Costa Rican Traffic Fines – What’s the Big Deal Folks?
Legal wrangling and a disgruntled road-using public have kept the cost of Costa Rican traffic fines, given out by the Transit Police, in the headlines since their introduction last May. The latest twist in the tale is the suspension in use of the sixteen speed cameras that had been installed at various danger points in roads in the nation’s capital city. Despite only being in action for two months; the cameras are now disconnected for at least the next six months while the law makers of the land debate whether they are ‘unconstitutional’. It seems that slowly but surely the well-meaning, if misguided attempts to bring higher levels of road safety to Costa Rica will been eaten away.
But the speed cameras are a drop in the ocean in the sea of motoring discontent that seethes in the normally peaceful Costa Rica. The main source of outrage centers on the introduction of very hefty fines for a long list of traffic misdemeanors. Before March 2010, motorists faced such puny fines, a maximum of $40, that there was little deterrent not to commit a traffic offense. Now fines are more than a deterrent — in many cases, they could be close to the value of the vehicle caught committing the offense! The fines have been described as “first world penalties on third world salaries issued on fourth world roads”! Certainly, from the average citizen to Laura Chinchilla, the president of Costa Rica, concerns about the ‘draconian’ nature of the fines have been voiced to the Sala IV — the body which has the power to revoke the legal status of the charges. In May of this year, the Sala IV declared that the $475 fine faced for failure to wear a seatbelt was too high and reduced it to a paltry $30 — one extreme to another! It may have appeared rather harsh to fine a person an amount that would take the average Costa Rican about three weeks to earn for a driving offense considered pretty minor by most; however, in the context of Costa Rica’s poor record of road safety, maybe a fine of more than $30 would help the driver remember to fasten his belt before turning the ignition key and very possibly save his life!
Presumably, it is with the idea of the traffic fines operating as a deterrent to motorists who would otherwise fly along the roads without care or caution that led them to being set at such high rates. Motorists committing the worst offenses on the roads, such as reckless driving (driving more than 75 mph) can face fines of around $800, but drive at just 10 mph above the speed limit and you’ll currently still face a fine of about $600. Driving faster than 93 mph is an offense punishable by a possible three year prison sentence. It’s little wonder that the usually peaceful Costa Ricans are up in arms! The average Jose or Maria takes home less than $450 a month, making such charges quite simply unaffordable for many people. The fact that 30% of the fine that is paid to PANI (the governmental child protection agency) seems to be of small consolation and is doing little to quiet claims that the fines have less to do with increasing road safety and more to do with filling government coffers.
All traffic fines accumulated over a year have to be paid before a vehicle owner can pay the Marchamo or annual road users’ tax at the end of the year. Without an up-to-date Marchamo, a car cannot be on the road and the Transit Police are out in force in the New Year to rake in the fines on those driving without it – another $500 give or take the odd dollar. Tickets issued from speeding camera evidence will not be upheld at the time of Marchamo payment as they are in the midst of appeal, but other traffic offense tickets still stand.
One common complaint from drivers is that the speed limits, especially on the nation’s main highways can be ludicrously restrictive. Sections of the country’s major highways do have speed restrictions of 60 kph or about 37 mph which would feel slow for drivers coming from the smooth, straight highways and byways of the USA. However, slower sections of highways in Costa Rica usually have such speed restrictions in place for a reason, such as a school being located along this part of the highway, which would require more cautious driving on the part of the motorist. The country’s notoriously pot-holed and poorly maintained roads would not seem conducive to Formula 1 velocity and add to this extreme weather conditions, such as the driving rain and flash flooding of a tropical storm to see that there may be reasons why Costa Rica’s speed limits are lower than those clearly signposted on the flat, straight highways of North America.
Another common motorist gripe is that the Costa Rican road system is poorly signposted and the speed limit on even busy routes can fall from 50 mph to 37 mph within a few hundred feet; not giving even the most cautious of drivers time to brake and safely reduce speed. Unsurprising, such tricky parts of the highways are often popular spots for the Transit Police to lie in wait with their hand-held radars; ready to zap the unwary motorist as they are caught by the sudden change in speed limit.
The macho culture of Costa Rica is not in line with careful driving — real men it seems, overtake on corners at breakneck speed regardless of what might be approaching in the opposite lane! In a Facebook page opened for Ticos to express their displeasure at the changes to the laws concerning traffic offenses, a driver states that he feels “ridiculous” driving at the snail’s pace of 60 mph, although he doesn’t mention how he would feel if his speeding above the limit caused the death of other road users. Maybe the real secret behind the speed restrictions is the government’s assumption that the average Tico will automatically drive at least 10 mph faster than any official sign instructs them to and so set them low enough that everyone is driving at a reasonable speed! Speeding is the number one cause of death on Costa Rican roads; suggesting that many drivers do need to slow down or be slowed down to reduce the death toll on the roads.
Appeals against traffic offense fines are arriving daily but should you think that the law has become soft towards dangerous driving; the words of Hector Monge from Consevi (Consejo de Seguridad Vial or Road Safety Council) says that appeals against tickets issued for driving whilst talking on a cell phone, driving without a valid annual vehicle inspection certificate, driving without a license or drunk-driving will not be heard. “What appeal is there for that?” Monge asks. While his firm stand on a number of traffic offenses may be admirable; the implication of his comment is that other offenses, such as speeding are appealable and no clear-cut cases of wrong doing. Is this the message he intended to give to Costa Rica’s motorists?
