The number of fines handed out for making a phone call or sending a text message while cycling has doubled in Belgium since it was made illegal in 2014, according to a reply to a parliamentary question given by federal home affairs minister Pieter De Crem.
In 2014 and 2015 the number of offences – the offence is the same for cyclists as for motorists: “using a wireless telephone which is held in the hand” – was steady at just under 600 a year. That number increased to slightly over 800 in 2016, then to 1,189 in 2017 and a small increase to 1,201 in 2018.
In the first quarter of this year the number reached 523, which could be seen as a small decline in numbers, but that quarter includes the winter months which might bring fewer cyclists onto the roads, so only the final annual total will tell.
More important is the wide regional differences in the numbers of offences recorded. The office is more common in Flanders by far – or at least recording of it by police is higher. The major cities accounted for the most cases in 2018: Leuven 362; Antwerp 288; Ghent 208. Ghent appeared to have undergone a radical change of cycling behaviour since the previous year, when police had registered no fewer than 607 fines, the highest anywhere since records began.
According to Wouter Raskin (N-VA), who asked the question, “More and more city folk use the bicycle to get around, and cities try to encourage this by providing car-free zones and cycle paths. Above all, these are cities with large student populations, for whom the bicycle has always been a popular mode of transport.”
The regional difference can be seen from the fact that people in Flanders have a tendency to cycle more often than people in Wallonia in any case. In the whole province of Walloon Brabant, which has its own student population in Louvain-la-Neuve, not a single offence was recorded, as many as in Charleroi, a city with a population of just over 200,000, roughly twice as many as in Leuven.
The fine for using a mobile phone on the bike is €110, the same as motorists face for the same offence. The website Vivocyclo offers some advice on avoiding the temptation. The five seconds it takes to send a text message increases your chance of an accident by a factor of 23, according to research. An urgent message can be sent by stepping off the bike for a moment, when it is no longer an offence. Less urgent messages can wait. Using the smartphone as a navigational aid can be done by putting it in a pocket and using earphones to listen to instructions, although even that requires heightened attention to road activity in the vicinity.