Enforcing free flow kilometre charge in Belgium

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Wouter van Haaften looks at the new kilometre-based charge for trucks using Belgian roads and discusses potential issues of enforcement of the system

In 2016 another EU country will join the free flow km charge family. Where France didn’t make it, it looks like the Belgians will succeed. On April 1, 2016 the Belgian kilometre charge for trucks over 3.5 tons will come into effect. The testing period has started and the first on-board-units (OBUs)have been sent to the early adopting users. The units will be registered to the owner of the truck. The data concerning the truck, number plate, and the owner will be stored by the system. By getting their OBU now early adopters can get used to the system. The advantage is that they do not have to stand in line by the end of March, when everybody will need to get one. The only difference with the situation from April 2016 on is they do not have to pay yet. From that date all trucks in Belgium must have an OBU capable of charging them within the Belgian system. The six months prior to the introduction will not only be used to test the OBU system, but also to test the technology facilitating the enforcement.

Enforcement is a vital part of the Belgian system. Due to a successful introduction in Austria and relatively low prices of OBUs, Belgium has chosen one system with an OBU for all users. That means that the incidental Russian, Ukrainian or Turkish user will have to deal with the same system as the day-to-day Belgian, Dutch or German user. But the position of the incidental user is different. He will have to obtain an OBU at the border, pay for the caution and the kilometres to be driven in advance, and, in case of a ‘once in a lifetime’ visit, return the unit when leaving Belgium. To inspire the trucker to do this a fine of 1,000 euros will be collected in case of driving without an OBU.

For now the Belgians have to deal with the three ways to enforce the charge. It starts with portals that we already know from other free flow tolling systems. The second will be transferable equipment that can be moved. That way enforcement will not become too predictable. The third way is to check out the functionality of OBUs on the fly from moving surveillance cars. While passing the truck enforcement officers can verify whether the vehicle has a functioning OBU and they can take immediate action if that is not the case. The mobile teams will probably be the same teams that are expected to respond to a call from the nearest portal.

How will this system work? To get an answer to that question a differentiation has to be made between Belgian vehicles and foreigners. When a Belgian vehicle passes a portal without a functioning OBU it will not be strictly necessary to send in the mobile enforcement team, except perhaps to inform the driver that his unit is not functioning and to persuade him to get one. The authorities have a register of all Belgian trucks and can send an invite to pay the fine for not having a functioning OBU. Since the km charge is levied as a tax, there is a procedure for collecting the money from offending Belgian haulers.

How different that is for foreign haulers. Here a difference should be made between trucks with a non- or malfunctioning OBU, or trucks with no unit at all. In the first instance the vehicle could be stopped if a mobile team is available and in the neighbourhood. If this is not possible the fine could be sent to the owner of the truck registered in the system. When the letter informing the owner of a fine arrives at a Dutch, Spanish, Turkish or Russian hauler payment will not be immediate. Outside Belgium the Belgian tax rules on collecting tax and tax related fines do not apply. And a collection procedure could be time- and money-consuming. Only if the Belgian authorities have an agreement on collecting km charge fines with the home authorities of the offending trucker, will there be a reasonable chance of collection.

If the fine cannot be collected the licence number of the offending truck can be put on a blacklist and the idea is to stop the truck for payment whenever it will be back in Belgium at a later stage. This method however invokes legal questions such as: what if the truck has been sold, and what if the owner is not the user of the truck? Once these legal questions have been dealt with this type of enforcement could prove to be effective to an extent. However if the compliance of foreigners in the system appear to be disappointing it will take a lot of enforcement capacity to do something about it.

Even more adventurous is the situation where an offending truck is not registered. When the vehicle is spotted by an enforcement portal, a signal will go to the nearest mobile enforcement team. This team will track the offender down and stop it. To be able to do this the team should be stationed close to the portal; otherwise finding the offending truck will be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Since these trucks are not registered in the system the enforcement team can only deal with the licence plate number and with certain properties of the vehicle like texts painted on the side, referring to the owning company. If the truck will not be stopped, the licence number will be put on the blacklist, with all the consequences described earlier.

As far as the implementation of the Belgian enforcement scheme is concerned it seems safe to say that the order in which the various trucks will be enforced will start with the non-registered foreigners, then the registered foreigners and finally the Belgian vehicles. Whether enforcement will be successful or not will depend on the compliance of foreign trucks visiting Belgium. Next summer it will be clearer whether the numbers of enforcement units – 50 portals and 40 mobile teams – and the amount of the fine – 1,000 euros for three hours driving without a (functioning) OBU will be sufficient to assure the enforcement of the Belgian kilometre charge.