When is a Traffic Fine a Tax?

President George H. W. Bush

Remember the first President Bush? I do, and I remember his campaign promise, shouted loudly, ‘NO NEW TAXES!’ which he broke, which certainly didn’t help him in the election he lost to Bill Clinton (with an assist from Ross Perot). I don’t know anybody who enjoys paying taxes. A few people regard them as a necessary evil, while others regard them as an unnecessary evil. But let’s not get into all that, okay? Instead, let’s talk about traffic fines, in particular the ‘driving with an expired license’ situation.

While doing my morning ritual of reading the local media, I came across something I found staggering. Of an estimated 1.8 million drivers in Costa Rica, 400,000 (22%) have expired licenses. The fine is about $160. If every expired license was ticketed and the fine enforced, it would net $64 million dollars in revenue! Almost $13 per person living in the country!

I am reminded of the situation back in dear old California, and to be found in plenty of other states as well, where traffic fines have risen astronomically, not so much to prevent violations as to bring in much needed revenue. All those cute little cameras at intersections… wonderful.

Waiting in the Driver's License Line

But wait! (I hear you saying) Drivers will go get their licenses renewed and they won’t get citations and won’t have to pay the fines. Ah… that is the beauty of it. The Cosevi offices in La Uruca, where one would go to get a current license, has the ability to process a maximum of around 1300 applicants a day. Not wanting to to operate eternally in stress mode, they have decided to limit the number of applicants to 1000 per day. Using a generous 5 days x 50 weeks calculation, the offices at Cosevi would be able to process 250,000 applicants by March 2011. 30 weeks later they would be all caught up, if no more licenses expire from now until October 2011.

In the meantime, or until the legislature grants some sort of amnesty or SOMETHING… the money will keep on a-rollin’ in. I wonder if Laura Chinchilla will have to get in line at 2 AM in order to be one of the first 1000 when her license expires? I am SO happy I got my license back in January, though I have no plans to drive. Come to think of it, maybe I can make a few bucks driving rich people with expired licenses around? I think I’ll wait until traffic thins out before I offer. If all the people with expired licenses stop driving, San Jose might actually become drivable! See? There is a silver lining to every dark cloud!

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  1. Culture Shock says:

    Can’t you renew your driver’s license at a branch of the BCR?

  2. Yes, it is amazing that so many Costa Rican drivers have expired licenses. However, I believe your article exaggerates the situation and omits a few important points.

    1. The law was passed more than 6 months ago in September of last year and was very well publicized. It is hard to find much sympathy for individuals who have had 6 months to either renew a license or obtain a new one.
    2. While the estimated number of those without valid licenses is reported as 400,000; it is reasonable to assume some of those may have died, moved out of CR, have given up driving or drive very, very infrequently.
    3. CR citizens (and I believe legal residents of CR) can renew their drivers licenses at branches of Banco de Costa Rica.
    4. The Cosevi office in La Uruca, while the main office, is not the only Cosevi office. I believe there are other Cosevi offices in San Ramon, Limon and Punterenas and possibly others (I may not have the exact listing of branch offices correct).
    5. It seems to me that it is reasonable for a country to have a law requiring that all drivers need to have a valid and up to date drivers license. As one who does have a CR license (mine was renewed two years ago and does not expire until 2013) I want other drivers to have a current and valid license. And, by the way, when I renewed mine in La Uruca it took less than an hour.

    However, I do agree that the new traffic fine of about $160 is too high; I believe the old fine was 2,000 colones (or about $3.50). Hopefully the amount will be reduced by legislative action soon. I also believe that the CR government could have done a much better job of increasing publicity about the amount of the fine in the last few months.

    Finally, since this newsletter is aimed primarily at expats or potential expats it may be useful to point out that visitors and immigrants can drive in CR on a valid drivers license from another country for 90 days without having to have a CR drivers license.

  3. No. Cal. Refugee says:

    easy, thanks for your comments. You make valid points, but I think my overall take on the situation is accurate.

    Although the law was passed 6 months ago, even 6 months isn’t enough time for even half of the 400,000 expired licenses to be renewed (at 1000 a day). Even if the 400,000 number is high, the San Jose Cosevi office isn’t ready to deal with the number of people who need to renew. As far as having other offices, yes there are, but taking a bus to another office and hoping to get in line in time seems rather iffy. As far as going to BCR, I don’t think that works for expired licenses. I do know that there are no lines (other than the usual) at BCR, but those at Cosevi are enormous. I will try to verify this at BCR if I can.

    If drivers with expired licenses should have seen this coming, then lawmakers should have known the number of expired licenses and the processing capacity for expired licenses and seen the logjam coming.

    I have a CR license too, and it wasn’t bad. But they gave me preferential treatment as a foreigner. There were long lines back then (in January) well before the new law went into effect. My bottom line take on the situation is that the government either did not see the problem or didn’t care. Neither speaks well of the government.

  4. Culture Shock says:

    This automobile culture is unstainable, especially in a small country like Costa Rica. The solution is to get people from behind the wheel and onto the bus.