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New Traffic Laws in Costa Rica

November 1st, 2006

Now THIS otta be fun! For those of you who actually live (and drive) in Costa Rica, your eyes must be doing a 360 about right now. Mine sure did. For those of you who have not had the ummm… pleasure… of interfacing with a Tico on the roads of CR… well… I bit of explaining may be in order.

I happen to like our new president, Óscar Arias Sánchez, but for some reason, he has apparently lost his marbles on this issue.

First, if nothing else, the average Tico driver could be called “creative” though I have no doubt other words have been used as well. Traffic laws, while technically “on the books” are seldom, if ever enforced except against tourists who have the bad luck of running afoul of the ever alert transit police who lurk on the pistas (highways) between San Jose and the beaches. Other than those officers, there simply are no police cruisers or motorcycle police anywhere. Add to this those drivers on motorcycles (who pay even less attention to the traffic laws and are never ever stopped), and we have a situation where the roads of Costa Rica are best described as a zone of lawlessness not unlike the olde West.

In addition, the roads themselves are often in pretty bad shape. Driving in Costa Rica is not for the faint of heart.

So now comes the Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transporte, MOPT, or the Minister of Public Works, proposing new fines and penalties for lawless driving in this country. Arias apparently agrees with all this.
Well, on the surface, is this not a great idea? The answer is, “Of course!”, but we really need to examine the realities of the situation.

The proposed fines are just silly! Here are a couple:

  • Running a red light (the second most popular sport in Costa Rica after fútball (soccer): 234,000 colones or about $450.00 US.
  • Not using a seat belt: $350.00 or with a minor in the car: almost $400.00
  • Making a U-turn: about $350.00

Kinda gets your attention, huh?

Well here is the problem. These fines are supposedly based on the monthly salary of an office worker in the Poder Judicial, but the reality is that the VAST majority of Costa Ricans do not earn anywhere near that much money every month. Even for those who do, the figure is absurd. It would be the equivalent of a $2,500 fine in the US for cruising a light!

So what happens if the fine is not paid?

Well, come year end, you must pay your marchamo and renew your license plates which cannot be done as long as there are outstanding traffic tickets. Sadly, I have had some experience with this BTW. The average Tico will absolutely NOT have the cash to pay a ticket like this. He will not be able to gets his plates renewed nor pay the marchamo. He may have to use his alguinaldo (year end bonus) to pay the tickets and THAT for the average Tico family would be a disaster. It is that or drive illegally.

Let’s examine some other fines:

  • Drunk driving: about $540.00 (actually, too low IMHO unless it includes castration) plus loss of license for 2 years
  • Drag racing: Same fine and penalty.

I think these are just fine, though I expect the loss of license will not affect those idiots as they will just continue to drive without one. Their odds of getting caught are about zero as there are just not sufficient police to enfores this. With that in mind, they want to add 13 patrol cars and 46 motocycles… for the whole country!

So about those huge fines? What about the bribes so many folks pay to get out of these tickets now before they cost so much? Paying 5,000 or 10,000 colones to a transit officer is as old a tradition as Pura Vida and guarro. Now, there will supposedly be enforcement!

HUH? The average transit cop earns MAYBE $280.00 per month. Methinks the bribes will go up.

Back to enforcement! A new internal affairs department will be set up to investigate bribes. Cool huh? Well maybe not. The IA will have the right to examine the bank account of police officers. OK… so which police officer will be dumb enough to go home after his shift and deposit his nightly bribes?

Now of course YOU could report that YOU paid a bribe right? Testify? The other shoe dropping is that if you pay the bribe, YOU get socked with a $550.00 fine as well. So you pay the transito 20,000 colones ($40) to avoid the $400.00 ticket (which he will just deny anyway) then you report him just so you can receive another $550.00 shot in your wallet for bribery.

Now let’s examine another reality. Will the transit police even give a ticket to another Tico knowing eerything above?

I know about 5-6 of them and they are ALL really nice people as are most Ticos. I expect they will not want to give a speeding ticket or a ticket for crashing a light to a fellow countryman knowing the pain such a ticket will cause. They might do it if an accident or fatality results, otherwise I doubt tickets will be given at all, except for…………….?

Yup! Tourists and foreigners living in Costa Rica! In other words those who theoretically can afford it. I expect they will become the targets. I also pity the poor Nicaraguan who happens into the area.

The whole system also uses a reverse point system. You start with 60 points and lose them for each sin committed. Get to zero and you’re no longer licensed. I could not see where points are added back for good driving. I guess the incentive thing has not yet cught on in Costa Rica.

All the above must still be presented and approved by the Asamblea Legislativa, so with luck, they will read my blog and cooler heads will prevail.

