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Road Safety Law Stalls

December 7, 2007

Life has been a roller coaster for Alejandro Trejos since a careless driver killed his 18-year old daughter two months ago.

Last week was a low point. Just as a fierce campaign for a bill to increase road safety seemed to be bearing fruit, the proposal hit a snag in the legislature. “It really frustrated me,” he said. “The time they wasted (discussing this law) is an insult to Costa Rica.”

Hopes were high for the Legislative Assembly’s Legal Affairs Commission to approve the bill last week, so it could then be debated and passed by the full assembly. But a dispute over a car inspections monopoly stalled it. The Arias administration, which decides what legislators debate in December, took the bill off the agenda, citing a lack of consensus.

The move provoked a mixture of frustration, anger and resignation among victims’ families, who have spent the last two months tirelessly meeting with legislators and collecting signatures in support of the bill.

“Everything is slow here,” said Adolfo Gairaud, whose 10-year-old grandson was killed by a drunken driver in October. “There are a lot of political interests, a lot of personal interests, a lot of party interests.”

Responding to pressure from the commission, Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias put the bill back on the agenda yesterday, allowing legislators to resume debate next week.

But Trejos still sounded skeptical.

“We have to see if there is consensus,” he said. “This is hopeful, but we have to wait to see what happens.”

After languishing in the commission for 10 months, the bill seemed to make progress last month. In a meeting in mid-November, the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MOPT) Minister Karla González pressured legislators to approve the bill. Gairaud, Trejos, other victims, and the daily newspaper Al Día collected nearly 37,000 signatures in support of the bill, which they delivered to legislators last month in fat books.

“We’re under a lot of pressure to push this bill now,” said Bienvenido Venegas, a commission member from the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC).

Meanwhile, the carnage on the road continues. There were at least 308 deaths from traffic accidents between January and November, the highest figure for that period since 2003, according to data from MOPT.

The most frequent causes were speeding, drunken driving, and pedestrians’ own carelessness.

In the first four days of this month, six people died on the highways.

These numbers do not include injuries from car accidents, or deaths that occur later in the hospital. A study by the daily La Nación found that about 60 people a day seek treatment from the state health system for injuries from car accidents.

The country’s nearly 15-year-old road safety legislation is likely part of the problem.

Under current law, $40 is the highest traffic fine, charged to drivers who are drunk or don’t have a license. The lowest fine is $10, for drivers who speed.Many drivers evade even these low fines by bribing traffic police. A recent study by the University of Costa Rica (UCR) estimated that people have paid $1.48 million in bribes so far this year to traffic cops. “It’s a ridiculous, absurd law,” Trejos said.

The traffic bill now before the Legislative Assembly would create an office within the transit police to identify and investigate corruption by cops. The bill would also significantly increase fines, which would run as high as $420 for driving more than 120 kilometers per hour or bribing a transit cop. The bill would also make driving while intoxicated a crime, punishable by up to a year in prison.

Under the bill, a drunken driver who causes a fatal accident would go to jail for up to 15 years, up from the current maximum penalty of eight years. A drunken driver who injures someone could go to jail for up to 12 years, up from just one year today.

“We have to be really drastic,” said Venegas, the PUSC legislator. “It’s the only weapon we have to fight the high number of deaths on the roads.”

But last-minute haggling over the bill has slowed its passage. Lawmakers in the Legal Affairs Commission disagree over whether MOPT should take away a de facto monopoly from the vehicle inspection company Riteve by opening the bidding process to other firms.

Still, the commission’s legislators do agree the bill should be passed soon, and they wrote a joint letter to Rodrigo Arias this week, urging him to put it on the agenda.

The slow progress has been a letdown for families and sympathizers who have spent the last two months pushing the bill.

Gairaud organized a march in November to push the bill, and he and other victims’ families collected signatures in downtown San José for days. The newspaper Al Día joined later, donating speakers, paper, tables, and people to collect the signatures.

“Every day in our newspaper we write, ‘This drunken guy ran over that person.’We can’t just stay passive,” said Alejandro Arley, the journalist who organized Al Día’s action.

After last week’s snag, the bill’s supporters still had some ideas left in their arsenal.

Last weekend, Trejos brought people together to paint messages of support under the San Pedro bridge. And Gairaud said he still has thousands of signatures to deliver to legislators. Both men contacted Libertarian party leaders this week to push for the bill.

“If the law is approved…it won’t change my pain,” Trejos said. “But it will help prevent what happened to me from happening to others.”

To Make Your Drive Safer

The traffic reform bill would:

• Increase fines for traffic violations.

• Make drunken driving a crime.

• Increase prison terms for drunken drivers who kill or injure.

• Crack down on transit cops who take bribes.

• Require road safety education.

 

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