Alarmed by an escalating death toll on the nation’s perilous roads, the Arias administration jump-started a campaign this week to overhaul the nation’s traffic system by improving law enforcement and refurbishing roadway infrastructure.
So far this year, the number of deaths from traffic accidents has surpassed 180, including three in a four-vehicle collision Monday on theInter-American Highway
near the Pacific port town of Puntarenas.
Public Works and Transport Minister Karla González said the “barbarity” on the nation’s highways, coupled with a growing number of cars and people using a road network run thin, is a “time bomb.”
“We have a national problem … we have to say ‘enough,’” she said Tuesday during a meeting with President Oscar Arias and the ministers of Health and Education on the first day of National Road Security week.
The four leaders announced a five-year, multisector plan that will attempt to infuse traffic safety education into school curriculum, beef up highway security, increase fines for speeding and drunk driving, and improve the nation’s unmarked, pothole riddled roads and highways.
Traffic accidents are the leading cause of violent deaths in Costa Rica, claiming on average more than 600 lives a year for the past five years and driving up costs for the nation’s public health system. After a couple years of coasting then slowing down, the death toll and number of traffic accidents are speeding up again, according to statistics from the Roadway Safety Council (COSEVI).
Last year, 616 people died on the nation’s highways, the most deaths in the last five years. This year, at the end of July, 25 more deaths had occurred compared to the same time last year.
The road security plan will attempt to reduce the number of highway deaths by 19% over the next five years, González said.
The plan was unveiled the day after an explosive collision between a cattle truck, a trailer and two other cars on theInter-American Highway
in Puntarenas claimed three lives and sent three others to the hospital with serious injuries.
“Accidents like that could be avoided if we were an educated country, but there’s so much irresponsibility and disrespect of the law,” said Traffic Police Director Huanelge Gutiérrez. “We have to develop the kind of culture developed countries have so people respect traffic laws.”
To that end, González and Education Minister Leonardo Garnier announced plans to incorporate traffic safety into education. The two ministers, and President Arias, handed out traffic safety instructional booklets to some 35 schoolchildren in attendance at the meeting.
“We can’t keep losing kids in traffic accidents that are totally avoidable,” Garnier said. According to COSEVI, the age group that represents the most deaths from traffic accidents each year is 15-24. According to the United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF), traffic accidents are also a leading cause of death for those ages 13-17.
A rising number of traffic accidents –more than 57,000 in 2005, up nearly 10% from 2004 – has proven not only costly for the nation’s youth, but has also collided head on with the country’s socialized health-care, costing the Social Security System (CCSS) millions.
The daily La Nación recently reported that care for people injured in traffic accidents costs the Social Security System nearly $7 million a year.
Every hour three people arrive at emergency rooms around the country as a result of car accidents, while another two are attended to outside of the hospitals. Last year, 3,512 people suffered serious injuries from accidents, mostly between the ages of 24 and 40, La Nación reported.
Meanwhile, on any given day, approximately 62 people are admitted to hospitals as a result of injuries sustained on Costa Rica’s roads and highways.
Speaking at Casa Presidencial Tuesday, Arias reminded his audience that “after Einstein, everything is relative.”
He said though Costa Rica’s highway fatalities are on the rise, the country fares well relative to other Latin American countries.
“We have to improve, but we’re not that bad,” he said.
To improve, the administration will propose a new transit law that will request 300 more Traffic Police – increasing the agency’s human resources by nearly half. The proposal will also request increased patrols to target drunk driving, as well as increased fines for driving under the influence, speeding and running traffic lights, and a slew of infrastructure improvements.
González said road security reform will require targeting not only drivers, but pedestrians as well. COSEVI reports that more pedestrians are fatal victims than those in vehicles.
Traffic safety education in schools will be aimed at pedestrians, and infrastructure improvements will include not only filling potholes, painting roads and replacing damaged equipment, but erecting pedestrian bridges and crosswalks as well, according to González.
This month, MOPT started painting eight of the capital’s main roads and the highway from San José to the Caribbean port city of Limón. During the next few months, lane dividers will be painted on other roads around the country.
“This is an important project to avoid drivers’ confusion and prevent accidents,” said MOPT spokeswoman Carolina Arrieta.
The Road Safety Plan would also create a body that would investigate reports of corruption within the Transit Police. So far this year, MOPT reported it has received 300 complaints against the Traffic Police, a body of 700. The leading causes for complaints are abuse of authority and bribery, according to the ministry.
Though González said the administration hopes the plan will begin by 2007, the Executive Branch has yet to present the Transit Law reform proposal to the Legislative Assembly. The proposal will have to find its way through bottlenecked legislative traffic in an already backed-up assembly agenda. González said the plan would be presented to the assembly in September.
The legislative Government and Administration Commission that looks at public security and transportation proposals is already debating other legislation, not part of the new plan, that would increase requirements for those seeking a driver’s license and spell out tougher punishments for reckless driving, commission Patricia Quirós told The Tico Times.
Cities Holding Out
Plans to improve the nation’s treacherous roads have also run into a speed bump at the local level. A Comptroller’s Office report released this week shows that cities have been sitting on more than $16 million in funds that the Finance Ministry has given them for road improvements.
According to the report, 87% of the country’s municipalities have yet to spend nearly a fourth of the funds they reaped between 2002 and 2005 from the gas meant to help improve the nation’s 24,700 kilometers of roads.
Eugenio Nájera, mayor of the Southern Zone Municipality of Osa, Puntarenas, told La Nación the municipality plans to spend nearly $900,000 it has earmarked for road improvements by the end of this year.
Larger Fines Proposed
Under the new road security proposal unveiled by the Arias administration, traffic fines would increase as follows:
Driving under the influence: from ¢20,000 ($40) to ¢280,000 ($545)
Speeding: from ¢20,000 ($40) to 180,000 ($350)
Running a red light: from ¢10,000 ($20) to ¢80,000 ($150)
Talking on a cell phone: from ¢10,000 ($20) to ¢80,000 ($150)
Note: These amounts do not include the 30% tax on traffic fines.
To File a Complaint
To file complaints against Traffic Police officers, call: 227-9668
To report problems with road infrastructure, call: 225-4425