The traffic research institute Vias has called for a change to the way Belgium organises its pedestrian crossings, after an accident in Antwerp yesterday in which two children died.
The accident took place at the junction of Lange Leemstraat and Sint-Vincentiusstraat, in the heart of the Jewish quarter of the city. The two girls, aged nine years and 18 months, were crossing Lange Leemstraat on a green light when a lorry driver made a left turn out of Sint-Vincentiusstraat, also on a green light, were struck.
The situation is common to light-controlled pedestrian crossings in Belgium. Pedestrians have right of way on cross-streets while motor vehicles on the other street have a green light. Drivers who want to turn right or left have to wait in the junction until pedestrians have crossed.
The accident yesterday is still being investigated, but it seems as if the driver, because of his position in the vehicle or the fact that the girls were small and easy to be missed from view, may simply not have noticed them.
Initial reports that the two children were riding a scooter at the time of the accident have been denied. It appears that the older girl was carrying her sister’s toy scooter, but it was not being ridden.
Now Vias wants the government to make what is known as the conflict-free crossing standard in Belgium, as it is in other countries like the UK, for example.
In that format, crossing lights for pedestrians only turn green when all other traffic is facing a red light. In that way, there is no traffic on the crossing whatever – in theory. In practice, cars that were unable to clear the junction before the lights changed will make their turning anyway, even when the crossing light is green.
Antwerp has led the way by converting a number of its junctions to conflict-free, and this very junction was the subject of a test period from April to July this year when it was made conflict-free.
However, it was later decided not to make the conversion permanent, because of the impediment to traffic flow.
"There was a problem with the flow of the emergency services from the nearby hospital," says Dirk Vermeiren, spokesperson for the city councillor for mobility, Koen Kennis (N-VA). The Sint-Vincentius hospital lies only metres from the junction in the street of the same name.
The problem was that an ambulance might be delayed in arriving at the hospital by traffic backed up waiting for pedestrians to cross.
The idea of switching to conflict-free crossings is not unique to Antwerp. In fact, it is a prominent feature of the Flemish government’s traffic safety plan, presented only months ago.
"Safety should take precedence over traffic flow," said Vias spokesperson Stef Willems.
But the issue presents certain dangers.
“A conflict-free lighting scheme increases waiting times. As a result, impatient road users take a detour and threaten to create danger in other places.”