San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Tortuous Path for Transit Law

There’s no telling what will become of the downtrodden Transit Law reforms that lawmakers approved last week.

This week, a review committee found errors and constitutional violations in the text for the reforms that could stall the expected modifications until after Semana Santa, or Easter week.

Many of the changes seek to soften penalties and lower fines as outlined in the law that took effect this month (TT, March 12). However, one section of the proposed reforms obligates universities and other independent institutions to offer driving instruction, a demand the review team said would be “unconstitutional” because it would infringe on the autonomy of the institutions.

According to Llihanny Linkimer, one of the Technical Services Department report’s coauthors, lawmakers should have consulted these institutions first. Universities, she said, “are practically like little governments within the state. Only they can determine the courses they should offer and what budget should be allotted (to them). A law can’t obligate them to give a course.”

Following the review committee’s recommendation, the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday initiated an eight-day consultation process with the institutions in question. That step freezes the reforms process until the end of the consultation period, which could be delayed until April 5 because of the Semana Santa recess. The assembly had not officially announced its recess dates as of yesterday afternoon. Lawmakers can begin to debate the changes or submit the reforms to a committee only after the consultation process is complete. Bills must pass two votes on the floor of the Legislative Assembly and a presidential signature before they become law.

The review team also spotted in the text inconsistencies its members said need to be corrected. One problem team members pointed to is in the numbering of articles, which appears to have become jumbled when legislators voted on the more than 200 modifications that were proposed.

“When motions are presented, they almost always say to introduce new articles and move over the numbers,” Linkimer said. The review team found that some sections of the text refer to other sections that no longer exist because lawmakers had voted to remove them. For example, while legislators had agreed to eliminate the drivers’ point system, some sections of the law still refer to the number of points a motorist could lose should he or she break the law.

In light of the problems in the document, Rodrigo Arias, minister to the presidency, urged legislators not to act hastily to push the reforms through. “I ask you to please evaluate calmly all that has been approved,” Arias said.


Reforms in Reverse


Meanwhile, some opposition lawmakers this week withdrew their support for the modifications. The opposition said the proposed reforms go too far in weakening the penalties against drunken driving. Alberto Salom, head of the Citizen Action Party (PAC) in the Legislative Assembly, has called for zero tolerance in the law, which he said should set the maximum blood-alcohol level at 0.5 grams per liter as opposed to 0.75 as the National Liberation Party had proposed.

“We strongly believe that what’s good for this society is greater, not lesser, rigor and strictness on the issue of alcohol,” Salom told The Tico Times.

Members of the Libertarian Movement Party (ML) also object to the move to weaken the law’s get-tough measures on driving under the influence.

Other naysayers have chimed in, too.

The Ombudsman’s Office, which aims to give an official voice to citizens’ complaints against the government, issued a statement on Wednesday claiming that the reforms pose “a considerable setback” for disabled people. Officials said the proposed reforms would permit bus companies to remain in service without improving accessibility. The statement also criticized the move to scrap the points system.

“Any change to the law (that softens penalties for reckless driving) would be disastrous, a serious mistake and an assault on the rights of responsible drivers,” said Ombudswoman Ofelia Taitelbaum.


Travelers’ Loophole


One population could remain unscathed by the tough new rules of the road: tourists.

Representatives from the tourism sector and car rental companies took their turn this week in criticizing the Transit Law, claiming that it includes an unfair loophole that allows tourist violators to avoid paying fines.

Car owners in Costa Rica customarily settle their traffic tickets at the end of each year, when they pay their annual vehicle circulation permit fee, known as the marchamo.

In a statement, the National Tourism Chamber (CANATUR) said there’s no way to prevent tourists from leaving the country without paying their fines. Car rental operators fear that this will leave them, as owners of the vehicles, responsible for paying the fines.


Restriction on Entering City Up in the Air?


President Oscar Arias issued a decree in June 2008 to restrict traffic in San José. The rule prohibits motorists from driving in the city on certain days of the week, depending on the last digit of their license plate. This decree could expire as soon as March 31, although representatives of the Legislative Assembly consulted for this article said the president is expected to renew the restriction.

While the decree is an independent piece of legislation, the Transit Law makes reference to it and provides penalty guidelines. Thus, an expiration of the restriction could provide another inconsistency in the Transit Law, which would then provide a penalty for a non-existent violation.

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