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Antwerp councillor quizzed over fatal crossing decision

Koen Kennis (N-VA). © Belga

Antwerp city council committed no fault in deciding to reverse a decision to make a pedestrian crossing safer, according to the councillor in charge of mobility.

Koen Kennis (N-VA) was speaking yesterday at a press conference called to discuss the issue. Earlier on Tuesday morning, two children aged nine years and 18 months crossing on green were hit by a truck making a left turn from a cross-street, also on green.

Traffic institute Vias immediately called for changes to the way Belgium organises its pedestrian crossings, and calling for ‘conflict-free’ junctions.

In that type of junction (which is simply a matter of traffic light management) all motorised traffic is halted at once to allow pedestrians on all sides to cross safely.

Then motorised traffic can be allowed to proceed in order.

That system is in common use in other countries, but not yet in Belgium. The Flemish government has announced it plans to introduce widespread conflict-free crossings during its current term.

Antwerp council has in the meantime switched over some crossings, and the junction in question yesterday had been conflict-free as part of a test earlier this year.

But at the end of the test period, Kennis’ office decided to revert back to the previous situation.

These are tragic circumstances,” Kennis began, before going immediately on the defensive.

“But the debate has shifted from how we make road safety as good as possible to a debate that plays the man, so it is good to provide more clarity about how the lights are controlled in Antwerp,” he said. Earlier in the day, Groen had called for his resignation over the decision.

The project to test the city’s 127 light-controlled pedestrian crossings (they used to be known as Pelican crossings) started in 2018, and so far testing has been carried out on 71.

Michael Bastiaens, the traffic specialist in Kennis’ cabinet, explained the problem at the accident junction.

There was a lot of traffic jams on the Lange Leemstraat, not only for cars, but also for cyclists and the tram. And that had an impact on the accessibility of the Sint-Vincentius Hospital. There was also a very chaotic alternation at the intersection. Then what do you get? Cyclists try to navigate between cars and so on.”

The Lange Leemstraat has lanes for cyclists, cars and tram, as well as parking. On the intersecting Sint-Vincentiusstraat, there is a hospital very close to the junction, with ambulance access. Both of those factors led to traffic hold-ups.

We are going to make a permanent evaluation,” Kennis said. “Today it is too early to say what caused the accident. That must be determined by legal experts. We will continue to look at black points. But that is a separate question from: ‘Can you now turn everything around at this crossroads? Is this definitely not going to be watched? No. Will the intersection by definition be tackled? Also no.”