Wednesday, March 18, 2009

New Laws for Driving in Costa Rica

"Bribe? I didn't say bribe... this is a 'regalo'".

In Costa Rica, the days of driving down to Manuel Antonio while throwing back a six pack of Imperial (Costa Rica’s MOST popular beer) are OVER if you’re the driver, unless of course you don’t mind playing Russian Roulette in a Midnight Express sort of way.

They ARE, and will be continuing over the next year to implement new laws in regards to driving in Costa Rica. It pretty much started when Costa Rican officials got tired of all the alcohol related deaths and accidents. Yeah, I’m not big on death either - so it sounds reasonable they'd be tired - even the locals we’re on board with this one. But what about the gringo traveler to Costa Rica?

If you plan on renting a car to see this beautiful country, there are a few things you need to know. For instance, here, it ISN'T against the law to drink and drive, it IS however illegal to drive DRUNK- and it is no longer a SLAP on the wrist as in the past. Basically, all the infractions (below) would be illegal in the States as well; it’s the penalties that are a bit on the harsh side. Don’t miss my perspective on this entire debacle below, especially YOU, the traveler to Costa Rica.

It should be noted NOT all these laws are in EFFECT- but the drunk driving law IS.

NOW, you GO to JAIL if your blood alcohol exceeds 0.75% or you’re driving over 100 mph (150 kph), which is considered reckless driving. So far, not bad- but wait there’s more.

For the following, you won’t go to jail, but it will cost you BIG TIME approximately $410.00 as of the March 17th 2009 exchange rate. These are considered Category A offenses.

• Reckless driving, in this case speed exceeding 80 MPH (120 kph)
• Driving without a valid drivers license.
• Driving under a suspended license.
• Driving a child without proper safety seats. This also includes driving a motorcycle or any other motorized vehicle with a minor and that minor has no helmet.
• BRIBING A POLICE OFFICER… shit, there’s a law for that, I guess now we can’t do it.

Category B offenses- Still costly at about $305.00 a pop.

• Driving 14 mph over the speed limit, exceeding 16 mph when passing school entrances or exit, hospital or clinics. Be careful, these are often not marked.
• Talking on you cell phone.
• Running a Stop sign or making an illegal u-turn.
• Driving or carrying passengers and not using seat belts. (Check your passengers, it’s your responsibility as the driver in Costa Rica).
• Driving a motorcycle or quad or similar vehicle without a helmet.

Tickets that will cost you a little over $200.00

• Driving too slow in the passing lane.
• Driving too slow and impeding traffic or failure to yield to faster vehicles.
• Driving on the beach.
• Improper passing.
• Littering.
• Stopping in the middle of the intersection and blocking traffic.
• Driving in the wrong lane.

Here are a few examples of other driving infractions that will cost you in fines ranging from $40.00 to $180.00:

Parking in a handicap zone, driving on a foreign drivers license while in violation of your visa (90 days for you gringos), failure to maintain assured clear distance, jaywalking, failure to have your drivers license with you while driving, blah, blah, blah- all the usual suspects.

I would say the gringo traveler to Costa Rica really only needs to worry about- drunk driving, excessive speeding, wearing seatbelts, using a cell phone while driving and maybe improper passing, other than that you should be OK.

Now for those of you who actually in Costa Rica, there’s a point system tied to all the fines, and you receive BOTH fines and loss of points for infractions. You begin with 50 pts and when you reach 0- your driving privileges are revoked. How long- it’s unclear. Here’s the basic point break down.

Drunk Driving and Driving 100 mph- you lose ALL 50 points and of course JAIL time.

Category A offenses- Reckless driving and carrying a child without a proper safety seat is also a loss of ALL 50 pts.

Category B offenses are almost all a loss of 20 points and fines that are approximately a $200 fine are usually a loss of 15 points.

It appears that it’s almost a 3-strike RULE- 2 seatbelt tickets and one for talking on a cell phone while driving- You’re OUT- a bit Draconian in my book.

Ok, cool I guess, new laws for the betterment of ALL. JAIL for drunk driving- great. But what’s this all really mean?

Well, I call total Bullshit. You want the REAL Costa Rica without the make-up- well she can be fairly unattractive when the light hits her just right.

First, Costa Rica is notorious for making laws it has NO WAY to enforce (for a variety of reasons). Not only is its bark worse than its bite- Costa Rica would have to put its dentures back in if they were even INCLINED to leave a MARK. Costa Rica cares about one thing- PERCEPTION, read that as how they are VIEWED by the ‘outside’ world. Marketing is obviously a strong point because Costa Rica is the SHIT on paper. They believe it doesn’t matter what you actually DO, it matters what you’re perceived as DOING.

The laws are there…

… there’s laws to stop shark finning, and long line fishing, but 100’s of thousands of sharks are killed for their fins off the shores of Costa Rica each year. Umm, China and Costa Rica have become quite chummy lately. Check out this video with Pretoma, the people attempting to make Costa Rica enforce its LAWS on shark finning and see what they have to say. Video: a Talk with Pretoma

Eco-friendly- laws are in place...umm, about 90% of sewage finds its way into the rivers, streams and oceans of Costa Rica. Nothing says eco-friendly like human excrement. Hell, Manuel Antonio National Park just got sited for sewage flowing directly into the ocean from the RANGER STATION- WTF! And don’t get me started on Jacó and Tamarindo. See Manuel Antonio National Park: Full of Shit

Huge mega resorts break just about every law in order to build ‘closer to the beach’. Even where we live, La Fortuna, there are strict laws prohibiting building in close proximity to the Arenal Volcano, PLEASE- money rules the day, so without naming names, here, a few hotels could light their cigarettes using the sparks from Arenal.

Even drug use is often tolerated as well as is underage drinking (I’ve seen underage teenagers drinking in the park right next to police officers, hell, talking to them to boot). See Legal Age to do Stuff in Costa Rica

many of these new fines are more than the transit police make in a month, what would you do if you had a family of 5 or so to look after and some gringo wasn’t wearing his seatbelt?

I would venture to say most drunk driving infractions will be ticketed at road blocks and random check points; I seriously doubt you’ll be pulled over from behind with the possible exception of in and around the San José area. As a matter of fact, these new laws probably won’t mean shit outside San José as it will be business as usual in most places, with the police turning a blind eye to the more victimless of these traffic infractions. I guarantee cars will be racing right outside our apartment tonight like they do every night, and of course I’ll see a guy riding his motorcycle with his wife on the back and 2-year old sitting on the gas tank with the driver being the only one wearing a helmet. Costa Rica is mostly rural outside of San José and the police in these small towns are anyone’s next door neighbor, so they’re not going to give the teenage son of a friend a $400. fine and send him to jail, it’s just not going to happen. They’d be run out of town.

But gringo BEWARE, I got this funny feeling they don’t give a FUCK about you.

The irony will be that the laws will appear to be working, because with payoffs and bribes, the tickets won’t exist. My advice, carry some cash just in case and I’m thinking a $20 bill just won’t CUT IT anymore, so hopefully you’ll be pulled over close to an ATM machine, you’ll need it. OH! Don’t call it a bribe, it’s a regalo (gift), a bribe sounds so illegal and it could cost you, be careful in your word choice. Don’t know Spanish, just remember ‘regalo’.

The laws will be on the books soon enough and of course they’ll make the travel guides as to how Costa Rica is really clamping down, and I’ll get a ton of emails asking if they’ll go to jail for talking on their cell phone while driving. Perception is EVERYTHING.

Check OUT our Costa Rica Travel Tip Videos and for tons of Costa Rica Travel Information visit: Travel Costa Rica NOW