Traffic Crime and Punishment in Costa Rica

According to the best information I can find, and I admit it’s not official government stuff, New traffic laws and punishments are going to go into effect on March 1st of this year. I took a quick stab at trying to read the actual law on the MOPT site, but I am not up to reading 75 pages of legalese in Spanish. I’m not sure I even have the right document. So I will refer instead to an article here for my information. If they are wrong, so am I and I apologize for trusting them.

So let’s take a look. First of all I guess I have to explain the point system. Everybody starts with 50 points and will have points subtracted for each offense. Get to 0 points and you lose your license. I am unclear if this is how many you get per year, per month or per lifetime. Perhaps you get a new set of points when you renew your license. If anybody knows, please leave a comment.

First of all, the fines have the interesting quality of specifying amounts down to the nearest 100 colones, or in US dollars, less than 18 cents. I’m sure there’s a good reason for this, though I can’t imagine one. I guess that’s why legislators get paid the big bucks, to think up stuff like that.

So what does it take to lose your license here in the land of Pura Vida? Run a red light or stop sign and you’re half way there! Congratulations! If you don’t feel like doing that again (fine was about $300, by the way) you can pick one of the 20 point violations (driving 20 kph over the limit, contamination of public roads [littering?], driving with expired registration) and a 5 pointer (Not keeping braking safety distance between moving cars, driving with broken wipers or lights, driving with an expired license) or you can just go for it all at once and for all by driving without a valid license, driving with a suspended license, driving over 150 kph (around 100mph), street racing, driving with an alcohol level above .75%. In the last three cases, you also get 1 to 3 years imprisonment or social work, confiscation of the vehicle and suspension of the driver’s license for 2 years. Just a few of the highlights.

From what I have seen, the average Costa Rican driver wouldn’t last a single day before he was fined a few hundred thousand colones and and lost his license if the law was enforced 100%. Am I joking? No. Running red lights and stop signs is more the rule than the exception, especially at night. Stopping in the middle of an intersection? As common as a the honk of a car horn. From what I’m reading, the transport police will be increased in number, more than double, if the new law is implemented as written. Stop laughing! It COULD happen!

I hope I will be pardoned for looking at these changes with skepticism. The base salary of a newly hired transit officer is 210,000 colones a month ($370, give or take). A quick peek at the fines for some of the more severe infractions shows that the fines are more than the officer’s monthly salary, never mind the prison time and vehicle confiscation. What sort of possibilities does this situation present? I suppose that there must be a few Joe Friday or Serpico types in the Transit Police, who will enforce the law fairly and unfailingly. Perhaps there will be some softhearted cops that can’t bring themselves to fine some poor schmuck half a month’s wages for stopping in the middle of an intersection. And just maybe, wild speculation mind you, a less virtuous transit cop might be open to a bribe. Just possibly. There are, predictably, new laws in place and even a new anti-corruption unit to combat corruption. Maybe it’ll work. I read, somewhere, a long time ago, that the severity of the punishment tends to be inversely proportional to the likelihood of the perpetrator being apprehended and convicted.

On the other hand, if this really does get enforced to a major degree, we’ll see a giant decrease in traffic jams as people are taken off the roads and in some cases put in prison. The price of used cars may come way down too. And all the people needed to build the prisons could be a nice stimulus to the economy. Maybe the money from the new fines will be enough to build the prisons. Or at least commission a study of the situation, to be done on a cost plus basis by loyal campaign contributors (or their unemployed offspring).

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  1. i love costa rica…but the law system is just like another third world country…if the cops do not get better salary, the problem is gona be the same…..