Belgium's highways shine into space - but for how long?

July 11, 2011 by Phillipp Saure
Belgium currently turns on 335,000 lights fitted to 150,000 lampposts on its motorways and main roads every evening.

When Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne feels homesick when in space, all he needs to do, provided it's night, is look down for the bright spot for even nowadays, Belgium keeps its highways switched on.

The almost 100 percent illumination of the country's highways can indeed be seen from space with a telescopic lens, said (ESA) spokesman in the German city of Cologne.

But down on earth, the mood is changing and Belgium soon may not shine so brightly.

Almost no other country on earth can currently afford such a luxury, and as energy-saving and cost-cutting measures bite, even Belgium is beginning to consider a switch-off. Another exception is its tiny but wealthy neighbour, Luxembourg, which too offers almost 100-percent lighting on its 150 kilometres (93 miles) of highways.

Belgium currently turns on 335,000 lights fitted to 150,000 lampposts on its motorways and main roads every evening.

In the economically struggling southern French-speaking region of Wallonia, 750 kilometres of the 860-kilometre grid are lit up at night. In the wealthier Dutch-speaking north, Flanders, the roads are 100 percent illuminated, according to transport ministries from both regions.

But officials are beginning to look at the cost.

Cash-strapped Wallonia last year paid out 9.5 million euros for 105 gigawatt-hours of electricity for road lighting -- to produce that amount of electricity a standard would need to run for about four days.

The kingdom's affection for road lights dates to concerns some 60 years back -- the post-World War II period when more and more families were buying cars -- over spiralling fatalities on roads at night.

In the 1950s, the Wallonia transport ministry said, while only a quarter of took place after nightfall, more than half of fatal casualties occurred during the night.

Lamps were therefore introduced "mainly for safety reasons, all the more since seemed reasonable at that time," a recent ministry report said.

Twenty years later, exits and drive-ups were illuminated too as planners sought to spare drivers the constant change from darkness to light.

But the apparent benefits for road safety have come under question. The Belgium Institute for Road Security (IBSR) offers mixed conclusions in a recent report.

While lighting was installed "with the best of intentions", it presents "a certain number of more or less important inconveniences", it says. While lighting undoubtedly increases visibility, it can also give those at the wheel "a (false) sense of safety", the experts add.

And lampposts in many cases have turned out to be "extremely rigid and dangerous obstacles" responsible for more than 18 percent of fatalities involving obstacles, the report added.

It said that a driver who loses control of his vehicle faces double the risk of being killed against a lamppost than against a highway railing.

Conservative European parliamentarian Peter Liesse, a member of Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) -- Chancellor Angela Merkel's party -- who works on the implementation of European energy efficiency targets, says the European Union cannot force Belgium to switch off the highway lighting.

But the new energy efficiency regulations which have already led to the abolition of old-style light bulbs in households also apply to street lighting, he said.

Old bulbs are indeed being replaced by more efficient models over time on the roads.

And already, the lights on the highways are dimming.

In 2008, southern Wallonia reduced the number of hours lights were turned on from 4,050 a year to 2,350. In northern Flanders, a report is due for release any time soon that is expected to question the overall idea.

Should the switch-off begin, Belgian astronauts will lose a beacon.

Explore further: Stop traffic crashes: Switch on the lights

Related Stories

Stop traffic crashes: Switch on the lights

January 21, 2009

Street lighting provides a simple, low cost means of stemming the global epidemic of road traffic death and injury. Low income countries should consider installing more lights, and high income countries should think carefully ...

First global lighting study is released

June 29, 2006

The first global survey of lighting uses and costs suggests the world's electric bill would greatly decrease with a switch to efficient lighting systems.

LED there be light

June 22, 2009

Q: How many LED engineers does it take to change a light bulb?

Canada's new government to ban inefficient light bulbs

April 25, 2007

The Honourable Gary Lunn, Minister of Natural Resources, joined by the Honourable John Baird, Minister of the Environment, announced today that Canada’s New Government is taking another important step to protect the environment ...

Recommended for you

Google to serve next version of Android as 'Oreo"

August 22, 2017

An upcoming update to Google's Android software finally has a delectable name. The next version will be known as Oreo, extending Google's tradition of naming each version after a sweet treat.

Forget oil, Russia goes crazy for cryptocurrency

August 16, 2017

Standing in a warehouse in a Moscow suburb, Dmitry Marinichev tries to speak over the deafening hum of hundreds of computers stacked on shelves hard at work mining for crypto money.

Researchers clarify mystery about proposed battery material

August 15, 2017

Battery researchers agree that one of the most promising possibilities for future battery technology is the lithium-air (or lithium-oxygen) battery, which could provide three times as much power for a given weight as today's ...

Signs of distracted driving—pounding heart, sweaty nose

August 15, 2017

Distracted driving—texting or absent-mindedness—claims thousands of lives a year. Researchers from the University of Houston and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute have produced an extensive dataset examining how ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3 / 5 (2) Jul 11, 2011
They should mount solar panels that will produce during the day the energy needed at night by the lamp posts.
It is easier to break something rather than build/maintain something.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.