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Road Rage | Flashback

By alison - October 21, 2010 (Updated: December 1, 2014)

Priorite de droite Absolue Driving in Belgium

I first wrote this post waaay back when we arrived in Belgium. I was literally terrified every time I got in the car. I’m happy to say I’m a bit calmer now but, even five years on, I’m still not driving in Belgium. Interestingly, I’ve been in many other places in Europe where I’ve felt, ‘Hey, I could drive here.’ Granted, living in Brussels, I don’t have a real need to drive and Andrew is happy to play chauffeur when necessary.

I was reminded of this post when, on a recent outing, we spotted the sign in the photo. It pretty much sums up driving in Belgium.

My parents question my decision not to drive in Belgium. “Not even in your own little town?” asks my Mom. I laugh, but how do I explain the driving situation here to folks who are used to the Atlantic Canadian concept of traffic?

I remember a time when a 20 minute wait for the traffic lights on my way to work was a long, annoying commute. A 20 minute wait on the Antwerp ring might get you 30 cm. But it’s not the volume of traffic that has me confined to the passenger seat, I drove without (much) fear in LA. I can handle the 8 lane highways. The trouble with driving here is a bit more intangible.

First, there are the other drivers. It was not until the 60s that people actually needed a license to drive here. Even when licenses became mandatory, those who had already been on the roads needed no testing before they were handed their permits. So there are a lot of people on the roads who had no more training behind the wheel than ‘Well, let’s see what this here thinger does’

In addition, they are not the polite you go … no I insist, you go ahead, sort that Canadians are (laughter erupts from Canada, but it’s true, we’e nicer on the roads.) If a Belgian feels they have the right of way there is no way they are giving it up (whether they are in the right or wrong makes no difference.)

This leads me to the crazy Belgian driving rules; the most confusing for new comers being Priorite a droite. As in English ‘droite’ (right) has two meanings: the opposite of left; and a legal or presumed entitlement. Priorite a droite definitely embodies both of these definitions. The rule is: if you are driving along and someone is entering your road from the right, you must yield to them. This almost makes sense in a four way stop all roads are of equal size situation. But imagine barreling along on a major road, and suddenly a car pulls out of an unmarked lane that you didn’t notice until the last second … do you see where I’m going with this.

The second meaning, entitlement, definitely comes into play in these situations. Belgians feel entitled to enter from the right, without looking, hesitating or even glancing in your direction … even when it makes no earthly sense for them to do it, like in a round about for example. They would rather have the traffic clog up to a stand still than surrender their priority. If everyone in Belgium was Belgian, maybe this would all work out. However, there are a lot of non-Belgians here and a lot of unsuspecting people just passing through, so you can never be 100% sure what the car in front of you is going to do.

Belgians, like most Europeans, also drive much faster than North Americans. For example, Everberg looks like a quaint, quiet little town. It is rural and charming and very, very quiet … until quitting time rolls around. During rush hour I feel like our house is a metre away from the finish line at the Indy 500. Those Belgians who do not live in their cars, protest the speeds at which people race through their towns. They have thus come up with all manner of creative ways of slowing down traffic, generally involving putting something in the middle of the road: a giant speed bump that requires a 4X4 to get over, cement barriers that only allow one car to pass at a time, planting trees in the street (that’s right I said in the street) and painting parking spaces in one lane.

This last one results in another quirky rule: If there is a car parked in the street on your side of the road, you pull up behind it as close as you can without touching the bumper and yield to on-coming traffic. Once the traffic has passed you turn on your signal light and whip out into the street (I learned this rule while in the car with my landlady).

