In just 11 days, new traffic cameras in the Central Valley recorded 14,662 drivers exceeding the speed limit by more than 20 kilometers per hour. Each speeding violation carries at least a ₡308,000 ($616) fine, and motorists have racked up $9 million in violations since the installation of the cameras on Sept. 8.
The 16 new “eyes in the sky” have angered many drivers. Located at six spots along principal roadways that connect San José, Cartago and Alajuela, drivers say that the speed limits set in the vicinity of the cameras were intentionally lowered to accumulate fines.
“The cameras don’t make sense. No one drives 60 kilometers per hour on the General Cañas Highway,” Alex Morales, a blond-haired taxi driver, said on Monday. “The limits were set low so that the government could collect more money from fines, and the fines are too expensive. It’s completely unfair.”
Lowered limits and excessive fines are the primary complaints about the new Central Valley cameras, designed by the Roadway Safety Council (COSEVI). On the General Cañas Highway that connects Alajuela to San José, one of the country’s busiest roadways, the limit drops from 80 km per hour to 60 km per hour between Hospital México and the Hotel Crowne Plaza Corobicí. On both sides of the highway, towering gray cameras monitor to make sure the reduced limits are honored.
According to COSEVI, 100 vehicles have been clocked driving 20 km per hour over the limit on at least two occasions thus far. Fifteen of the drivers had at least four violations, totaling nearly $2,500 in fines.
“We are a poor country. People can’t afford to pay these types of fines,” Morales said. “I’m a taxi driver. If I get a fine, I won’t be able to pay it, which means I won’t be able to drive, which means I won’t be able to work or pay my bills. I can’t afford a ₡300,000 fine.”
Silvia Bolaños, director of COSEVI, has heard the complaints. When the cameras were installed, she expected disgruntled motorists to bemoan the new regulations and fines. Bolaños said COSEVI and other institutions involved in the creation of the program felt the fines were necessary to “send a message” and reduce the amount of traffic deaths in Costa Rica. Through the first six months of 2011, 164 people died on national roadways.
“In May, June and July, there were 30, 32, and 31 deaths on national roadways. That’s an average of one death a day,” Bolaños told The Tico Times from her office in La Uruca, a northwestern district of San José. “The primary objective of our role at COSEVI is to reduce the number of Costa Ricans who die on national roads each year. With the camera project, the objective isn’t to generate infractions, but to reduce speeds in high-risk areas.”
Bolaños, who stepped into her new role in June, pulled out a map of the Florencio del Castillo Highway, which connects San José to the eastern city of Cartago. The map was marked with locations of traffic accidents and fatalities in 2010 and 2011. A spot in front of Terramall, on the way to Cartago, was a flurry of yellow dots.
“Six pedestrians were killed at that spot in 2010,” Bolaños said. “There are bus stops, a pedestrian bridge and a large number of pedestrians near the mall. We decided to put a camera there to reduce drivers’ speeds and prevent further accidents from happening.”
The Central Valley cameras are the first step in COSEVI’s much larger plan. Bolaños said more cameras would be placed throughout the country, particularly in high-risk areas with elevated occurrences of accidents. An estimated 450 cameras will be installed at 150 locations throughout the country.
As for the complaints that the speed is too low, Bolaños said the limits were established according to a camera pilot project conducted during the first six months of the year. From January to June, cameras observed 1.7 million motorists on national roads. Of that figure, more than 825,000 exceeded the speed limit, while nearly 425,000 exceeded it by more than 20 km per hour. More than 20,000 vehicles were recorded driving over 120 km per hour, and 335 exceeded 150 km per hour.
“These are alarming speeds for a country that doesn’t have the road infrastructure or appropriate police security to deal with these speeds,” Bolaños said. “A lot of motorists have criticized the speeds of the camera project, but people want to have Third World speed limits in a country that doesn’t have the infrastructure to support it.”
Bolaños said it would be “irresponsible” of COSEVI to fail to intervene to reduce the number of national traffic deaths. In 2010, 187 people died in traffic accidents, the No. 1 cause of death in Costa Rica.
To provide some leeway for motorists, violations are issued only when a driver exceeds 20 km per hour over the posted limit. Someone driving 97 km per hour in an 80 km per hour zone, for example, is not subjected to a fine. There is a 3 km per hour margin of error.
Through 11 days, $820,000 in fines were accumulated per day. How that money is to be collected will undoubtedly be the next large obstacle in the camera plan.
Currently, cameras record the license plate numbers of automobiles clocked driving 20 km per hour over the limit. Employees of COSEVI monitor the screens, record license plate numbers and search the public registry for vehicle owners. License plate numbers, names of registered drivers, dates of infractions and ticket numbers are then sent to the official government daily La Gaceta, which publishes the names monthly in a print and online edition at www.gaceta.go.cr.
A list of the ticketed drivers will also be published monthly in the daily La Nación and online at ticotimes.net. The list of drivers fined in September will appear in the Sept. 26 edition of La Gaceta and Sept. 28 edition of La Nación.
Bolaños said COSEVI hopes to soon begin sending ticket alerts to drivers via text message.
Motorists have 10 business days to appeal fines. If drivers fail to pay, they will be charged when they renew end-of-the-year vehicle circulation permits, or marchamos. A marchamo may not be renewed without payment of the fine.
As for the money collected from the fines, Bolaños said COSEVI receives less than half of the funds.
Most of the money will be distributed among several other government agencies, such as the Child Welfare Office, the Red Cross, local municipal agencies and the Traffic Police.
“There is a large fiscal deficit in this country and not a lot of funding available to improve things like roadways and security,” Bolaños said. “If we want to develop projects to improve highway safety and the quality of life in this country, we have to have resources to do so.”
Morales said that he doesn’t think he’s been caught speeding by the cameras, as he’s made sure to slow down when in the monitored areas.
“I drive like a grandfather now,” he said. “I know some people who ride with me aren’t happy to see me driving slow, but I tell them, ‘Unless you plan to pay me ₡300,000 for this ride, I’m not going any faster.’”
The 16 new cameras are located at six different locations.
1. Florencia del Castillo Highway connecting San José and Cartago. Cameras are close to Terramall, and the speed limit drops from 80 km per hour to 60 km per hour near cameras.
2. General Cañas Highway connecting Alajuela to San José. Cameras are located between Hospital México and the Hotel Crowne Plaza Corobicí. Limit drops from 80 km per hour to 60 km per hour.
3. Highway to Río Segundo, close to the Cervecería Costa Rica in Alajuela, near Intel bridge. Speed limit drops from 80 km per hour to 60 km per hour.
4. Florencio del Castillo Highway in La Lima de Cartago. Cameras are located in front of Tomza gas station. Speed limit is 80 km per hour.
5. Circunvalación highway between the Rotonda de las Garantías Sociales and the Y Griega; Ruta 39 in Zapote. Limit is 80 km per hour.
6. Four cameras in Alajuela on road near Mall Internacional. Limit is 80 km per hour. Fines: * Driving 20 km per hour over limit: ₡308,000 ($616)* Driving 120 km per hour: ₡411,000 ($822)* Driving above 150 km per hour: Up to three years in prison* 3 percent monthly interest on late payments