San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Traffic Law Makes Final Push

Legislators looked poised this week to vote to water down the tough new Traffic Law, after a drawn-out series of back and-forth debates, revisions and further debates.

In the first legislative debate Tuesday, lawmakers voted 28 to 14 in favor of a series of reforms to the Traffic Law that went into effect in March, including lowering fines and lessening penalties for drinking and driving. The reforms would also eliminate a points system that can lead to repeat traffic offenders losing their license.

The move to scrap the points provoked a strong reaction from Casa Presidencial. Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias told reporters this week that the government plans to rush a proposal to the Legislative Assembly to reintroduce the points system.

If a bill from the executive power were to go to committee, it could bring the downtrodden Traffic Law back to square one all over again.

As of this writing, the Legislative Assembly was expected to approve the reforms Thursday afternoon in a second and final debate, in what could be among the incumbent legislature’s last chance to make a splash before newly elected lawmakers enter the 57-seat congress on May 1.

If approved in second debate, the bill would then go to President Oscar Arias’ office to be signed into law. Once signed, the reforms would take effect once they are published in the official newspaper, La Gaceta.

The reforms, which would slash traffic fines as much as 66 percent, appeared to be pushing through the Legislative Assembly in mid-March until an legislative advisory committee found basic flaws in the reformed text. After approving a series of motions, the law’s numbering became jumbled, some sections made reference to non-existent penalties and others violated the right to autonomy of certain institutions, such as public universities (TT, March 19).

The law first emerged in 2008 as a get-tough measure to curb escalating road accidents, largely caused by speeding and drunken driving. But its penalties included fines that many Costa Ricans considered too high. Piles of complaints as well as inconsistencies in the law’s text forced the government to suspend the law.

A modified version appeared in March, but legislators quickly moved to reform it even further to lower certain penalties. The current law, for example, criminalizes driving while intoxicated on the first offense. So far, in first debate, legislators have approved a measure that would remove move the possible prison sentence for second-time offenders.

“We’ve been reviewing legislation on this issue (and) the truth is that reckless driving under the influence of alcohol, practically in all the countries where it gets a jail sentence, it’s not in the first instance, but the second offense, or even a later offense,” said Jorge Méndez, the National Liberation Party’s head legislator. “We believe (the reform) evens out (the law) within the framework of the Costa Rican legal order.”

–Alex Leff

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