San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Traffic Law Stuck in the Slow Lane

Political opposition to a controversial traffic law which would severely fine and, in certain circumstances, imprison offending motorists is expected to delay the law’s proposed September 23 implementation date.

In order to discuss proposed amendments to the new law in more detail, independent lawmaker Andrea Morales asked the Legislative Assembly to push the law’s start date to March 2010.

The decision of the lawmakers regarding the law will be published in La Gaceta, the official government newspaper, in the next two weeks.

“Some fellow legislators are in agreement with the postponement as they’ve realized there is now no way to approve the amendments before the Sept. 23 deadline,” Morales said.

In spite of the potential delay, 800 traffic officers are already being briefed on their new roles under the law, policing the principal traffic routes throughout the country.

At a press conference Wednesday in San José, Vice Minister of Transport Rosaura Montero assured that “all human resources are in place for the official start date.”

Styled on a European points system, the proposed reform would involve motorists starting with 50 points on their driver’s licenses. Depending on the severity of the offense, drivers would then lose points for infractions in multiples of five and incur fines ranging from $39 to $388. A complete loss of points would result in a driver’s license being revoked for a period of two years.

Foreigners also would be targeted under the new law, which insists that foreign drivers apply for Costa Rican licenses if they intend to stay in country and drive beyond the term of their 90-day tourist visas.

While the severity of the fines may well be subject to change should the Legislative Assembly agree to a postponement of the law, the sanctions (prison or community service) against driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.75 or higher will not be reversed. This section of the law went into effect in December 2008, immediately after legislators approved the law.

The eventual implementation of the new law is expected to cost $35 million, a sum that will include the cost of an advertising campaign, the purchase of new traffic lights and road signs, as well as the hiring of 400 traffic officers and 44 lawyers to deal with the expected surge in charges and disputes over charges. A revision of the national driving test also is expected.

Motorists will be expected to pay their fines within two weeks of being issued a ticket. Failure to pay will result in a three percent interest charge levied against them each month. If fines are ignored completely motorists will be unable to renew their car’s yearly driving permit (marchamo).

Talk of a potential delay was welcomed by San José taxi driver of 14 years, Fran Arauz, 42, from Guadalupe, who said, “It is all very well, people sitting in offices and drawing up plans for the roads and plans to fine and imprison drivers, but they should first come and spend 12 hours a day on the roads like we have to. Then they would think differently.

“How can I be expected to pay hundreds of dollars a month in fines when I don’t earn enough to pay them?” Arauz asked. “If they want to make the place safer and more cosmopolitan, they should start by reducing the number of buses in the city center.”

Carlos Rivas, a lawyer for the Roadway Safety Council (CONSEVI), said: “If you’re a responsible driver, you have nothing to worry about. It’s not a question of punishing drivers, but of educating them. Yes, there is an increased risk of bribery and corruption, but that risk is always there.

Education is the key. Far too many people die on our roads each year, and this will help combat that.”

In a society with a track record of police corruption and bribery, many fear that endowing traffic officers with a judge and jury authority to issue fines, while increasing their workload with no extra pay, will only augment the problem.

Libertarian lawmaker Mario Quirós Lara, who, disagrees with the law, said: “From the very beginning we have maintained that the economic sanctions were unrealistic and would create a huge problem with corruption at the heart of the traffic police. This law is by no means the solution to the problem on the roads. Instead, what is necessary, among other reforms, is a complete restructuring of the traffic police.”

Penalties Under Proposed

New Traffic Law

Causing death or injury by dangerous driving – Jail sentence and loss of license.

Driving faster than 120 kmh – $388 fine and loss of license.

Motorcyclists driving without a helmet –$388 fine and loss of license.

Driving without a seatbelt – $289 fine and loss of 20 points.

Driving while talking on a cell phone – $289 and loss of 20 points.

Performing an illegal U-turn – $289 and loss of 10 points.

Driving slowly in the left-hand lane on dual highways – $192 fine and loss of 15 points.

Driving a public vehicle and carrying more passengers than the vehicle allows – $192 fine and loss of 15 points.

Taxi drivers found guilty of abusing the meter – $192 fine and loss of 15 points.

Driving a vehicle with more passengers than the vehicle allows – $154 fine and loss of 10 points.

Racing cars – $154 fine and loss of 10 points. Parking in restricted areas – $154 fine and loss of 10 points.

Driving without a license – $77 fine.

Jaywalking – $77 fine.

Driving public transport and carrying passengers who are drunk or who litter or are offensive – $39 fine.


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