San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Bad Drivers Have It Coming

A controversial new law will dramatically increase fines for traffic violations, while punishing drunken driving and speeding with jail time.

The law, approved this week, raises the maximum fine for traffic violations to $410 from $36, while sending drunken and reckless drivers to jail for up to three years.

These measures, the first major reform to a 1993 traffic law, are an effort to reduce what Health Minister María Luisa Avila has called “a massacre in the streets.”

Some 340 people died in traffic accidents last year, and about 530 were seriously injured, according to the Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT). Nearly 40 percent of the victims were between 20 and 35 years old.

“This, for us, is like war,” Avila said. “It kills the youngest and leaves people mutilated and families destroyed.”

The Oscar Arias administration presented the bill two years ago, but lawmakers spent months haggling over the details, despite pressure from victims’ families. Once President Arias signs the law, criminal penalties will take effect within two weeks, while fines will take effect in nine months.

During that time, MOPT will publish ads to inform drivers about the law and hire 400 more traffic cops to enforce it. Just 700 traffic cops now monitor the 1 million cars that move through Costa Rica every day.

The law will cost about $35 million to implement, said Carlos Rivas, a legal aid with the Roadway Safety Council (CONSEVI).

The money will go to hiring traffic cops and prosecutors, renting office space and purchasing equipment. Armed with a legal mandate, MOPT will apply for the funds from the Finance Ministry.

On paper, the law sends drivers to prison for one to three years for going faster   than 150 kph or racing other cars. While impaired drivers now need pay only a $36 fine, the new law sends people to jail for up to three years for driving with a blood-alcohol content of 0.75 grams per liter.

A man weighing 155 pounds could reach that level by drinking three or four beers over the course of an hour, said Guillermo Brenes, head of toxicology at the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ).

Still, most culprits will likely never end up behind bars because a judge can replace jail time with between 200 and 950 hours of community service.

The new fines, pegged to inflation, range from $40 for throwing cigarettes in the street to $410 for driving faster than 120 kph or with a blood-alcohol content of 0.5 grams per liter. Not wearing a seatbelt, driving while on a cell phone or ignoring a stop sign carry a $310 fine.

Some 55 percent of the fines will go to MOPT, while the rest will be divided among local governments, the Red Cross, the Judicial Branch and the Child Welfare Office (PANI), said Rivas.

Critics say the fines are draconian and unaffordable for Costa Ricans, many of whom will try to bribe traffic cops to avoid them. The maximum fine is equal to an entire month’s wages for an administrative clerk in the Judicial Branch.

“I would have preferred lower fines with a greater probability of getting caught,” said Luis Mesalles, a former board member of the Central Bank and general manager of La Yema Dorada, a food manufacturer. “There is a culture of avoiding traffic laws, and there is a culture among traffic cops of accepting bribes.”

The law seeks to crack down on corruption by creating a new office within MOPT to keep tabs on traffic cops. Whereas MOPT now relies on citizens to report corrupt cops, the new office will conduct stings to identify cops who solicit bribes, Rivas said.

Each licensed driver will start with 50 points, which are reduced for each violation.

Points are deducted for infractions ranging from speeding to driving without a license plate. When the 50 points are lost, the driver’s license will be revoked for two years.

In the final vote Monday, every party backed the law except the Libertarian Movement Party. Libertarian lawmaker Carlos Gutiérrez said the new rules are unreasonable for a Third World country.

For instance, he said, farmers who pile into a pickup would have to pay a $165 fine for overcrowding, and drivers who zig-zag across the road to avoid potholes could be fined for recklessness.

“This is a law for a First World country … not for a country like ours with holes in the roads and broken traffic lights,” Gutiérrez said.

Other controversial measures include an $82 fine for a taxi or bus driver who insults his passengers, and a $410 fine for drivers who do not have booster seats or cushions for passengers up to 12 years old.

The law may not be perfect, but it will help reduce accidents, said Alejandro Trejos, whose 18-year-old daughter was killed by a reckless driver last year.

Trejos has organized marches, met with lawmakers, and collected signatures to push for the law. Late last month, after the bill passed in an initial vote, he gathered with friends and family in a garden dedicated to his daughter, Natalia, at his Curridabat home.

“The law was imperative,” but it is not a panacea, he said. “People have to change their attitudes. They have to be more respectful toward others on the roads.”

Penalties Under New Traffic Law

Causing a fatal accident                                                 6 months – 8 years jail

Causing a fatal accident while drunk                              3 -15 years jail

Racing against other drivers                                           1-3 years jail

Driving drunk (BAC 0.75 g/l)                                        1-3 years jail

Driving tipsy (BAC 0.5 g/l)                                           $410 fine

Driving faster than 150 km/hr                                        1-3 years jail

Driving faster than 120 km/hr                                        $410 fine

Driving without a valid license or permit                         $410 fine

Operating a pirate taxi                                                   $410 fine

Driving 20 km/hr above speed limit                               $310 fine

Not wearing a seatbelt                                                  $310 fine

Holding a cell phone                                                     $310 fine

Ignoring traffic lights or signs                                         $310 fine


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