View from Brussels: Road safety lessons at EU HQ

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Belgium’s capital city imposed a 30 kilometres per hour (19mph) speed limit on most roads last January, and one year later the first results of that shift are starting to come in. It might give the EU officials that call Brussels home some bright ideas for the rest of the bloc.

The ‘Zone 30’ plan was met with plenty of vocal opposition when it was first rolled out on 1 January 2021. Its critics said it would make the capital’s road congestion even worse and hurt the economy of the entire country.

For the ministers of the Brussels regional government, it was a Herculean feat to get the new speed limit signed into law, especially given the Byzantine nature of Belgium’s commune and municipality system, which requires a lot of people all agreeing on the same thing.

Indeed, Brussels transport minister Elke Van den Brandt quips that one commune towards the east of the city was opposed to the speed limit plan until they realised that every other area had signed up to it. Its residents quickly changed their tune.

Brussels-Mobility, the city’s public works department, has now published a study that delves into some hard data and shows that the Zone 30’s advocates were right about a lot of the benefits they predicted.

Road deaths were halved in 2021 compared with 2020 and the number of serious injuries also decreased by about 20 per cent. That will be music to the ears of EU officials, whose ‘Vision Zero’ plan wants road deaths completely eliminated by 2050.

The study also blows a hole in the main argument of the plan’s critics, concluding that journey times have not been significantly affected by the new speed limit. 

For Brussels residents that have fond memories of the first pandemic lockdown when traffic ground to a halt and the busy hum of cars was banished to memory, there is also good news.

The Zone 30 policy also cut noise pollution; in places it has been halved. Even on main roads that are not subject to the new speed limit yet, there was a recorded reduction.

“Road traffic is the number one source of noise in the capital and noise pollution is also the second environmental cause of morbidity after air quality,” explains Marie Poupé, a noise expert with Brussels Environment.

“Excessive exposure to noise can cause hearing problems, insomnia, learning and concentration difficulties, and can increase cardiovascular risks. It is therefore a matter of public health,” she adds.

Brussels still has a major problem with pollution as even the new speed limit is no silver bullet. The city regularly breaches EU air quality limits and is subject to court cases and possible fines.

There is even legislation in place that means public transport is free to all users if dangerous pollution levels stay about the safe limit for a continuous period of time. 

That is why the city’s government is ploughing ahead with its efforts to build cycle lane infrastructure, redesign roads to eliminate through traffic and improve the public transport offer of the capital. Progress is slow but, finally, constant.

Euro-motors

The European Union institutions are located in the EU quarter, to the east of the city centre. It is connected to the heart of the capital by a four-lane-wide artery that is choked with traffic more often than not and regularly tops the most polluted road in Belgium standings.

It is a fitting reminder for the thousands of EU officials that work in the area of some of the major policy problems facing the bloc’s member states and which will have to be solved if climate targets and other goals are to be met.

Transport emissions make up about 25 per cent of the EU’s total greenhouse gas output and, unlike other sectors of the economy like energy, are still rising thanks to a combination of SUV-uptake and sheer number of people choosing to drive.

Speed limits are an option in the green-weapons cache, although the EU has little to no power to impose them. It can lobby in favour of them though, either openly or behind doors during negotiations on sensitive pieces of legislation.

The Netherlands recently dropped its motorway speed limit from 130km/h to 100 during certain peak hours, after a court order ruled that the government’s emissions-cutting targets were insufficient and experts warned that an air pollution crisis was spiralling out of control.

The new speed limit is predicted to cut a big chunk of emissions from the Dutch balance sheet as motorists will be revving their engines less and will also bring down levels of dangerous nitrogen oxide.

According to the European Transport Safety Council, Dutch drivers have even been driving more slowly at night when the new speed limit does not apply.

In Germany, which is famed for having stretches of autobahn that have no speed limits whatsoever, there is unlikely to be any change to the status quo any time soon, as the new government shied away from opening Pandora’s Box.

German motorists and their powerful lobby groups fervently oppose any speed limit plans, despite the government’s environment agency recommending a 120km/h limit back in 2019 and the certain emissions savings that it would bring.

The transport ministry was forced to condemn a Czech billionaire this month who was filmed driving his Bugatti supercar at more than 400km/h (240mph), despite the reckless act being in keeping with Germany’s laws.

So while the EU may not be able to influence the national road rules of its member states, it may have better luck convincing cities to follow the lead of Brussels and set lower speed limits in key areas. It seems to be a very popular policy.

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