San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Traffic Bill Faces Jam In Legislative Assembly

A man drinks two beers during an hour-long lunch, then drives back to his office in downtown San José.Arrested by a traffic cop, he goes to jail for a year and temporarily loses his license.

That scenario could happen if a bill now moving through the Legislative Assembly is passed in its present form. A legislative committee recently approved the bill, designed to reduce road deaths, under pressure from the press, accident victims and the executive branch. The proposal likely will not become law without some tweaking.

“We have to put our feet on the ground,” said Jorge Méndez, a legislator from the National Liberation Party (PLN) who serves on the committee. “Someone who drinks two wines, two beers, or two shots could go through a criminal trial. That’s irrational and disproportionate.”

In a strange twist, none of the lawmakers on the committee is satisfied with the bill they approved unanimously on Dec. 20. But after more than eight months of debate, the lawmakers still could not agree on a final version for the bill. As the public clamored for progress, legislators decided to approve the bill and change it later on the floor.

“We approved it quickly because there was a lot of pressure…The pressure of public opinion, citizens, the press,” said Bienvenido Venegas, a Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) legislator on the committee.

“We have to fix it.”

The bill addresses an urgent problem. Some 339 people died on-site in traffic accidents last year – more than in any year since 2003, when 363 people died, according to the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MOPT). The biggest causes were speeding, drunken driving, and carelessness by pedestrians, in that order. The death toll is likely higher because the ministry does not count traffic deaths that occur later in the hospital.

A reform to a 1993 traffic law, the bill would increase fines for traffic violations, require that schools teach road safety, make drunk driving a crime and crack down on bribery by traffic police. In recent months, its passage was delayed by disagreement over whether the company Riteve should lose its de facto monopoly on vehicle inspections.

(In the bill’s present form, it does not.)

Riteve will likely see further discussion on the legislative floor. So will traffic fines, which some lawmakers see as excessive. The bill would impose fines of $1,360 for drunken driving, exceeding 120 kph, driving with a suspended license, bribing a traffic cop, and driving a taxi without authorization, among other things. Other fines in the bill range from $115 for forgetting to carry a license to $455 for using a cell phone while driving or running a red light. Under current law, the highest traffic fine is $40.

The Liberation legislators, meanwhile, appear to be focusing on the drunken driving provisions. Under the bill, driving with a blood-alcohol content of 0.05% would be punishable by up to a year in jail.

According to Guillermo Brenes, a toxicology expert at the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ), a man weighing 155 pounds could reach that level by drinking two beers over the course of an hour.

“That means that every day dozens of people would be sent to trial,” said Méndez, who wants to change the limit to 0.075%.

It is unclear when the bill will reach the legislative floor. The executive branch, which has the power to decide the legislative agenda until May, is now calling only for debate on laws required to implement the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).

Once President Oscar Arias allows for discussion on the traffic bill, any lawmaker can suggest changes, which the same legislative committee must debate and approve or discard.

This time, Méndez said, rules limiting debate promise quicker progress. For all their bickering, the lawmakers agree on at least one thing: The bill must be changed.


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