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Belgium scraps plan for cameras catching drivers using their phone

14:57 23/09/2023

A plan to install cameras that will detect whether drivers are using their phones behind the wheel has been scrapped due to political disagreement over the privacy aspect.

Belgium’s mobility minister Georges Gilkinet described the hurdle as “a lack of capacity to comply with basic privacy rules”.

Five police zones were supposed to start using the high-tech cameras this year, Het Nieuwsblad reports, with one in Brussels and two each in Flanders and Wallonia.

But politicians raised concerns about drivers’ privacy, especially in light of the high-quality images such cameras provide. There was also concern from federal police.

“It is particularly disappointing that liberals are opposing a pilot project to tackle distracted driving,” said MP Joris Vandenbroucke.

“If even a pilot project cannot test what has been working perfectly well in the Netherlands for two years, there is clearly political unwillingness here. Obviously, everyone's privacy must be guaranteed, but it can be done perfectly. Dutch practice demonstrates that.”

Belgium’s traffic safety institute Vias also expressed disappointment that the plan is "on hold" for the time being, saying there was already a successful pilot project in 2020 and that there were sufficient privacy safeguards from the Data Protection Authority.

“Of course you have to pay attention to the privacy aspect, but it is not insurmountable,” a spokesperson said, adding that photos of "innocent" drivers would be deleted immediately, faces would be blurred and other passengers would be unrecognisable.

Vias also drew comparisons to the Netherlands, which has similar privacy laws and uses mobile phone flash cameras to catch and sanction drivers who use their phones behind the wheel.

According to the institute, the use of such cameras led to 35% more people getting caught for distracted driving. Fines in the Netherlands are also much higher at €380 rather than the €174 fine in Belgium.

Gilkinet said other measures to combat distracted driving are under consideration.

“Distracted driving is one of the three biggest killers on the road, along with driving under the influence and excessive speed,” Gilkinet said. “My absolute priority is to reduce the number of road accident victims.”

According to a survey from Vias, one in 10 Belgian drivers makes mobile phone calls while driving at least once a month, doubling the risk of an accident. Among people under the age of 34, 23% make at least one phone call a month with their mobile in hand.

Written by Helen Lyons