Bar owner Barry Moss estimates he has seen a 35 to 40 percent drop in business since the new transit law went into effect in December 2008.
As the proprietor of Latino Rock Café in Barrio California in downtown San José, Moss said people are buying fewer drinks or not coming at all.
“People are afraid of getting caught,” said Moss, who opened the popular nightlife destination more than a year and a half ago and also owns the bar Gramis in the southern San José suburb of San Francisco de Dos Ríos.
“(For my customers), constantly relying on taxis can put a dent in the wallet.” Across the street at La Flota, bartender Jonathan Zúñiga has also watched business taper off.
“They used to drink eight (beers) and now they drink four,” he said, adding, “Now more people are drinking in their homes.”
It’s not necessarily the economy that is driving people away from popular bars and clubs, bartenders and patrons say. They are pointing a finger at the new law aimed at reducing drunk driving, among other measures.
The law cites individuals with a blood alcohol level of 0.49 grams per liter (the equivalent of a man drinking two beers within an hour) with a $370 fine. Previously, the fine for that blood alcohol level – called “pre-ebridad” or tipsy – was $18.50.
Drivers registering a blood alcohol level of 0.75 grams per liter (down from 1.0 grams before the law) risk losing their license for six months and may be sentenced to three years in prison.
“I know this law is harsh,” President Oscar Arias said before it law went into effect in December. “But rather than get scared, we should thank lawmakers for passing it. We have let (drivers) get away with too much.” (TT, Dec. 12, 2008)
And though some bar patrons grumble about the steep penalties, many are quietly celebrating the fact that the streets have become safer.
“I used to see many inebriated drivers on the road, but not now,” said Juan Obregon, stopping in a bar near the courts for a beer after work. “It has certainly changed my attitude toward driving. Now, I only have one beer.”
Reynaldo Suárez, who was also unwinding after work with a drink at the same bar, applauded the intention of the law, but said the repercussions were too harsh. The maximum fine of $410 is equal to an entire month’s wages for a Judicial Branch administrative clerk, for example.
“The law is good, but it’s very drastic,” he said. “There are a lot of penalties, which I don’t accept.”
Some people have found ways to dodge the fines.
According to a report in the daily La Nación, drunk drivers are refusing to use a Breathalyzer and are instead requesting a blood test at a hospital. By law, Transit Police are required to oblige them on this request.
“The problem is that hospital attention takes a long time, and when the blood test is finally taken, it doesn’t reflect the level of alcohol in the blood required to accuse them,” said Francisco Fonseca, coordinator of the prosecutors’ office for such matters, told La Nación. “The blood alcohol level is fundamental in the accusation and, without it, the charge is dropped.”
Fonseca also mentioned in his interview with La Nación that there has been a surge in the amount of people prosecuted for reckless driving, indicating perhaps drunk drivers are being charged with different offenses.
Yet, the penalties have been high enough to prevent people from driving drunk, said the Public Works and Transport Ministry. Fewer people died in drunk driving accidents in the first 90 days of this year, according to numbers the ministry released earlier this month.
“These numbers are a consequence of the severity of the new legislation and of its effectiveness,” said Rosaura Montero, vice minister of transport, in a press release.
Twenty people died in drunk driving accidents in the first 90 days of 2007. In the first 90 days of 2008, 14 people died. And, as of March 31, only six people have died in accidents relating to drunk driving.
The December 2008 law also raised the maximum fine for traffic violations (such as speeding or driving without a license) to $410 from $36. Neglecting to wear a seatbelt, holding a cell phone or ignoring traffic lights now carry a $310 fine.
The Transit Police have caught 850 drunk drivers since the law was passed, but were unable to give prior statistics on the number of inebriated drivers detained.
While the new law might be making the roads safer, Moss is not pleased to see business sink.
“As a bar owner, it hurts,” he said.
Raising an empty hand as if to toast, he added, but “(As to the law,) I’ll drink to a change.”¦
The New Transit Law
On Dec. 23, new fines and regulations went into effect relating to drunk driving and traffic infractions.
Driving tipsy $18.5 $370
(Blood alcohol level of
0.49 grams per liter)
Driving drunk $36 Six-month
(Blood alcohol level of license revo
0.75 grams per liter) cation, up to three years in prison
Traffic violations $36 $410
(Including speeding or
driving without a license)
Neglecting to wear a seatbelt $18 $310
Using a cell phone $18 $310