Consevi director, Silvia Bolaños observed in La Nacion that the fines’ very presence was having the desired effect of speed reduction on some of the country’s busiest roads. In May 2010, the month of their introduction, over 36,000 vehicles were recorded driving between 5 and 10 mph above the speed limit. This figure dropped by an incredible sixty percent in June. Consevi had intended that the installation of the speeding cameras would continue to reduce the number of speeding motorists on the road; shockingly in their first seven hours of use, 2,000 speeding motorists were recorded, four of whom were traveling at over 93 mph.
As far as driving as a tourist in Costa Rica goes, your safest bet is to watch your speed. No one wants to blow their vacation budget on a speeding ticket! Should you be pulled over by the Transit Police remember that there are no on-the-spot traffic fines in Costa Rica and that you must not pay the officer that issues you the ticket, unless you want to pay it twice! If a police officer does try to add to his Christmas bonus by trying to procure a bribe from you; you can report the wrongdoing by calling 227-2188 and speaking to a MOPT (Ministry of Public Works and Transport) representative.
I hope this info saves you from an expensive Costa Rican traffic ticket on your next dream vacation! Please leave me a comment below and tell me know what you think of it all.
Reporting by Sara Ford
• Freelance writer for Vamos Rent-A-Car
Update: January 2012
The Sala IV has annulled the much contested speeding fines; declaring them ‘disproportional’ in comparison to the earnings of an average Costa Rican.
Now, regardless of the speed limit in an area, or the recorded excessive velocity of a vehicle, the fixed sum of 5,000 colones ($10) will be charged.
This is unlikely to be the end of the matter. The Minister of Transport, Francisco Jiménez, is already lamenting that this fine’s ridiculously low amount does not even cover the cost of imposing it upon offending drivers.
Furthermore, the Director of the Transit Police is stressing that excessive speed on the country’s highways is the main cause of death on the roads and therefore, a fine should be a greater deterrent to the road user to prevent speeding.
For the moment, racing along the highways of Costa Rica might be risky to your health, but it won’t hurt your wallet! Just remember to look both ways (twice) before crossing the street…
Update: March 2012
Hot off the Press – the next phase of traffic fines!
After the whole debacle caused by the enormous traffic fines, the speed cameras and re-education program for drivers convicted of some traffic offenses, 212 pages of amendments — with a total of 254 new articles — have been written for the newer transit laws and fines. The Special Transport Commission’s proposals will be put to Congress the week of March 4th for approval, reported La Nacion.
The Commission has included a few eyebrow-raising additions to the previous legislation.
- A driver who slows down traffic by ‘rubber-necking’ (pausing to gawk) at a traffic accident in the opposite lane can now be fined 20,000 colones [a hair over $39 USD] – not a huge sum, but it may be enough to stop entire carloads, each hanging out of their windows in hopes of a glimpse of blood and gore while the cars back up along the highway…
- Ever been struck by the Costa Rican high level of noise tolerance? Now that late-night blasting of Latin tunes from a car stereo in the early hours of the morning is officially an offense! Between the very civilized hours of 7:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. music cannot be played at excessive volume from a vehicle in developed areas. This again would earn the offender a 20,000 colones fine. The Costa Rican doorbell, or car horn as it is known in other parts of the world, will have the same time limits applied on its usage. The Commission states that this is so ‘the resting of citizens’ is not disturbed. Anyone who has been woken regularly by either a neighbor honking their horn so that a family member will open the gate for the car to enter, or the early morning school bus that sounds the horn until the late student emerges sleepy-eyed from the house, can now be thankful that this will soon be a disturbance of the past!
- A warning goes out to those who are overly-cautious drivers as well — you haven’t escaped the watchful eye of the Commission either! Drivers found guilty of ‘Tortuguismo’ [tortoise-ism — what a great word!], that is driving below the minimum speed limit set for a road so that traffic congestion or obstruction is caused, is now an offense facing a 94,000 colones fine [$183 USD and some change].
- The increase in railway track use has provoked the Commission into introducing a new offense which is parking on or obstructing those lines with another 94,000 colones fine.
While these amendments seem harmless enough, criticism has been made of the decision to allow the importation of cars into the country without airbags. It was hoped that this would be made an obligatory requirement for imported vehicles.
Now it is a simple case of ‘wait and see’ whether Congress will pass the proposals, or if the Commission will find themselves facing further debate.
Update: April 2012
The Constitutional Chamber has voted to reduce the fine a driver will pay for two additional traffic offenses.
Now if you disrespect the ‘Right Turn Only’ sign or a red traffic light, you’ll only have to pay a $20 USD fine, rather than the enormous $550 USD amount that was the previous penalty.
Update: June 2012
More New Traffic Fines!
A compromise seems to have been reached between the old traffic fine rates which were no deterrent whatsoever and the newer laws — which placed fines at levels over the average monthly salary of a Costa Rican. The new fines are about half the previously established sanctions.
Category A: newly established at $560.
- driving over 75 miles per hour
- driving without an up-to-date or with a suspended license
- U-turn or an unauthorized left turn
- undue overtaking or lane invasion
Category B: newly established at $378.
- not having appropriate seating for children of 12 and below that are less than 4’ 9″ in height
- driving 26 miles, or more, per hour over the set speed limit
- disrespecting a stop sign or red light
- driving with false or altered license plates
- driving a vehicle containing dangerous material
Category C: newly established at $188.
- driving vehicles with heavy loads in unauthorized zones
- taxis that do not use a meter
- driving without a license or an out-of-date, temporary driving permission
- driving 16 to 25 miles per hour over the set speed limit
- public transport drivers who do not follow official stops
Category D: newly established at $94.
- driving 12 to 15 miles per hour over the set speed limit
- disrespecting traffic signals
- disrespecting the right of way of traffic
- motorcycle riders without reflective clothing
Category E: newly established at $10.
- vehicles using loudspeakers within 328 feet of a clinic, hospital, school or church
- having license places displayed in an unauthorized position