signal (or even look), and oncoming traffic constantly has to slam on the brakes. Many Brussels "communes" -- the small civic government authorities that manage urban life -- are now installing heavy stakes on the curbs at intersections to discourage cars from driving on the sidewalk in their mania to use priority-right to cut ahead of others. The way Belgians drive, it's a good thing they have gun control.
Cross the border into the Netherlands and motoring habits immediately become more civilized -- though the Dutch have gone overboard for speed bumps, which they call drempels. (A perfect name: all speed bumps should henceforth be known as drempels.) This suggests that driving can be employed as a barometer of civic cohesion. Belgium, a nation of terrible drivers, has continuing problems with high-level government corruption; Europe's other most corrupt country, Italy, is also one with a poor driving environment. Many developing-world nations have zany driving environments, too, and countries such as Pakistan -- where I've lived, and where the overall sociology still remains feudal -- are ones in which people have not yet developed the sense that voluntary self-discipline in the public sphere is good for everybody. Roads thus become places to work out hostilities rather than places to pass through alive on your way to somewhere else.
I suspect that if charted and graphed, auto-accident rates would turn out to be highest in those countries with the highest indicators of civic decay (corruption, unresponsive governments, tax avoidance, and so on) or the lowest levels of democracy and personal freedom (if you're denied freedom in daily life, you overcompensate by driving much too freely). Any sociologist keen to take this on? You could do it from the safety of your office. You wouldn't actually have to come here and drive.
Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor to The Atlantic. His most recent piece for the magazine was "Blood and Motherly Advice" (February, 1997, Atlantic), about the Armed Forces television network.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.