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Traffic Law brings more balanced fines

From the print edition

Striking equilibrium between tough penalties and reasonable fines, Costa Rican lawmakers passed a bill overhauling the country’s traffic laws this week. 

Once signed by the president, the law would establish the highest traffic fine in the country at ₡280,000 ($550) for exceeding the speed limit by 120 kilometers per hour or more, driving under the influence, driving with an expired license, passing in a no-passing zone or making an illegal U-turn.

In September 2011, the Legislative Assembly passed legislation calling for a maximum fine of ₡468,780 ($928) – making those fines some of the most expensive in the world. But the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, or Sala IV, struck the law down, saying the penalties were disproportionately high. The ruling forced the government to revert to old laws and a maximum fine of ₡5,000 ($10). A year later, lawmakers passed a more practical proposal.

The current bill passed a first round of debates on June 21. This time, before the second vote, lawmakers allowed the court to review the bill’s content to ensure it was constitutional. After receiving the court’s approval, the legislation passed unanimously, with 43 votes in favor.

“This legislation is of great importance for the country because it offers a fairer model, while punishing improper conduct such as reckless driving or driving under the influence of alcohol,” said Fabio Molina, the National Liberation Party’s top lawmaker.

Legislators from other parties joined the chorus of praise for the new bill.  

Gloria Bejarano, of the Social Christian Unity Party, said, “This is a law that we have been waiting on for years, and it was created with the help of traffic-law experts.”

Libertarian Movement Party member Damaris Quintana called the regulations “modern legislation that supports and protects all drivers.”

The bill now goes to President Laura Chinchilla, who has promised to sign it into law. It will go take effect once published in La Gaceta, the official government newspaper.

In addition to instituting maximum fines, the bill includes a point system for driving violations and stipulates harsher jail sentences for drunk driving. The legal blood alcohol limit would be 0.6 grams per liter. Driving with a blood alcohol content greater than 0.75 grams per liter could lead to jail time. The bill also emphasizes driver education in the school system.

Traffic violations are placed in categories rated from “A” to “E.” The most expensive fines – such as drunk driving and driving with a suspended license – fall into category “A.” “B” offenses are listed as ignoring stop signs, traffic lights or altering license plates. Not having a car seat for children under 12 also falls into the category. Each offense has a maximum fine of ₡189,000 ($379).

The “C” fines include driving more than 25 kilometers per hour over the speed limit. The maximum fine is ₡94,000 ($188).

The “D” category penalizes those who ignore traffic signs or violate the right of way of another driver. Driving more than 20 kilometers per hour over the speed limit also falls into this category, as do motorcycle riders without a helmet. The maximum fine is ₡47,000 ($94).

The last category, “E,” fines ₡20,000 ($40) for noise pollution, or playing excessively loud music or other recordings within 100 meters of clinics, hospitals, schools and churches. In addition, fines can be incurred for driving without proper documents.

The bill also creates driver’s education materials for schools to use, and community service opportunities for people who have their license suspended for one or multiple violations.

Manrique Oviedo of the Citizen Action Party highlighted the importance of driver’s education, referring to the country’s poor reputation with highway safety. The bill cracks down on traffic offenses, but more importantly, it might also prevent future accidents by placing a greater emphasis on educating young drivers. 

“We hope that in a short while, we will have a new generation of drivers behaving differently on the roads,” Oviedo said.

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