Policia de Transito (traffic police) patrol the highways and streets in Costa Rica.
Policia de Transito (traffic police) patrol the highways and streets of Costa Rica. Typical vehicles include pick up trucks, motorcycles, minivans and two trucks. The new vehicles are typically white or dark blue, mostly gone are the yellow pick up trucks of yesteryear.

COSTA RICA TRAVEL – With the tourist season in full swing, many visitors choose to rent a car to see Costa Rica.  The following tips concerning traffic officers in Costa Rica will be very useful.

1. There are all kinds of police officers

You might find a very amiable police officer or a rather rude or aggressive officer. Traffic officials in Costa Rica like to show their authority, which may prove intimidating to drivers, especially when you are not sure why you have been stopped. If the officer talks too fast or authoritatively, just relax, breathe in and remain calm.

2. You will be asked to show your documents

Usually, traffic officers ask for two documents: your license and the vehicles circulation permit, i.e. the document indicating that the automobile has paid registration rights to circulate on the streets.  Car rentals usually place a copy of the circulation permit in the glove box. A copy of the permit if OK with a vehicle rented from an established car rental, but best have the original if you are renting from a private person or borrowing a vehicle.

With respect to your driver’s license, in Costa Rica you are permitted to drive with your home country/state/province license for the “tourist” period, based on the entry stamp in your passport.

3. Speed control

If you are headed for the beach or the mountains, you should know that officers typically set up speed controls along highways with few curves and bends, where drivers may be tempted to drive too fast. Try to always respect speed limits. If in doubt of the speed limit, keep in mind that most limits are 80km/h on highways and 40-60 km/h on other roads.

4. Bribes

In Costa Rica, money acquired by a public officer through an act of corruption has several manes, ie. “mordida” (bite), “chorizo” (sausage).  Bribes are illegal, but in reality there are still officials who continue with the practice. The request is not uncommon among traffic officers.

Usually, the officer indirectly insinuates that, if you give him money, he will not write-up a ticket for any violation you may have committed. Sometimes, they suggest they need money for some coffee, lunch or something else. Ideally, you should refrain from giving money to a police officer. Be firm, keep calm and know you have the right to be treated legally.

5. License plate restriction

Every weekday, circulation is forbidden for different vehicles in the San José area and on “Circunvalación”, depending on the last number of the license plates. On Mondays, vehicles with plates ending on 1 and 2 are restricted from driving around the above areas; on Tuesdays, vehicles with plates ending on 3 or 4; on Wednesdays, vehicles with plates ending on 5 or 6; on Thursdays, vehicles with plates ending on 7 and 8 and on Fridays, on 9 or 0. Circulation is free on weekends. Avoid driving through San José downtown on the day when your vehicle is restricted to do so by law.

Vehicles owned by registered car rental agencies, such as Toyota Rent, Avis, National, Economy, Budget, Herz, and many others, are exempt from the vehicular restriction. Simply showing the rental agreement to the traffic official will the trick. Don’t be fooled into a bribe as above. If you do get a ticket for not respecting the vehicular restriction, report it to the car rental agency immediately.

6. Driving Under The Influence and Reckless Driving

In Costa Rica, driving under the influence and careless driving (driving over 150km/h) is a criminal offence. The traffic official has the right to detain, handcuff you, and hand you over to the custody of the Fuerza Pública (police) and take you to the nearest criminal court.

7. Dealing with traffic tickets

If you do get a traffic ticket, it is best to pay it immediately. If left unpaid, late fees and interest accrues. Traffic fines can be paid at all state banks, ie. Banco Nacional (BN), Banco de Costa Rica (BCR) and at most private banks. Keep in mind that it may be a day or two before the ticket shows up on the system and can actually be paid, such as getting a ticket on a Saturday, it may not be until Monday or Tuesday before it can be paid.

In the event you cannot pay the ticket before you leave the country, notify the car rental company or the person you borrowed the vehicle from of the ticket. Since the owner of the vehicle is ultimately responsible for the traffic ticket, car rental companies will whack your credit card for any unpaid amounts. And possibly with a hefty administration charge.

8. Additional notes

  • All traffic police officers wear a uniform and vehicles are clearly marked “policia de tránsito”. There are no undercover ttraffic officers and unmarked vehicles.
  • For the most part traffic officials use their PDA to write up the traffic ticket and then print it. However, the old “pad and pen” is still in use.
  • Traffic officials are armed and will give chase to drivers who try to evade controls or custody.

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