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The New Driving Laws in Costa Rica

February 13th, 2009

jerkA lot of people are surprised to learn that it is perfectly legal to drink and drive in Costa Rica.  It’s true! However, the law also states that you cannot drive while drunk. That means that means that you as a driver are depending on the guy who is drinking to know when he is drunk. File that under things that make you go… “Hmmmmm”.

The government, getting fed up with the huge number of alcohol related traffic accidents and the resultant deaths, passed last December La Ley de Tránsito or simply new driving laws.

Although signed into law and effective last December 2008, I did not blog about it because there were sure to be a ton of appeals to the Costa Rica Supreme Courts, called Salas, regarding the legality of the new laws and the associated punishments which are truly severe. Sala IV has upheld some and is still considering others, but it is time to talk about these new laws. In this post, I will provide my thoughts and more important, a shortened list of the new laws and the associated fines and/or imprisonment.  If this topic is of interest, read on!

The new laws are nasty but are receiving huge popular support.  La Nacion did a survey of Ticos over age 18, and a whopping 77% supported the new laws. Many respondents  (58%) told La Nacion they had altered their lifestyle and simply no longer drink anything if they are driving. I guess the government was not alone in their concern for traffic safety. Further, the law seems to be having the desired affect! In January, drunk driving arrests dropped 53% and that ain’t bad!

Stuck towards the bottom of the results was the interesting fact that women had fewer traffic accidents than men.  OK, this is where you say, “Well Duh!”.  This was probably a shock in machista Costa Rica.   Guess they have not figured out that women tend to drive using their big head… but I digress!

As I said, these laws are tough.  Some of the fines, however, actually exceed the monthly salary of the transit officers, so that might make bribe taking a real possibility.

The new laws not only have the usual fines, called multas in Spanish, they also include a point system though the point system here bears no resemblance to the systems used in the USA.

Everyone starts with 50 points and when those are gone due to traffic violations… well…  so are you, at least on the roads. The points do not come back.

I would suggest readers also check out the section on drivers licenses in Costa Rica and owning a car here.

Below, I will break out the new laws and the associated fines and possible prison sentences involved.   I’ll put them is order of seriousness/fines/penalties.  Note that not all of these laws are effective today.  All drinking related laws ARE in effect, and the others phase in over the next months. All drivers are required to know these laws, so if you do not because you do not speak the language, that will not be a defense.

To be clear here! You get the fine AND the loss of points.

Example:  Driving (you or adult passenger) without seat belts.  Pay $310.00 AND you lose 20 points.  Same thing for talking on your cell phone

Jail – the biggie!

Reckless driving, speed more than 100 MPH (150 kph), death of a person from the accident (and perhaps injury!) blood alcohol level exceeding 0.75%. You get to keep your car (which is not too useful as you are in the slammer), but it may become State property at your trial. Loss of 50 points i.e. all your points.

No jail but real costly!

227,000 colones (or about $415.00 at today’s exchange rate) plus points lost

Category A offenses.

Reckless driving, in this case speed exceeding 80 MPH  (120 kph) 0.5%, drag racing. Lose 50 points.

Driving without a valid drivers license or learners permit  (and I would urge expats, especially those expat “perpetual tourists”)  to read this as this WILL affect you!

Driving under a suspended license.

Driving a child without proper safety seats (and you lose all 50 points).  Included is driving a motorcycle or any other motorized similar vehicle (like quadracycles with a minor and that minor has no helmet.

Transporting or carrying anything considered dangerous.  This is broad and I am not going to go into it, though I do wonder if this would include my menopausal wife…

170,250 colones or about $310.00 plus points lost

Category B stuff.  Includes driving 14 MPH over the speed limit, exceeding 16 MPH when passing schools entrances or exits, hospitals or clinics. PS:  These are many times NOT marked.  Lose 20 points.

Talking on your cell phone not using hands free.  Lose 20 points

Running a stop sign, illegal u-turn,  or driving a restricted vehicle.  Lose 1o points

Driving without the minimum insurance required by law.

Driving with illegal plates…. meaning I think, not corresponding to the car driven. Lose 20 points.

Driving older children but who are still minors not using seat belts. Lose 20 points.

Driving motorcycles or as above ANY similar vehicle without a helmet.  Lose 20 points.

Driving or carrying passengers (adults) and not using seat belts. Lose 20 points.

113,500 colones  ($210.00) plus the loss of points shown.

Driving in the wrong lane (I think).  Lose 15 points.

Driving a motorcycle between cars while stopped or moving.  Yeah sure! This will never be enforced.  Lose 15 points.

Driving too slow in high speed lane. Lose 15 points

Improper vehicle lights. Lose 15 points.

Driving too slow and impeding traffic and failure to yield to faster traffic.  Lose  15 points.

Stopping in the middle of an intersection blocking traffic. Lose 15 points.

Brakes lights etc, Lose 15 points

Driving a souped up vehicle that bypasses environmental pollution rules. Lose 15 points

Driving on the beach. Lose 15 points.

Driving a vehicle without plates.  Lose 15 points.

Improper passing.  Lose 15 points.

Littering or transporting garbage illegally.   Lose 20 points.

