The authorities are trumpeting that the number of accidents on our roads has been reduced compared to a few years ago, probably because cars are now in better condition thanks to strict roadworthiness testing.
Despite the improvement, a lot of accidents still occur, whether because of careless pedestrians, roads in poor condition, haphazard signposting, aggressive taxi and bus drivers or negligible police control.
It has been estimated that, on average, vehicles in Costa Rica have a collision every two years. When statistics catch up with you and you have a fender bender, follow the procedure outlined here to initiate your auto insurance claim.
Starting correctly is important. As many of you are aware, there is only one insurance company in Costa Rica, the National Insurance Institute (INS), and it belongs to the government. This has advantages and disadvantages.
The main advantage is that no one at INS is watching the bottom line, so they don’t mind paying claims, sometimes generously.
The disadvantages are paperwork and bureaucracy – no one within INS gives a hoot whether you get paid or not. If you jump through the hoops, you get paid; otherwise, you get fed up. But if you do the paperwork correctly, INS will pay your claim, and payment of claims is what insurance is all about.
What to Do if You Have A Car Accident
1. Find out where you are. You may have to summon the Red Cross, and definitely the traffic police and the INS inspector, so get the location right.
2. Severe injuries. Call the Red Cross ambulance at 128 or 911. Find out where the ambulance is going to take the injured person or people.
3. Call the police. Call the traffic police at 222-9245, 222-9330 or 911. They will go to the scene of the accident. Be patient, and don’t move your car until a police officer tells you to. Note: It is not enough to wave to an officer on a nearby corner – the beat cops are not the ones who report on accidents; you have to call the special traffic-accident squad.
4. Call INS. Phone INS at 800-800-8000 (toll free, 24 hours) and ask the operator to send an inspector. The INS inspector usually gets there before the police, and will fill out an accident report and give you instructions on how to proceed with the claim. (If the INS operator tells you an inspector isn’t available, take down the name and number of the operator – these calls are taped, so this gives you a recourse if need arises. Later, contact your insurance agent to find out how to do the paperwork.)
5. Witnesses. Take down the names, addresses and phone numbers of any witnesses, as well as of the driver of the other car. Take note of the particulars of his or her vehicle and license-plate number.
6. Drinking. If you think the other driver has been drinking, ask the police officer to give the driver a Breathalyzer test (alcoholemia). Also point this out to the INS inspector.
7. Tow truck. If your car needs towing, ask the INS inspector to call a tow truck. Most INS auto policies include free towing as part of the INS Asistencia roadside assistance program. If you don’t have the right to free towing, ask the police officer to radio for a tow truck. Be sure to bargain with the tow-truck operator, get a receipt and know where he’s taking your car. Left to his own devices, he will take your car to a shop that offers him a commission – often an expensive one. Body shops authorized by INS will do most of the tedious paperwork relating to the claim, and they usually finance the repair, but they often overcharge. Other body shops tend to charge less, but you may have to finance the repair and do the claim paperwork yourself.
8. Do not assume any obligation or responsibility, or make a deal with other parties involved in the accident. Body shops do excellent work, but they are expensive, and sometimes the “decent chap” you collided and made a deal with will become less decent when he finds the cost of repairing his car is more than he thought; then he may conjure up all sorts of fairy stories and false witnesses saying you hit and ran and are therefore to blame for the accident. If you stand your ground and summon the police and the INS inspector, this is unlikely to happen.
9. Summons. At the scene of the accident, the traffic officer will give each driver an illegible blue-green ticket, which is a summons to appear at the corresponding traffic court (tribunal de tránsito) or municipal office (alcaldía) to make a deposition concerning the accident. IMPORTANT! Ask the cop which traffic court, and when to go. He will usually tell you to go eight to 10 days after the accident; don’t go sooner, as the paperwork will not be ready.
Do not fail to react to the summons lest you be found guilty by default. The deposition is fairly straightforward and requires no great command of Spanish. People don’t usually take attorneys to the traffic court unless a serious injury or death resulted from the accident.
Don’t be alarmed if you find the other driver’s deposition is not accurate (the ungodly often tell plausible lies to try to get themselves off the hook) – here is where the value of the traffic cop’s report of the accident becomes important for the judge to separate truth from fiction. Ask for a copy of your deposition, and also ask when the sentence (sumario) will be ready. You will need these in the claim process.
If the claim paperwork gets stuck, or if things don’t seem to be going as outlined above, call your insurance agent.