You can run, but you cannot hide
Hit-and-run accidents have sparked outrage in Belgium in recent months, so what are government and justice authorities doing to solve the problem?
Belgian has been troubled with several shocking hit-and-run accidents that have attracted widespread media publicity.
Recent hit-and-run accidents have sparked alarm
The culprit fled the scene of the accident and the victim was taken to the UZ hospital in Leuven for treatment. Her injuries were not life threatening.
On 7 August in Charleroi, a drink driver collided with three pedestrians, one of whom was severely injured. The driver then collided with a pole and fled the scene on foot, but was arrested soon after.
And in Turnout on 6 August, a four-wheel-drive motorist hit a newspaper deliverer at about 6am. The driver fled the scene with a Cherokee vehicle and left the severely injured 48-year-old Frans Wils behind with concussion, cuts and bruises.
Some hit-and-run accidents can also be fatal.
On 30 July, the 24-year-old Cédric F., of Nevele, was involved in two accidents on the towpath along the Brugge-Oostende canal and fled the scene of both incidents.
A 75-year-old cyclist, Germaine Paepe, was killed in the second accident, while a Ghent man was injured in the first accident.
The Brugge public prosecutor also said on 10 August that tests had revealed F. used a lot of cannabis prior to the accidents and claims he cannot remember much of what happened that day.
To reinforce growing concerns in Belgian media, the federal government and public prosecution office have agreed to place greater priority on prosecuting hit-and-run offenders.
An advisor to Justice Minister Laurette Onkelinx said in practice, this means that judicial authorities will try and bring the culprits before a judge more quickly.
Frederic Vroman also said that in cases of fatal accidents, traffic accident investigators will be urged to draw up their reports more quickly.
Transport Minister Renaat Landuyt said solving cases swiftly sends a strong preventative message. "Preferably that than creating again a new law for the punishing of such crimes," he said.
"The law provides enough possibilities for judges to be very severe in hit-and-run cases," the minister's spokeswoman Els Bruggeman added.
Despite concerns, the number of hit-and-run accidents in Belgium has actually declined spectacularly in recent years.
There were 2.6 times as many hit-and-runs in 2000 compared with 2003. Some 14,244 hit-and-run accidents were reported in 2000, compared with 11,961 in 2001 and 5,466 in 2003.
It is not known how many hit-and-run accidents go unsolved. It is also up for debate why the hit-and-run accidents have declined.
Minister Landuyt said earlier this month that hit-and-run accidents will be subject to an investigation in the five Belgian regions.
The decision was taken at a 23 June meeting between Minister Onkelinx and the five attorneys-general.
The results of the investigation will be known in autumn, at which point further instructions can be issued to the attorneys-general.
Additionally, Vroman clarified recent controversy about some arrested hit-and-run suspects being released by judges.
He said the Justice Minister cannot order a judge to keep a suspect in detention, but public prosecutors will in future be officially told to request their continued remand.
Prevention and causes
The Belgian Institute for Traffic Safety (BIVV-IBSR) says it does not have a specific campaign targeting hit-and-runs, stressing simply that the issue is not important enough to warrant one.
The institute's head of communications, Mieke Schevlenbos, said the focus is instead directed at problems such as speeding, drink driving (the Bob campaign) and blind-sport mirrors.
However, judges may order hit-and-run offenders to undergo one of the institute's driver improvement courses as an alternative sentence.
The swift conviction of culprits is considered a good deterrent
He says there are two major reasons hit-and-run accidents occur; firstly the severe sentences for traffic offences and the fear that they invoke. Sentences can range from a loss of licence to fines to jail terms.
The second reason is that some young drivers do not have insurance because it costs too much. "Some accidents are hit-and-run cases because they [the culprits] have no insurance and they can't pay all the damages," Kluppols says.
He proposed reverting to a system similar to health insurance, in which the elderly and young, sick or healthy pay the same premiums. "It is the responsibility of society as a whole," he says.
But Kluppols draws the line at reducing sentences, saying that severe punishments are a way to remind people that traffic offences are very important and should not be brushed off.
The traffic safety institute also launched a new course for drivers about a year ago in which responsible driving behaviour is stimulated. The courses are offered on a company basis.
Kluppols also believes Belgium should make it mandatory for beginner drivers to undergo professional driver training. This is already obligatory in most other European countries.
However, he admits there is no evidence to suggest that there are more accidents in Belgium than in Netherlands or Germany where professional education is compulsory.
It may, however, be a step in the right direction.
19 August 2005
[Copyright Expatica 2005]
Subject: hit-and-run accidents + Belgian traffic safety