Errant European

Today I longed for the America of Mayberry NC, that imaginary Sixties town where even as brainless a citizen as the butt of the town’s ridicule “Gomer Pyle” could shout “Citizen’s Arrest!” at law breakers and hope that justice would be served. Even though the Andy Griffith Show is long over, apparently the notion of citizens reporting traffic violations continues in Rockville, Maryland, a Washington D.C. suburb where we once lived. There, citizens – hopefully public-spirited and not mean-spirited – can W.R.I.T.E. (Witness Report in Traffic Enforcement) their local police, filling out an online form, which covers everything from excessive speed to reckless driving.

Reckless driving – I guess that’s what you might call my encounter this morning while walking back home from the bakery. On a busy two-lane Brussels street, I chose my crossing point judiciously. A “zebra” crossing, where, in Belgium, the simple placement of a foot from sidewalk to pavement is supposed to result in traffic coming to a halt to let the pedestrian cross. In this case, it was even better: a city bus had stopped to pick up passengers immediately before the crosswalk. I needn’t even look left – the bus was in that lane – and the car in the other lane was slowing down.

But skeptic that I am, I did look left, and lo and behold, a big black 4 X 4 with two testosterone-laden young men out to prove that they can pass a stopped bus – a violation – and run down (almost) a pedestrian in a crosswalk – another violation – is bearing down on me. Luckily, they weren’t willfully homicidal, and they did stop at the sight of a bespectacled fifty-something holding up his hands in what – a Gomer Pyle gesture? I noted down the license plate, the place, the time, and proceeded to walk home.

Now, I realize that I am in the land of 7 parliaments, 3 geographic “regions” overlaid with 3 linguistic “communities,” with 10 provinces and their governors and 589 communes with their bourgmestres, and that English common law and its notion of “citizen’s arrest” carries no weight. But I wasn’t prepared for the answer to my phone call to the local police station.

“No, monsieur, only a policeman can report an infraction of the traffic code.” Oh, I see. What if I had been run over? How about the bus and tram drivers, who daily witness multiple “incivilities” that run the gamut from blocking their route to running red lights? “No, only police can note violations.” As the lady said, just shoot me.

Napoleon and his Code did rule Belgium before it became Belgium, but even in France, the authorities appear to encourage local initiatives for road safety. Not here: my police station call desk person wasn’t even interested in knowing about a major intersection where just posting a cop would result in daily or hourly or minute-ly red light-running tickets.

Aren’t they even interested in a little revenue generation?

Question for readers: is this a pipe dream of someone who lived too long in the US? Would citizens or residents in your home country be able to signal dangerous driving behaviour to the police?

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This post first appeared in Avuncular American.

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