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Fines increased in a bid to stop mobile phone use while driving
As of 15 January, using your mobile phone while driving is considered a third-degree offense in Belgium. This change increases the fine one can receive if caught from €116 to €174.
The decision adopted by the federal parliament met with little opposition with only the left-wing PTB party considering the measure unfair because of the effect these fines may have on low-income offenders. However, this argument did not hold sway with the other parties who all voted for the change, except Vlaams Belang which abstained.
The new ruling makes it possible for the authorities to slap anyone with the increased fine who is caught with a mobile phone or any device equipped with a screen (computer or tablet) open while driving. Devices attached to the vehicle are exempt.
For Benoit Godart of the VIAS road safety institute, this measure has become necessary due to recent data which shows the increased danger of distracted driving: "The distraction caused by mobile phone use is responsible for at least 50 deaths and 4,500 injuries on Belgian roads each year," he said.
The police want to take things even further by deploying smart cameras on the entire Belgian road network. These cameras could detect this type of offence with a high degree of accuracy and efficiency. However, privacy laws are proving to be a major obstacle to the proposed roll-out of smart cameras.
The smart cameras the police want to deploy can legally detect several types of offence but are not permitted in offences relating to the use of screens in vehicles. This is because the cameras, which have a high degree of resolution and accuracy, are able to identify many details inside the interior of the vehicle and therefore can contravene privacy rules.
Pending a possible removal of this obstacle, via technical modifications that would restrict these devices to make them "softer", controls are currently carried out exclusively in the traditional way by traffic police in collaboration with local authorities.
The most effective means of control at the moment is to observe drivers from an unmarked police vehicle. Targeted checks carried out in collaboration with the local police by means of unmarked vehicles make it possible to note the infringements without alerting the offending driver, who could drop the phone or device quickly if a clearly recognisable patrol car is spotted.
It is hoped that the increase in fines will have the effect that most drivers will consider it too big a risk. The others, according to VIAS, will have to face the possibility that their actions will increase the chances of them being involved in a serious accident by a factor of six.