Lawmakers voted this week to soften key points of Costa Rica’s new, strict Transit Law that took effect earlier this month with the aim of curbing reckless driving and clearing up the capital city’s congested streets.
The new reforms would include decriminalizing a drivers’ first time drunk driving offense and slicing in half many of the new fines that lawmakers consider too high. During an intense six sessions of voting in the Legislative Assembly on 213 motions, some opposition legislators expressed fears that certain changes would defang a law meant to get tough on driving and could lead to more road accidents – a leading cause of violent deaths in the country.
The current sessions are addressing several controversial pieces of legislation before the Legislative Assembly changes hands on May 8 with the inauguration of a newly elected government.
“I wouldn’t want them to blame us for being soft, too permissive or irresponsible once we’re gone,” said Carlos Gutiérrez, head of the Libertarian Movement Party’s legislative group, according to a news release from the Legislative Assembly.
Strike Two, You’re Out
The new law mandates a zero-tolerance penalty for drunk driving and allowed judges the power to punish first-time offenders with jail time. However, on Monday, legislators approved a motion to modify that penalty.
According to the motion, first-time offenders would face stiff fines of as much as ¢195,578 (about $360) and, if they were to be caught again, they would go to trial and face a prison sentence of between one and three years, according to Justo Pastor, legislative adviser for the National Liberation Party (PLN).
Some member of the left-of-center Citizen Action Party (PAC) accused legislators of softening the law.
“The main objective of this law was to be tougher on drivers who had problems with alcohol consumption, but with this proposal, that is lost,” said PAC legislator Grettel Ortíz.
On Tuesday, lawmakers also green-lighted a motion to lower some of the traffic violation fines many Costa Ricans consider draconian.
Fines for violations legislators deemed of lesser importance – such as driving the wrong way or failing to buckle one’s seatbelt – were reduced by as much as 50 percent (see chart for new fines).
Besides these proposed changes, lawmakers moved to delete the points system by which drivers would accumulate demerits that, after enough violations, could ultimately cost a driver his or her license.
The new modified text under consideration is being scrutinized by a technical team before it goes back to the assembly for two final debates. If approved, it will go to President Oscar Arias for his signature and become law. Pastor, the legislative adviser, expects the law to be back on the floor some time next week.
New Traffic Law Fines
Driving faster than 120 km, drunk driving, carrying small children without baby seat.
Running a red light or stop sign, driving without the seatbelt buckled, bikers and cyclists without a helmet.
Driving without proof of Riteve (technical check up) approval, motorcyclists who weave around traffic or drive on the sidewalk.
Too many passengers, lacking a fire extinguisher or hazard triangle, driving a motorcycle or bike without a reflective vest.
Driving with an expired driver’s license or without license plates.
Licensed driver caught driving without a license or car registration.
Violating the San José driving restriction.