This topic was quite helpful in identifying why I am still terrified and am phobic of crazy traffic. I lived between Bruxelles and Waterloo and traveled by car to the surrounding EU countries often for 5 years. Being a passenger, I was astonished to see so many daily accidents- buses/cars/motorcyclists/mopeds and people. There was never a day in the commute there wasn't several minor or one major accidents: There were many injuries and fatalities. You will see broken and leftover reflective triangles (all drivers are required to carry) on all the roads from previous accidents. I was in a few accidents myself, one when I while wearing a seatbelt and still broke through windshield with my head. Some other EU countries have their bad spots- Paris, Rome to name a couple, but the descriptions my fellow travelers/countrymen have left here are absolutely accurate. I only became phobic when I finally accepted that people in the Bruxelles area will literally drive anywhere that can be possibly driven on, at any speed to get to their destination. Traffic signs always appear after you have entered the wrong way, not before, and so on. The signs would be in French one day and Flemish the next. Night time, rain, wind or fog do not deter drivers from speeding or risky maneuvering, and slowing down will get you rear ended. Heaven help you if you are a lost pet or a slow pedestrian because drivers are most likely not stop for you. Weirdly, I remembered being shown movies in French when I first arrived about bad drivers and how to avoid them (drive/move off the road until the erratic drivers are gone!). After some time, I did not believe I would leave Belgium in one piece. Members of my own family and other non-Belgian friends began to avoid being in the the front passenger seats of cars or avoid being in cars altogether after experiencing too many accidents or near misses. I understand why the driving age was 18 then. The other odd thing was that most construction and street repair projects never really end, so be prepared for constant detours and missing lights and signs that show how to reroute around them. Know your routes before you go and bring a current map, emergency triangle and breathalyzer. Even if you drive safely, if someone hits you, you need to have these items in your car. I believe it's the law for the last two. Check before your drive anywhere.
l still have panic attacks when I encounter heavy traffic and reckless drivers on main highways and expressways here in California. It's still not even close to what the traffic is like driving in Bruxelles. The best way I can describe driving in and out of Bruxelles was as if the world was ending now, everyone was drunk and had to be somewhere, but all the time. I truly wondered why I have traffic issues but you have jolted my suppressed memories of the crazy driving and the constant accidents I once encountered daily as well as people I knew who did not survive them. I would advise taking the train whenever possible. Otherwise I found Belgium to be a beautiful and history-rich country to live in for an extended period of time and the French and Flemish to be great people and neighbors and perfect home base for extended Europe traveling.
On our most recent drive through Brussels (early January 2012) revealed a very strange state of affairs. 99% of directional road signs (i.e. "Turn left at the next junction to get to Bruges") had been removed entirely. The only things I could use to navigate were the setting sun and then Jupiter once darkness had set in!
There were very few signs still present - they were little green "Ring" signs which are positioned such that it's very difficult to notice them. I noticed about 4 or 5 crossing Brussels from South East to North West.
Good luck! And yes, drivers are bonkers. Imagine getting to a 5 or 6 road, multi lane junction, without a single sign telling you where to go, and having the geezer behind you in his clapped out Renault almost touching your bumper, blowing his horn constantly for about 30 seconds, shouting and gesticulating at you, and you have a picture of a normal day's driving in Brussels!
As a genuine "Brusseleir" who drove 40 years each day in Brussels and around I confirm all warnings you can read here.
The funny thing is that the only time I had an accident that sent me to hospital was in Germany with a drunken German driver. The exception to the rule?
New in the centre of Brussels is the general speed limit of 30 Kmh. But don't mind, most of the time it is impossible to drive faster in the small streets
Advice given by the State Department to American tourists and just published in the Belgian press (La Libre Belgique 17/06/2011):
"Another problem "growing", especially in Brussels, is steeling in cars, stopped or parked. Hence the advice to drive a car, doors and windows closed to prevent a thief steals a bag carelessly left on a seat.
The State Department also notes that the Belgians lead "significantly faster than the limit" and warned American tourists that "feign ignorance" does not save them of PV. "
The US State Department adds, I suppose for those drivers having an accident:
"Otherwise, Belgium is "a highly developed and stable democracy with a modern economy", with an excellent health care system.