21 Responses to “New Traffic Laws in Costa Rica”

  1. Global Voices Online » Blog Archive » Costa Rica: New Traffic Laws on November 2, 2006 8:09 pm

    […] The REAL Costa Rica Blog says that the new traffic laws and fines are ridiculous. David Sasaki […]

  2. Steve McNutt on November 9, 2006 2:34 pm

    Thanks for the informitive website. I have a friend that has just purchased land in Costa Rica and I’m was considering doing the same. I will be visiting in Feb for a month or soo, but if the Gov. is going to start acting like Americians I don’t want any part of that Country.

  3. jaime on November 27, 2006 11:32 am

    Castration for DUI huh? For a .08 you lose your nuts. Well, since cell phone use while driving has been proven just as bad an a .08, what should be the penalty for driving while yapping? Removal of tongue? You don’t converse while driving, do you???

  4. Tim on November 27, 2006 7:02 pm

    Yup… for a DUI, castration is fitting punishment. And if you dear James are one of those who drink and drive, I sincerely hope you will be speaking an octave or two higher VERY soon.

    As for talking while driving… why YES I do…

    I use a headset as the law provides.

    And wherever did you get that nonsense that about drunk driving being equal to talking on a cell? THAT crappola needs documentation.

  5. Greg on December 7, 2006 11:51 am

    Just finished reading this blog and the ‘driving in Costa Rica’ blog. I’m going to be visiting in January. Going to be staying in Manual Antonio. Flying in to San Jose. Have to get from San Jose to Manuel Antonio. Was going to rent a car to get there, but am now questioning that. Is there any way to get from San Jose to Manuel Antonio w/out renting a car? I could rent one locally in Manuel Antonio and just tool around there. Btw, I don’t want to fly in one of the 6-seaters…Thx.

  6. William James on December 22, 2006 1:53 am

    I can’t wait to come down to Costa Rica. It sounds like it’s going to be exciting. I’ve beem told that I have to watch out for thieves. Are they talking about the new traffic laws? They told me to dress down and try not to stand out. I six foot and five inches tall. I should be alwright while sitting in a vehicle. Seriouly this is one of the best CR site I’ve seen on the web. Thanks.

  7. patrick on December 31, 2006 8:48 am

    It’s ALL ABOUT THE CASH, you can believe it when something like this happens.

    I’ve been a cop in the US for a long time. I don’t like writing tickets. I don’t think anyone other than very few oddballs I’ve met over the years actually do. I avoided having to do it by deliberately working in areas where the 911 calls for service were so high, nobody cared if we wrote tickets. We were just too busy with real crimes and emergencies. The guys that wrote the tickets usually wanted to avoid working in truly tough ugly neighborhoods so whenever the city needed money they would put the pressure on these guys to write tickets or in some way let them know they would have to work in the crappy areas again if they didn’t produce. Government for the people!

    My point: It’s not the cops that are doing this, it’s the greedy politicians looking for a bounty. They will manipulate the traffic cops. If somebody is going to get this lunacy under control, it will have to be the tourist industry lobbyists. They will have to get involved and demonstrate the resentment tourists and ex-pats will develop eventually towards everything Costa Rican. In the end they will get a few more dollars in fines, but lose a LOT MORE in tourist dollars!

    Hope their quick fix remedy is dropped when they consider it’s far reaching consequences. They could eventuall end up with a scandalous repututation like the Mexican Government and its joke for a legal IN-justice system.

  8. Lise on January 5, 2008 8:42 am

    Not being able to pay your marchamo without clearing your parking tickets is not necessarily true. Just paid my Marchamo and had a few outstanding tickets and they did not check. I really think they do not enter all the tickets into the system, maybe has to do with lack of manpower. You must have a current RTV.
    Just for a heads up, most cops, DO blantantly ask for a bribe and blantantly lie to you about the details of your infraction. I recently got stopped up in Cerro de la Muerte, highest place in Costa Rica. I was accused of passing on a curve, whatever!! They threatened to suspend my license for 6 months, if I did not give them 20,000. colones on the spot. This is totally illegal, however, they can make your life miserable and maybe lie and have your license suspended for some other reason and detain you for an hour, while you are standing up in the Cerro and it is pouring rain with winds of 70KM and hour and 13 degress C, guess what, you pay the 20,000. colones and go on your way. I would really like to obtain a hard copy of all the laws, and fines regarding infractions. Pura Vida, Lise

  9. Teri on December 12, 2008 7:17 am

    I couldn’t say it better myself so I am putting a link to this post on my blog. If you object, please contact me. I always go here for the lowdown on what’s going down in Costa Rica.
    Thank you for keeping us locals (and others) informed. Teri in Hermosa

  10. sid on March 26, 2009 11:12 pm

    It sounds as though the police and judicial system in Costa Rica is becoming as corrupt as the United States. Dui laws are not enforced for public safety and have not decreased the amount of deaths due to auto accidents in this country. Their sole purpose is revenue for the state.

