QCOSTARICA – Not respecting the double yellow line, invading oncoming traffic due to whatever reason, such as making a left turn or overtaking, are two common recklessness ending in death on Costa Rica’s roads.
According to data from the Consejo de Seguridad Vial (Cosevi) -Road Safety Council , lane invasion is the main cause of death on the road in Costa Rica. In 2020 alone, an atypical year due to the pandemic, at least 52 people have died for this reason.
In 2019, a total of 92 victims died as a result of a lane invasion. It was also the main cause of fatal accidents in the statistics of this department of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MOPT).
But why are these types of traffic accidents the ones that leave more deaths in the country?
Authorities explain that three factors are involved in fatal traffic accidents due to lane invasion: the road infrastructure in Costa Rica, lack of sufficient police coverage on the streets, and driver education.
For Roy Rojas, Cosevi’s project director, it is mainly due to an infrastructure issue and the lack of safety barriers that separate traffic flows on the roads.
In addition, he adds, it must be considered that most roads are narrow and that drivers tend to drive at very high speeds, which increases the probability of deaths as there are no physical separators between lanes.
“As there is no separation, the ‘efecto pelotón’ (platooning) occurs, which is that anxiety that gives a driver to accelerate to pass (‘rayar’ in Spanish) and due to its geometric characteristics, does even if the road doesn’t allow it or the driver should not,” said Rojas.
Likewise, the project manager points out that undue overtaking is only a risk factor and not the cause of the accident as such.
Rojas explains that the Cosevi statistics are built according to the traffic reports and that these are not so exact, because the officers were not there at the time of the accident, but they arrive and see the yellow line and presume that the accident occurred by an overtaking.
However, he ensures that other factors must also be considered, such as lighting problems, lack of driving ability, fatigue, drunk drivers and even the presence of rain.
For him, drivers alone cannot be held responsible, since the geometry of the roads is not the most appropriate in many cases.
“We cannot only blame the driver, we must also take into account that there is a responsibility for the infrastructure to have the safety devices that mitigate the likelihood of undue overtaking.
“Our infrastructure is not safe because the characteristics of the roads that have three or four lanes, for example, if there is no division in the center – in some places there is not even space to allow it – then there we are going to have a lot of risk taking,” he declared.
Rojas argues that human beings make mistakes, be they a cyclist, driver or pedestrian, so the road has to be designed and equipped to compensate for human error.
He insisted that the road infrastructure must have devices that offer protection against this type of behavior because people will continue to do so and because the speed ranges on some roads are not respected.
“We did a study of three different moments of the day in the pedestrian crossings of the Cañas-Liberia highway. There the posted speed limit is 40 km/h, but the result gave us that drivers mover at an average of 130 km/h, and that happens because the characteristics of the road allow it,” he assured.
A cultural problem
Although the director of the Traffic Police, German Marín, agrees that the problem is due to a multifactorial issue, he affirms that the lack of road safety education and police presence in the streets adds more.
He highlights that sometimes drivers make reckless and hasty decisions because they think they are not exposed to penalties or duebad driving habits.
In his opinion, putting barriers that separate traffic flows would not solve the problem entirely, since the cultural component must be taken into account.
“There are very narrow roads where there is not even the possibility of creating such divisions. The divisions that are put into lanes are generally on high-density roads where the speed limit is also important.
“The less contact there is between two vehicles, the less likely the accident will occur, but that also reflects a weakness in terms of the way of driving of the Costa Rican, not all, but of a small group”, argued Marín.
The director of the Traffic Police points out that a factor that could help more to reduce this type of accidents would be to have a greater police presence on the roads.
This is because, he claims, drivers take fewer actions outside the law when they know there is a vigilant eye.
“If we have a larger group of traffic officers, we could have all the roads covered in the main areas of vehicular influx and there is an important group of drivers who highly value respecting the rule.
“That is why I look to further strengthen the number of traffic police officials, of which there is a need in the last 10 years but it is not so easy to create these positions, so other actions must be taken such as strengthening road safety,”said the police chief.
As of December 2019, Costa Rica had just 728 traffic police officers (Transitos) for the entire country. At that time, the hiring process for another 176 began.
This groups of officials are in charge of patrolling the entire road network in the country on a 24 hour basis. When you factor in vacation time, injuries or illnesses, the effective force is reduced well beyond capacity.
The Minister of Public Works and Transportation (MOPT), Rodolfo Méndez Mata, acknowledges that the country is very weak in the three factor: infrastructure, road safety education and traffic control.
“We in the generality of the road network, the conditions of the network are not at all favorable to prevent traffic accidents,” he said.
For this reason, he said, a much stronger investment is necessary in all aspects that have to do with accident prevention.
“The countries that have managed to make a marked difference in terms of reducing the percentages of deaths on the roads are, in general, more developed countries, with more potential, that build better road networks, that use mechanisms and means to assist traffic, that invest in greater driver education,” said Méndez Mata.
Faced with this reality, the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (CCSS) – Costa Rican Social Security Fund to runs the hospitals and medical services in the country, opts to insist on the call for prudence on the part of drivers.
To that end, it launched a communication campaign to prevent traffic accidents in October, at a crucial time after the reopening of economic activity and the easing of the sanitary vehicle restriction due to the pandemic and facing the Christmas and New Years period where many take to the roads for the holidays.
Of major concern to the CCSS is the ability to respond with medical services overly stretched due to the pandemic, where covid-19 patients are occupying beds that are normally needed for traffic accident victims.