Small problem though: the medical staff in Wallonia is not speaking usually English, which is not the case in Flanders or Brussels."
Here I don't agree: Medical staff from francophone hospitals read and study scientific literature, mostly in English, as all doctors. Maybe they will have a problem to understand people who speak dialectal English.
Driving in Brussels is a fight.
People drive fast, faster than they are capable of. You can see that they drive so fast they don't have time to see what's happening.
Its no surprise that Belgium has one of the highest death rates per capita in traffic in the EU.
You will see people in accidents all the time. More or less every day if you are an active driver. Don't be surprised if people take enormous risks.
I have never seen anything like this. Its almost as if people want to have an accident. And it goes from everyone. If the bus driver notices you are trying to get through, he will go full throttle to try to kill you if possible.
I've seen so many people hit by cars, cars hitting each other, cars hit by trams and so on during a few years it will be enough for a life time.
People also park right on pedestrian crossings, making sight zero for other cars and extremely dangerous for pedestrians, police don't seem to remove these cars as they rightfully do in other countries.
Also beware of another behavior which I found is trademark of Belgium: When someone has parked on a narrow street, they will just throw their door open into the street, hoping that arriving cars will drive aside and not hit it, then they step right out. Its almost as if they don't understand who will take the most damage if the car coming does not drive aside or stop.
Finally, there is no sense of distance in driving in Belgium. There is no understanding of how long it takes for a car to break. Don't be surprised if the car behind you is only about 1 meter away from you, when you are doing 120km/h. Needless to say, they get a lot of accidents from this lack of understanding of physics. Also don't be surprised of someone reverses into you, happened to me twice.
Be careful. People in Belgium are from my experience the worst drivers in Europe. Its not a about speed, Germans drive faster, its about skill. They get so many accidents in Belgium which can only be a sign of poor driving skills, assuming no-one wants to be in an accident.
I found driving in Brussels surprisingly stressful -- more than you would expect it to be the case in a NW European big city. For me, it's the worst experience so far, apart from Naples, Rome and Florence. Here might be some helpful hints to reduce the stress:
1. Dealing with bad road and traffic planning and managing
Brussels has quite a number of very complicated, not really driver-friendly street layouts. There's multi-lane boulevards, sometimes the lanes diverge into different directions and you are not well directed on choosing the one to suit your direction. The pentagon of boulevards around the inner city features a couple of tunnels intended to avoid crowded intersections. Good if you can go straight but not so good if you need to use the intersection for making a left or right turn and need to react rather quickly in order to stagger away from the central tunnel lanes. Do not exclusively rely on your GPS navigation system. GPS doesn't work in tunnels and the GPS margin of error (up to 50 metres) is too high to allow the navigation system to safely identify the exact lane you're in. I have witnessed two navigation systems to go haywire because of this -- might get you into real trouble if you pay attention too much to your little helping gadget.
2. Slapdash drivers
This was a negative surprise -- I have so far been driving in all of Belgium and never had any problem whatsoever. Brussels has a particularly strange mixture of drivers going at their own pace -- either dead slow or insanely fast. In particular, there are too many cars with 5-6 youths packed in it, the driver obviously thinking that driving like a maniac is cool and somehow a good substitute for the frustration of life -- lack of brains and lack of sexual activity. Be prepared for *** drivers in the street (not applicable to drivers from Italy if from Florence or any city south of Florence).
As a general rule, never drive on the limit -- always have room for straightening out your own mistakes and those of others.
We rented a car at the airport in Brussels and when we went to return it, we needed to fill up our tank or pay the exorbitant refueling charge from the rental car company. Gillian told us where the gas station was at the airport, it's on the wrong side of the road so you have to drive through the arrival/departure area to gas up your rental car (who needs to put gas in their car when they are leaving the airport?!?!?) The station didn't open until 8am, by the time the clerk arrived there was a line formed to get gas.
If you have a Belgian bankcard or a Shell gas card, you can fill up without the attendant but if not, you're out of luck if you have an early flight. We noticed that a lot while driving through Belgium, unlike the US where you can use your credit card at the pump, in Belgium we had to go inside the gas station every time.
This is a crossroad/round point North/North-West of Place de Ste Catherine.