The other problem for new comers and tourists is the lack of signage. Somewhere along the line, Belgians decided that they knew where stuff was so why bother to waste good money on something as frivolous as signs, (when they could spend it on trees to plant in the street.) So don’t bother looking for route numbers or signs five kms ahead of your exit to warn you where to go – they just aren’t there. In the unlikely event that there is a sign, you have to already be in the exit lane to see it in time. Sometimes, if the sign budget is really tight, there will be a sign only on one side of the highway, so if you’re traveling in the opposite direction you don’t see it until you’ve done a u-turn because ‘Brussels can’t possibly be this close to Paris…’

Add to that the place name problem. Belgium, being a bilingual country has place names in Flemish and French. Unlike in Canada where we call our cities the same thing in French and English (and if there is any confusion, print our signs in both languages) the Belgians don’t. If you are in a Flemish province, all of the place names are in Flemish. If you are in a French province, they are in French. This doesn’t cause a huge problem if your destination is Brussels (Brussel in Flemish; Bruxelles in French) but it can be if you are looking for Antwerp (Antwerpen in Flemish) and you unwittingly enter a French province and only see signs for Anvers. Then there are the totally unfathomable ones like Mons / Bergen and Tourai / Doornik. Your English maps aren’t going to help you here.

Lastly, there is my number one reason for not driving in Belgium: Trucks, or Lorries as the Brits call them, or evil machines of death as I call them. I hate transport trucks (this may have something to do with being run off the road by one and doing a complete 360 in the air and landing in a snowy median a few winters ago, totaling my car and my driving nerve in the process … just a hunch). I have never seen so many trucks as on the highways here. There are from all over Europe: Germany, Poland, Spain… And they carry anything and everything. There is nothing more unnerving than being sandwiched in traffic, in road construction narrowed lanes, between four huge trucks. My invisible passenger side break gets quite a workout, let me tell you.

So Mom, Dad, I won’t be driving here anytime soon. Maybe if I harden my heart and develop nerves of steel and an overblown sense of entitlement while behind the wheel I’ll be ready to hop in the driver’s seat. Until then though, me and my invisible break will stick to the passenger side.

Looking for more resources for living in Belgium? Check out our Expat Resources page.

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Alison

Alison

Big Cheese at CheeseWeb
Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel photographer and the founder of Cheeseweb.eu. She is the author of The Foodie Guide to Brussels: Local Tips for Restaurants, Shops, Hotels, and Activities. Alison landed in Belgium in 2005 and, over the years, has become passionate about slow and sustainable travel, in Europe and beyond. She loves to discover hidden gems - be they museums, shops, restaurants, castles, gardens or landscapes, and share them through her words and photos. She is currently slow travelling through Europe in an RV, with her husband, Andrew, and two well-travelled cats. You can also follow her work on Google+
Alison
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18 comments

  1. Comment by Jenn

    Jenn July 7, 2005 at 20:50

    Yeah I’m with ya, Al. You couldn’t pay me enough to drive over there. Mad props to Drew for having the balls to risk life and limb by climbing behind the wheel. While I have full confidence in his driving ability, the ability of others over there was what concerned me.

  2. Comment by Liz

    Liz July 7, 2005 at 12:37

    I loved reading that, thanks for sharing!! Sounds like a pretty insane place to drive. I think I’d probably do the same thing… absorb the ways of the road from the passenger seat until I felt like I was a little more comfortable.
    Just before I learned how to drive, I spent 3 weeks in England. It was interesting to see virtually no traffic lights and pretty much all roundabouts. Very efficient, but I think the British are a little more polite in that respect and there would have been fewer tourists than where you are. If you drive as a passenger you can pick up the roundabout rules and it didn’t seem that difficult once you knew how everything worked. Have to say though that I was totally messed up when I went back home and started learning to drive. My Dad used to work over there quite a bit, and was sometimes known for getting in the car and starting to drive down the wrong side of the street… uh, Dad, you’re back home, let’s try the right side of the road 🙂

  3. Comment by Alison

    Alison July 7, 2005 at 12:58

    Thanks for the comment Liz. Normally the roundabout system is great and I wish they used it more in Canada. It worked perfectly in the Netherlands… Unfortunately here it is more like a roulette wheel…