These are the biggies and the ones I believe might most affect my readers, whether tourists or visitors.

There are about 60 other items  such as driving the wrong way, excess cargo or passengers, driving without a windshield (I am serious), parking in handicapped zone,  tooting your horn in front of a hospital, driving on a foreign drivers license while in violation of your visa (US is 90 days), jaywalking, playing music too loud in the evening, failure to have your drivers license with you while driving, driving with an expired license,  failure to maintain assured clear distance,  etc.  The list goes on ad-nauseum and covers all the normal stuff.

Those fines range from 90,800 colones ($180.00) down to 22,700 colones ($40.00) and most include some loss of points.

As far as I can see, when/if you lose points they never come back. If you lose all your 50 points, you must take the driver’s exam again and perhaps attend driving school.  I can assure you that neither is offered in English.

In addition, there are another dozen or so that affect taxi drivers and other livery/bus drivers.  As I doubt any of my readers fall into this category, I have not included them.

While I am not thrilled with the fact that the points do not come back over time, I am generally happy with the law, though I also expect the extortion by transit officials to go way up. Clearly the problem is many of these fines, especially categories A and B, exceed or come close to the entire monthy income of many Ticos. The payoffs cometh methinks.


9 Responses to “The New Driving Laws in Costa Rica”

  1. Francisco Papia on February 13, 2009 1:44 pm

    We were there when the laws were being changed and so heard about most of them. I truly hope that these laws were instituted to help rearrange the thinking habits and practices of many drivers in Costa Rica. I simply do not drive at night because of the inherent risks involved. I truly enjoy all of my appendages being attached to my body, as God intended and driving at night only elevates the possibility of some of them becoming violently disassociated from their rightful place.

    What I worry about is that the government is not thinking of the benefits to society that accrue from these draconian fines but in their own ability to have a larger discretionary income. The fines are simply too high, to restrictive and way out of scope. We are not in Italy, France, Great Brittan or the US. As stated in the article most of these fines are higher than the monthly income (before tax) of the individuals. Here, in Oregon, a fine for not wearing a seat belt is about $150.00. It would hurt but not kill to receive a fine of that nature.

    On a $4000.00 per month gross income a fine of $150.00 is about 3.75%. If we reverse the calculation and say that I received a fine of 277,000 colones for not wearing a seat belt I would have to be earning 7,386,500 colones per month. Or, 13,250 dollars per month. Perspective????

    I did get a fine in 2007 for not wearing a seat belt some where between Esparza and Canas. The fine was 10,000 colones and 3,000 for tax as I remember. Do I remember the fine? Yes. Do I wear my seat belt now? Yes. Do I need a fine of approximately $500.00 to get me to change my ways? Absolutely not. This is what makes me believe that the government has a different agenda than the betterment of Costa Rican society.

  2. Bob Gieser on February 14, 2009 10:00 am

    Food for thought. If you might be able to make the policeman go away for a fraction of the fine, then the possibility of them being so tied up in the money maing business instead of the law enforcement business increases the possibility of them not being around when you really need one.

    Calling in the license number of each vehicle stopped allows supervisors to match up stops with tickets/warnings and sometimes makes officers a little more accountable.

    Previous surveys showed that female traffic officers were less inclined to put the bite (mordida) on the driver.

    Maybe not the case here, but woth reflecting about anyway.

  3. miguel on February 14, 2009 5:28 pm

    Except for those biggie’s…looks like three strikes and your out! Better have your gratuity in hand!

  4. Move, Live, Travel, Reside, Retire in Costa Rica » The New Driving Laws in Costa Rica at The REAL Costa Rica Blog on February 15, 2009 6:32 pm

    […] Excerpt from: The New Driving Laws in Costa Rica at The REAL Costa Rica Blog […]

  5. Danny on February 17, 2009 1:27 am

    Us Costaricans are delighted with the new tough system!!
    I can suggest paying attention to what you are doing, not attempting to bribe an officer or staying in Oregon!

  6. Cenado´s Caves Costa Rica on May 2, 2009 1:20 pm

    Really is was necessary the new rules because many people was driving whithout precaution, drinking alcohol or too fast whithout Seabelt.

    Drivers
    Please Take care yourself and Take care the other people in the streets.

  7. Jim Gaudet on August 21, 2009 12:13 pm

    Is this really .75 for blood alcohol? What happens if you are less, it’s ok?

    Isn’t that a huge difference from the .08 in the US?

  8. Shorty on August 24, 2009 10:06 pm

    The changes coming Sept 23rd 2009 are pretty big changes. I’ve had friends all over the country telling me they’ve already been targeted by Transito officials trying to get bribes for citations that won’t even be in effect for another month. So, here it comes. Everyone needs to get informed and be prepared, which includes learning how to file complaints, pay tickets, appeal tickets, and know exactly what’ll be required of them. You may see the site I listed by clicking on my name, or see InsideCostaRica.com for the ebook, in English, to get the information. Happy Motoring! ROFL.

  9. Tim on September 18, 2009 10:21 am

    This law has been delayed until March 1 2010 (excluding drunk driving which is effective now.

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