Driving in Costa Rica

By Eric Robinson

Before you get behind the wheel of your rental car here in Costa Rica, be prepared for an experience beyond belief. After driving on the sane roads of Canada, for the first half of my life, I wasn’t prepared for Costa Rica. Two major factors create havoc on the roads here.

Firstly, the roads vary greatly in Costa Rica. There are some excellent routes that are a pleasure to drive, smooth, open, you can enjoy the scenery, the mountains and greenery around every corner, the seascapes and the small friendly villages. But in general, country roads tend to be narrow, winding, many are bumpy or pot holed and unmarked. Outside of San Jose, with less traffic, you have more room to maneuver a bit, and take your time, get your directions, drive around pot holes, and relax.

Traffic signs, even on major highways, are often inadequate and in addition, poor visibility because of heavy fog or rain, makes driving at night especially treacherous. In the rainy season, landslides are common, especially on the highway between San Jose and the Caribbean city of Limon, or towards San Isidro el General. All types of motor vehicles are appropriate for the main highways and principal roads in the major cities. However, some roads to beaches and other rural locations are not paved, and some out-of-the-way destinations like Monteverde are accessible only with high clearance, rugged suspension four-wheel drive vehicles.

In San Jose and much of the Central Valley, it is different. Because of the hilly topography, huge ‘catch basin’ suburban areas get in and out of the city on very few main arteries. As a result, from about 7am until 9pm every working day, these roads are busy, often frustratingly bumper to bumper. The city core is mostly made of one way streets in a grid pattern, however they are can be quite congested because they were never planned for future increases in vehicle numbers. A single fender bender, or road construction, or parade or strike can jam traffic several blocks in all directions. You just have to wait it out, as often seeming shortcuts get you nowhere. Lately, many traffic lights are out of order, so you just cautiously take your chances crossing intersections.

But secondly, and a far greater reason that havoc is created on the roads is the Ticos themselves. You just can’t believe it until you experience it, and even then, I just shake my head at how clueless every second or third driver is. I drove for years in Canada and never ran into situations that I consistently find here within my first thirty seconds of driving each day. You would swear they are in another world when they are behind the wheel of a car.

You’ll see drivers talking away and looking directly at their passenger between glimpses of the road, hands waving in the air as they speak. In congested conditions, they drive like they are the only vehicle on the road. Nothing matters to them if it is not in their front vision. For no apparent reason, rather than pulling off the road, they will stop in the middle of a busy street holding up traffic, and forcing everyone to dangerously go around them. Many strongly believe that as long as their emergency flashers are on, they can do anything, and about one in five has his or her directional signals flashing away for no reason, yet they’ll quickly hang a turn without signals. Often, drivers will pull into a busy intersection and stop, trying to decide which way to go.

If they need to make a left turn, they’ll stop in the middle of the lane rather than moving over to the center line to allow cars behind them to get by. They swerve all over the road driving at a snails pace while on their cell phone. Red lights to many drivers means to slow down. Buses don’t pull off the road to pick up passengers, even when there is room. Taxi drivers troll for customers at about half the speed of the traffic. Motorcycles weave in and out like they have their own rules. On the four lane highways, slow cars always jam up the fast lanes, faster cars race up the slow lanes, and often cars will drive beside each other for miles preventing others from passing. If you are lined up behind a few cars at a red light, when it turns green, you need to toot your horn or the front driver will just sit there mesmorized by the green light. I find it so hard to believe that many of these people actually obtained legitimate drivers licences, as few seem to realize the responsibility of free-wheeling a ton or more of speeding glass and steel through crowded places.

Travelers should avoid responding in kind to provocative driving behavior or road-rage. In case of an accident, travelers are advised to remain in their car until police arrive.

Costa Rican law requires that drivers and passengers wear seatbelts in all cars, including taxis, and police are authorized to issue tickets. Traffic enforcement in Costa Rica is the responsibility of the Transit Police (“Transitos”), who are distinguished by a light blue uniform shirt and dark blue trousers. They use dark blue cars or motorcycles equipped with blue lights. They often wave vehicles to the side of the road for inspection. Drivers are commonly asked to produce a driver’s license, vehicle registration and insurance information. Third-party coverage is mandatory in Costa Rica. Infractions will result in the issuance of a summons. Fines are not supposed to be collected on the spot, although reports of officers attempting to collect money are quite common, and saves you a big hastle. Persons involved in vehicular accidents are advised not to move their vehicle until instructed to do so by a Transit Officer, who will respond to the scene together with a representative of the National Insurance Company (BCIS.) Accidents may be reported by dialing 911.

The following is an article written by Katherine Stanley for the Tico Times, June 2nd, 2006. This may help put things in perspective of what I have been trying to explain.

Driving, Watching TV? No Problem, Some Say

Facing a growing trend of drivers watching television while driving – yes, you read that correctly; televisions mounted on dash boards or DVD screens covering the rear-view mirror are increasingly common – the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MOPT) announced last week that it is studying the possibility of a fine of 10,000 colones (less than $20) for any driver demonstrating this particular brand of multi-tasking.

A fine of 2,000 colones ($4) is already in place for drivers of public transportation, including buses and taxis, according to Transit Police director German Marin. He told the Tico Times that it is not yet clear whether the Transit Law allows for such a fine on other drivers, though a fine is already in place for talking on a cell phone while driving. Authorities are concerned that TV-watching will increase during the upcoming World Cup soccer games, according to the daily La Nacion.

However, for some taxistas, driving while watching is perfectly reasonable. One driver spoke to Tico Times last week while simultaneously driving on the highway between San Jose and the western suburb of Escazu and watching ‘Bad Boys II’ on a DVD screen that almost completely obscured his rear-view mirror.

“It’s not dangerous… at night it is because it reflects a lot (of light),” he said. “You have to be very careful and have good eyesight. Sometimes I watch it while driving, sometimes I don’t.”

He added that he doesn’t need his rear-view mirror to see behind him, pointing to his side mirrors.

Apparently the law agrees. Marin said drivers are required to have a rear-view mirror – but aren’t prohibited from covering it up.

Most movies in Costa Rica are dubbed with Spanish sub-titles, so the drivers really need to multi-task!

However, with all that is said above, Costa Rica has a policy of painting a yellow heart on the road where each person was killed in a traffic accident, and actually there are relatively few to be found! Go figure!

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