    It sounds to me as if Socialists/Communists/Fascists (we call them Democrats in the U.S.)are becoming more powerful in Costa Rica. That is a shame. I think that the Libertarians in your country better do something quickly to eradicate the “cancer” before it is too late (as appears to be such in my country..the U.S.A.)

    With more power (government) comes more laws and with more laws comes less freedom for the individual. I guess from what I have learned about the new traffic laws, that I will continue my search for a country with a decent government. One that hasn’t figured out how to extort money from those who smoke and drink.

    I haven’t found one (a country)yet that didn’t have some sort of problem. In fact, all of them appear to be fucked up for one reason or another though the U.S. is becoming Nazi Germany in the 30’s and the citizens are treated like Jews. It is not a good situation here. It is especially bad for white males right now. Anyway, thank you for all of the info. about Costa Rica. Best Wishes.

  11. Cora on April 9, 2009 11:58 am


    I totally agree with you about the “new Communist America”, which is why I plan to leave here in about a year. I was falsely arrested (yeah I know everyone says they are not guilty but in this case I swear to MY God that it’s true) and, as you said, it’s all to make more money for the government and the cottage industry built around “rehibilitation” and other crap for people who don’t even need it.

    I have read a lot about Costa Rica–and I’m still considering. I lived and went to school in Mexico and had no issues there at all, as a matter of fact the federales were very kind to us “students” (even though we were older students!) and would chat with the big shotgun hanging off their backs. I know there is corruption in Mexico, as there is in other places, however, laws that are not made to PROTECT people but rather injure and ruin the lives of otherwise “perfect” citizens is ridiculous. I know I’m just one person but I wonder how the IRS and the Ohio state government will enjoy not getting my tens of thousands a year when I move?

    My issue is that I can’t find out how the move works in any South American country if a person has a misdemeanor on their record. I’m still fighting it and will pay the $10,000 for the jury trial because I’m 100% innocent, but if it doesn’t work I’d like to know my options. I see in Costa Rica a person has to have some “police report” given to them for residency. I’m not sure if they’d allow me in or not and I need to know before I continue to research down this path.

    Thanks all,

  12. Tim on April 13, 2009 10:55 am

    Misdemeanors are not considered a crime here for reasons of residency. I cannot speak for other countries.

  13. Dave on May 20, 2009 5:22 pm

    Just got back from Costa and had a blast, save for extorting cops. Was pulled over more times in a week than in 20 years of driving in the states. Their favorite saying is otras opciones, and boy how they love their $25 payouts (usual going rate). Got stopped at a checkpoint and had to blow for DUI, luckily passed but was issued a ticket for not having my passport. An interesting ticket considering I DID have it on me and my passport number is on the ticket! Loved my trip and will go back. The only time I felt unsafe was when I saw a cop.

  14. Jim Gaudet on July 19, 2009 7:38 pm

    How up to date is this? Can you tell me where to find the actual laws? I heard all the prices changed, but am not really sure where to look to find the updated ones.

    Thanks in advance,

  15. Tim on August 14, 2009 1:20 pm


    It is current… There are no updated ones… the prices are correct. and as for a copy in Spanish, go to La Gazeta for that.

  16. Travis Winn on March 14, 2010 5:24 pm

    Well, I have to say, It’s only been two weeks with the law in effect, and I just got a 225,000 colones ticket. I wasn’t even going over 80 kph on the road to Siquieres from Limon. A car passed me, and then I went with him passing a big slow truck. The cops were waiting as it was one of the few places you could pass. I had been driving particularly slow that day in the middle of the place I was passing there was a double line which quickly disappeared. The car in front of me got pulled over then me, too. I couldn’t believe it. I was with my Costa Rican wife and child. They threatened to take the plates and my wife started getting furious, I took it easy, but then they made me sign a blank computer. I wrote no informaccion, no explica no entiendo and my name.

    Then I find out because I am a gringo and he was mad at my wife getting “hysterical” that I got accused of speeding (no speed gun on me) and wreckless driving. The guy in front of me even made the other transit cop go back and show him where the double line was.

    Anyone with legal advice for fighting these tickets would be greatly appreciated. It’s the most expensive ticket of my life and no recourse. I was doing 95mph in California and even there it was only $300 not $550 with NO RECOURSE. Please e-mail me through my blog if you have advice thanks! travis ( a t) nio dot Com…


    BTW the new law IS OUTRAGEOUS.