  4. Comment by TimZim

    TimZim July 8, 2005 at 08:38

    An excellent post.
    Driving sanywhere in Europe is an unreal experience. I think Italy has to be the worst.
    Btw, I’ve found some Canadian drivers to be very agressive.
    Cheers, Tim

  5. Comment by Alison

    Alison July 8, 2005 at 08:55

    Right you are TimZim. There are bad / agressive drivers in Canada as everywhere. Halifax, where I am from, is notorious in the Atlantic Provinces for crazy drivers.
    Italy is simply mad. I spent my days there in the front seat of a tour bus. Our driver must have had nerves of steel, but mine certainly weren’t. Lanes and traffic signals seem to be totally irrelevant there.

  6. Comment by Simon

    Simon August 30, 2005 at 13:09

    The rule is actually a little more complex than you suggest. For example you don’t have to give way to people entering a roundabout – if you are already on the roundabout, you have priority. There are other exceptions – some people may not follow the rules (like those who never had to pass a test), but the rules do make sense once you know them in detail.

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  8. Comment by Alison

    Alison October 21, 2010 at 15:03

    I’ve always joked with my boyfriend (who is from Italy), that I would never drive there. But even he was horrified driving in Belgium when he had to go on a business trip. I know he definitely noticed (and suffered from) the lack of signs.

    I haven’t gotten around to driving here in NL, either. Mainly because I have to take expensive driving lessons in order to pass my test. I gather the Dutch driving exams are quite intense. For now, I’m also happy to let my boyfriend play chauffeur!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison October 21, 2010 at 17:40

      Haha, that doesn’t surprise me. I’ve felt ok driving in France and Sardinia but there’s no way I’d drive here… Especially as I listen to the weekly accidents on our street corner…

  9. Comment by Laura

    Laura October 21, 2010 at 16:34

    This struck a chord with me – I hope you don’t mind if I borrow the idea for a post of my own.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison October 21, 2010 at 17:37

      Absolutely! I’d love to hear your opinion on the subject too 🙂

  10. Comment by Unexpected Traveller

    Unexpected Traveller October 21, 2010 at 16:41

    The lack of signs is my pet gripe. Unbelievably, when en route to Bruges (which is, let’s face it, a major town in Northern Belgium), you do not see any signs for it in Brussels. Once you hit the ring road, you’re supposed to know that it’s a little further on than Ghent and so you should follow the signs to Ghent. Then, after passing Ghent you’ll only see a sign to Bruges just as you are about to miss the exit.

    And then they have money for multiple parliaments …. go figure.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison October 21, 2010 at 17:38

      So true! One thing we noticed when we first started driving into Brussels was that the signs point to metro stops. If you aren’t familiar with the city, of course you have no idea where or what the metro stops are. So strange.

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  12. Comment by Nancie

    Nancie October 29, 2010 at 02:01

    I love driving, but not in Korea. I relate totally to your post. Driving sounds just as crazy in Belgium as it is here. The only time I get behind the wheel now is when I go back to Canada, and that isn’t very often.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison October 29, 2010 at 11:00

      I can’t even imagine how crazy driving in Asia must be! I’m sure I’d definitely be a passenger only there. 🙂

  13. Comment by JadeHawaii

    JadeHawaii January 4, 2011 at 11:27

    I love it. Here in Germany they have an unlimited budget for signs but draw the line at anyting bi-lingual and use as few words as possible. Our first few months here we had no idea if we were breaking any laws or driving down streets reserved for bikes only or horses (we live in the country).

    I’m happy to say we managed to pass the driving written test in one try. we didn’t have to take the road test. Some of my other collegues took as many as 4 times to pass. But just like you, I will give up all driving control to my husband or friends if the opportunity allows it.

    The best part is that the car is in my name so when he gets a speeding ticket – I get the blame!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison January 4, 2011 at 11:55

      Yes, we had a few interesting experiences when Andrew first started driving in Europe. We didn’t quite know what all of the signs meant either. There were a few wrong ways down one way streets but that seems to be normal here anyway 😉

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