San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Crashes Spur Safety Concerns

A series of recent tragic traffic accidents involving foreigners and Ticos alike has highlighted the need for reforms to Costa Rica’s transit law.

The reforms, which the Arias administration first promised 11 months ago, have yet to be taken up for discussion in the Legislative Assembly’s Legal Affairs Commission.

“In Costa Rica, deaths from accidents on the public roadways are one of the biggest problems for public health,” said Jorge Luis Méndez, a National Liberation Party (PLN) legislator and a member of the Legal Affairs Commission. “We’re going pretty slowly (in commission), but oh well.”

Méndez said the transit bill, which could be ready for a commission vote by late August, would likely establish an office to investigate alleged corruption by Traffic Police and increase fines for such infractions as speeding, talking on a cell phone while driving, and driving under the influence of alcohol – the second leading cause of traffic deaths here, after speeding.

The bill will draw from proposals by the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MOPT) and an organization of judges who decide transit cases.

Traffic accidents are the leading cause of violent deaths in Costa Rica, claiming on average more than 600 lives a year for the past five years and driving up costs for the nation’s public health-care system. In 2005, Costa Rica had the highest rate of traffic injuries per capita in all of Latin America, according to world rankings by The Economist magazine.

The Arias administration launched a roadway safety plan last August, promising to reduce the number of highway deaths by 19% during the next five years (TT, Aug. 25, 2006). Public Works and Transport Minister Karla González said she hoped the reform could be approved by the beginning of this year. Through May there have been 20 more deaths this year compared to the same period last year – a 15% increase, according to Roadway Safety Council (COSEVI) statistics.

Among recent victims were a Chilean couple and their one-year-old child, who died July 13 when their van tumbled 30 feet into a creekbed. The late parents’ three other children were orphaned by the accident.

Those deaths, as well as the case of two frustrated Great Britain tourists still nursing serious wounds from a July 4 collision of their tour bus here, highlight the urgency for the transit reforms, said Traffic Police Director German Marín.

The backed-up transit law, which he called “urgent,”would help toughen punishments for “irresponsible driving.” Driving under the influence, for instance, currently merits a $40 fine. Under the new law drunk drivers would have to cough up $560.

Marín attributes a rise in traffic deaths this year to an increase in drunk drivers.

In the past 15 days, the traffic police have arrested 200 drivers – 80% for allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol.

“One component to the problem continues: irresponsible driving. Drivers are speeding and not respecting the laws. We have to confront that,” he said.

Unfortunately, he said, the project has been tied up in the Legislative Assembly’s packed agenda,which until recently included the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) and accompanying reforms. The Assembly’s Legal Affairs Commission is also trying to take up a highly anticipated immigration reform bill (TT, July 6).

Picking Up the Pieces

It was a devastating end to their five-week Latin American vacation.

Cousins Sheila Cannon, 31, and Tara Lanigan, 30, from Great Britain, were riding to the airport in San José July 4 when their tourist bus was hit from behind by a trailer truck. Their cameras, cash, watches and cell phones were stolen as they lay on the ground unconscious near Esparza, a town west of San José where the accident took place. The bus driver and two Canadian tourists were also hurt, said Esparza transit inspector Jose Mora Rodríguez.

Cannon, a nurse from Gallway, Ireland, has a fractured vertebra and the bones in her left foot have pierced through her skin. Lanigan, a public relations account manager in London, England, has a fractured skull and “cuts and bruises galore.”They were treated in the private ClínicaBíblicaHospital in San José.

Getting information about the accident was tough – even for the major players involved. News of the accident did not reach Sheila Pachecho, vice counsel of the British Embassy, until July 12, more than a week after it occurred.

In another tragic occurrence last week, Gilbert Adolfo Jiménez the executive director of the National Emergency Commission (CNE) struck and killed 5-year-old Pavas resident Nicole Murillo with a Toyota Four Runner in Desamparados, south of San José.

Jiménez was on his way back from a tour driving a company vehicle when the accident occurred. Some witnesses reported the vehicle may have been speeding, though Marín said authorities are also investigating contradictory testimony. The Chief Prosecutor’s Office is investigating the case, he said.

After the accident, Murillo’s father said he plans to file a criminal complaint against Jiménez.

Marín explained that in Costa Rica’s Criminal Code, there is no crime of vehicular manslaughter per se, though he’d like to see such a reform. It is mentioned in an article that defines manslaughter, or unintentional homicide, as a crime punishable by six months to eight years in prison. Drivers found guilty of repeating the crime could have their licenses taken away for up to 10 years, according to the code.

Two days later, a Chilean family of eight packed into a Kia minivan and headed for the beach on vacation. In Desamparados de San Mateo, on the Pacific slope, the van ran off a curvy road, tumbled down into a 10-meter creekbed and wrapped around a tree.

The accident killed the two parents and their one-year-old, but spared their three other kids who are now orphaned, and their grandparents, who are interned at the private CIMAHospital, according to Chilean Embassy spokesman Francisco Jara. The three Chilean children – ages 3, 4 and 5 – were flown home to Chile Monday. The embassy was awaiting an air ambulance to send the grandparents home later this week.

Jara said authorities are investigating three possibilities that may have caused the accident: slippery roads, faulty brakes and speeding.


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