(james benedict brown) on the road

Snapshot: Belgian road safety kit

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 19 July, 2008

I spent a few days last week pootling around southern Belgium, escorting a certain VIP to various historic sights (and rather nice restaurants as well). We shot to Brussels in less than two hours by Eurostar, and then used a rental car to explore.

Belgian law obliges you to carry a warning triangle, reflective jacket, first aid kit and fire extinguisher in every vehicle. Perhaps a desperate legislative attempt to compensate for their consistently horrific driving? This is the extract that most interested me from my Lonely Planet guidebook to Belgium & Luxembourg.

‘Aggressive’ is the word generally used to describe Belgian drivers, and many foreigners who take to the roads here find it apt. Whether cruising on a sleek highway or bouncing over potholed inner-city streets, drivers have a reputation for being fast, impatient and at times abusive … anyone idling at 120km/h in the fast lane of a motorway will be flashed from behind by speed demons doing 160km/h … One peculiarity that ensures adrenaline-pumped journeys is the voorrang van rechts / priorité à droite (give way to the right) law, which operates in both Belgium and Luxembourg. Thanks to this rule, cars darting out from side streets sometimes have right of way over vehicles on the main road (but not always – signs with an orange diamond surrounded by white mean the main road has priority). Recent figures show that 250 people die each year due to this rule … Statistically, Belgium has double the rate of road fatalities of most of its neighbouring countries (France is the exception) … And if you think all this is a bit exaggerated, have a read of Pisa Test’s recent study of 3000 European drives in which the Belgians came out as the worst drivers in Europe. Just 48% are capable of passing their driving test …

Leanne Logan & Geert Cole, Lonely Planet: Belgium & Luxembourg (2007)

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Rental car secrets

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 28 June, 2008

I recently drove a car for some thirty miles on empty. It was a brand new Vauxhall Zafira – a very intelligent, utterly sensible yet quite enjoyable family car which delivers its most impressive trick shot in the boot. The middle row of seats fold upwards and slide forward against the back of the front seats to reveal two additional seats that are folded flat into the floor. A deft pull of a handle and a satisfactory selection of clunks lifts these seats upright and turns the Zafria into a compact seven seater.

Being a) too sensible and b) too poor to own a car, I rely on discounted weekend rentals to satisfy my motoring needs. This Zafria cost me £50 for a weekend of moving stuff around the country, and was delivered to me brand spanking new – with a zingy new car smell, paper sheets in the footwells and just fourteen miles on the clock. It also came with precisely diddly squat in the fuel tank, leading to a nervous lurch to the nearest fuel station to have my wallet gutted by regular unleaded at £1.13 a litre (that’s about $8.50 / gallon for all you whining American readers who think $4.50 / gallon is expensive).

Returning the car a few days a later, I was obliged to follow the golden rule of rental cars – return it with the same amount of fuel as you received it with. I had a nerve racking rush hour pelt into Sheffield as the fuel warning light first illuminated and then began to flash and beep loudly. In the past I’ve got this badly wrong, needlessly donating as much as £10 worth of fuel to the next renter by over estimating the range of the car. I made it however – despite nose to tail Monday morning traffic on Sheffield’s unforgiving hard-shoulder-less Parkway… the worst possible place to shudder to a petrol-less halt during the rush hour.

Not knowing your rental car’s fuel tank capacity or fuel consumption are two downsides to living with rental cars. Another which most renters will be familiar with is that moment of panic that arrives when you make your first fuel stop. Pulling on to the forecourt, you realise that you have no idea which side of the car the filler cap is on. Cue much awkward reversing and turning as you get it wrong and then have to turn out and back in again to get the cap on the right side. And you could be as dumb as me and flummox a full service petrol station attendant (as I did once in the States) by failing to get the cap on the right side three times in a row by successfully turning the car but then returning to the other side of the pump each time, so repeatedly getting it on the wrong side.

Meanwhile, a simple trick I want to share with any of you who, like me, regularly drive unfamiliar vehicles. If the fuel gauge doesn’t have a triangle or arrow indicating which side of the car the filler cap is on (and some do) look closely at the little icon of the fuel pump on the gauge.

The filler cap will be on the same side of the car as the hose on the icon; in this case it’s on the right.