    Anyone with legal advi

  17. Gringo Tourist on April 21, 2010 7:29 pm

    Returned yesterday from a fabulous visit (my first) to CR! Fabulous except for the ticket for passing on a double yellow line. Was not far out of Limon headed to San Jose.

    Funny thing is that I was following a few trucks behind a police car (#1184) that pulled out pass in the same stretch. We both went around the trucks in front of us respectively, and I got pulled by a policeman stationed at the roadside.

    My girlfried is very fluent in Spanish and spoke very respectivefully to the officer….who had no humor, no mercy. End result was a ticket for 220,050 Colones. When with the officer, the math in my head misplaced the decimal point so I *thought* it was a $40 issue. Nope…$431 US dollars! AND there is now apparently a 30% additional charge on all tickets that is supposedly to fund orphaned children; bringing total cost to $560!!

    Criminal is an understatment. So, here is my question….what happens if I just blow off the ticket now that I’m back home in the States? I’m frankly OK w/ paying a fine for breaking the law…just not a fine that so ridiculous.

    As with the previous post, any advice is appreciated!

  18. Zane on May 1, 2010 11:57 pm

    Just got shaken down at a traffic stop in Tamarindo. Blew .00 on the breathalizer but cop wanted to ticket me for $200 because my passport was at the hotel. Funny how after I told him I didnt have that much cash he said he’d “Help me.” He accepted $40 but shockingly didnt give me a citation. What a jerk.

  19. Tim on May 2, 2010 8:16 am

    If this happens, get his name, license plate of his vehicle or motorcycle, and any other identifying features. Take a picture if you can. Call 800transito (have your hotel make the call if necessary and report the officer.

  20. Gringa Tourista on July 21, 2010 1:05 pm

    Dear “Gringo Tourist”

    I did what you mentioned and “blew off” a ticket for having a passenger in the back seat without a seatbelt. They had no apparent reason to pull us over and began looking around for a reason to ticket us because my gringo-looking husband was driving and they knew we were tourists. Anyway, long story short, I blew off the $450 ticket (outrageous, criminal, infuriating, still bitter about it months later…) and received a charge to my credit card from the car rental company — $650!!! I’m currently fighting the charge, but I fear this is one situation where justice will be trampled because of corruption.

    Will think twice before visiting/driving in CR again.

    Too bad because CR is amazing — just can’t afford the insane tickets.

    Gringa Tourista

  21. RippedOff on September 22, 2010 8:49 am

    Yes, I received a 600.00 dollar ticket as a honeymoon gift from the Costa Ricans. I crossed the double yellow being gringo. Funny how all the locals can do it without consequence.
    Don’t sign the ticket and you have a good chance should you rent the car with your AMEX card. What a ripoff and idiotic way to hurt Costa Rica’s main source of income…their tourists.
    Looking at the bigger picture, and having been around the world, Costa Rica didn’t impress me much with it’s kitschesque tourist towns like La Fortuna. T-shirts, nick nacks, and food priced for Americans. Where is the culture, the art, the music? The minute we got off the plane we got attitude. Budget car rental did not honor the rate (before and after our rental) on our reservation and the agent was just plain nasty…thought I was in France. I’m guessing they have had enough with us…problem is not all Americans are the same.

    Mal Pais was depressing. I went to surf and the beaches were laden with trash and had some pretty scary water off the land into it. The roads were very problematic feeling like I’d break the axel off at any moment. Both my wife and I crapped out all the overpriced food we ate.
    The good…having given up on the cultural experience we decided to insulate ourselves by shelling out the cash.
    We got a great very rare walk-in discount at Casa Cameleon…simply amazing! Run by Jua and cheffed by Rob…two Zen masters that proved to be a needed stark contrast. Great service, great food, great views, and two beautiful people that have found their heaven on earth…good for you guys!!
    Advice…turn in your car rental once arriving in Mal Pais and rent two, or one, ATV. Stand up over the pot holes like your riding a horse and you’ll be getting around better and much faster. Wear your helmet gringo or you’ll pay hundreds and hundreds in fines.
    In Fortuna…pay the day fee and go to Tabacon Hot Springs…very very nice. The Sky Tram zip line is a must as well.
    We’ll never return. Something is missing here. We saw several cars with busted out rear windows and tourists complaining of losing all their luggage. Thuggery was about and told us that this was not a place for the naive. They may think their different from us–the Ugly Americans–but not so much with regard to class divide, government corruption, and growing unemployment. Crime will rise and their pride in a history of non-violence will surcumb to the shortcomings of their infrastructure. “A little revolution now and then is a good thing.”