I took this picture from the corner at the end of Quai aux Barbes/Shutetankaai and th Arduinkaai/Quai aux pierres de taille.
Have you counted the traffic signs? If you only count the ones you see the fronts of and that warns you it is a one-way direction, you must come to 8!
But as you can see if you click on the picture to have the full view… there are plenty more traffic signs!
I think it was a sale-out when they bought them!
To the casual observer, Brussels traffic seems to move in a chaotic fashion. There may indeed be some truth in that. When I first arrived I would stand mesmerised, watching cars negotiating crossroads- completely perplexed! In fact, once you understand what they are doing, it's actually all very logical - ineffective, but logical nevertheless.
The basic principle is that you should give way to traffic entering from a road on the right (priority to the right as it's known). This can be quite a hair-raising experience if you happen to be on a major boulevard and a car appears from a side road you hadn't noticed. However if you get into the habit of being prepared to stop at any given moment, you should be OK. BUT watch out - if you stop when you have priority, you give your priority away and other drivers have the right to proceed.
Now hold that principle and let's look at the roundabout protocol. It's exactly the same - which means that you give way to traffic coming on to the roundabout. The cumulative effect of this policy is gridlock - frequent gridlock!
All is not lost though. The city planners have realised that something needs to be done. They have begun to paint tiny triangles at junctions. There are all but invisible unless you meet them head on. In all instances it means that you must give way - whether you are arriving from the right or not.
At last inspection the new system seems to be working... after a fashion.
My best advice though, is to walk - or use the buses - or the metro - or the trams...
Ah yes... trams... therein lies another warning or danger tip!
This is (was) kind of a "do not try this at home" situation.
Usually I come to Brussels with my car via the E40 Highway (coming from Gent). Then at the end I follow the signs "Brussel", and like this I finally arrive in the city centre.
But it is always such a special sight to see at the end of the big boulevard the appearance of the big Basilica of Koekelberg.
So while I was driving I made some pictures of this big church. Of course it is dangerous, especially in the bust Brussels traffic.
And even more dangerous, if you look at the picture as there is a student-driver (ecole = school) in front of me.
...there's one thing to keep in mind. In all of Belgium signs indicating the directions at roads are positioned in such a way that you will only see them when you're already on the right track. When you're on the wrong track you may only notice them when it's too late to correct your direction. This is especially true in this chaotic city. Apparently we needed to leave the city through a tunnel. Only, the sign that said so was placed at the entrance of that very tunnel. And since we were not heading for that tunnel because we didn't know we were supposed to go there we quickly found ourselves back in the labyrinth of one-way streets and traffic-jams that make this city such a hell to drive in. Get the picture? My advice: take the first opportunity to get out of the city and then use the map to correct your direction. It's much better for your nerves.
I found driving in Brussels difficult for many reasons, just a few:
- heavy traffic esp. in rush hours that is on business days approx. 7.30 - 9.00am and 4.30 - 6.00 pm.
- shortage of parking lots in and close to the downtown (esp. free of charge), limited parking zones etc.
- direction signs can't be seen well and on time while driving on busy, multi-lanes streets,
- one-way streets.
My suggestion is to park a car wherever you find any free place, find it on your map and write down the name of a street when you park (not to lost your car hehe) and walk on foot :-))).
Obligatory for damages you can cause to other people and their properties (if you are not EU citizen, buy so called "green card" valid for all EU countries).
Your driving licence is valid at least for up to 90 days if you are from USA/Canada or Europe.
50 km/h (31mph) inside the city limits unless otherwise stated,
90 km/h (56mph) outside the city limits
120 km/h (75mph) on freeways.
Half a promile (5/1000) is the acceptable by law level of alcohol at driver's blood in Belgium. So you can drink one bottle of beer or a glass of wine and rather nothing more before driving.
When you get to know that there are over 300 brands of delicious Belgian beer to choose from you will surely not want to be a designated driver in Brussels :-). Hmm... I had to :-(((.
No special danger,but don't walk alone at night,especialy ladies and girls.
Be carefull with speed limits:31mph(50km/h)in the city,56mph(90km/h)outside the city and 75mph(120km/h)on 4-lane highways.
Maximum blood alcohol level=0.5g/L(1 glass of wine).
A US driving license is acceptable if staying less then 90 days in the country.