Walk WAY off to the side or it may be hazardous to your health
Costa Rica’s highway safety department (Dirección General de Tránsito) statistics show that about a third of the people who die on the roads are pedestrians or bicyclists. Compare that to around one percent in the U.S. or Europe and combine it with the fact that accident rates are about fifteen times higher per kilometer driven and you come up with a scary estimation.
It’s roughly 500 times more dangerous per mile walked in Costa Rica.
The legislators are well aware of the dangers of walking along the roads but unfortunately their solution was to outlaw it rather than build sidewalks. Traffic code article 147 sets the fine at about $40 for pedestrians found walking on roads. We’ve never heard of the law being enforced because of course it’s ludicrous in a country where the entire rural population lives along roads without anywhere else to walk.
500 times more likely to die is an interpolation of the statistics and there are some mitigating factors – for example there are more people walking further because fewer people have cars – but there’s no question it’s extremely dangerous to be a pedestrian in Costa Rica.
On the Sidewalk
There’s an old bumper sticker that says “If you don’t like the way I drive stay the hell off the sidewalk.”
According to the highway safety department the majority of the fatalities are the fault of the pedestrians because they are not using sidewalks, cross walks, or pedestrian bridges.
Unfortunately sidewalks are a rare commodity in Costa Rica and not terribly safe where they exist.
The only time I’ve actually be hit by a car I was walking on a sidewalk in Tamarindo. Fortunately it was sandy and my feet just flipped out from under me as I flopped up on the hood of the car instead of breaking both of my knees like I would have if my shoes had traction.
Beware of Buses
The mother of a friend of ours was killed on a small road (speed limit 25 kph which is only 16 mph) in Brasilito. She was walking home with groceries when she was hit in the back of the head by the open door of a passing bus. They often leave the doors open (and sticking out two feet) for ventilation. We’ve met no fewer than three cyclists who’ve been hit by buses.
A friend of ours once told us that on a Friday or Saturday night after 8:00 p.m. that one out of five of the drivers on the road were drunk. When we asked how he could possibly know that he said because he knew the men behind the wheel and he’d watched them leaving bars since he was a little kid. “They used to be on horseback mostly, but now they have pickups and old Honda Civics.”
There are hundreds of startling incidents but a recent one stands out. In October of 2017 a drunk driver swerved around police blockades to enter the race course for an international half marathon and hit and killed a Venezuelan athlete.
In early 2017 bicyclists made a huge effort to publicize the dangers and request changes after a particularly gruesome accident claimed 3 lives. In fact the two main causes – unfriendly infrastructure and aggressive, disrespectful drivers seem to be getting worse.
Twenty years ago we bicycled thousands of km around Costa Rica on roads we would never think of riding on today. Back then anyone careless or drunk enough to try to drive faster than about 50 kph (30 mph) on any of Costa Rica’s highways would snap an axle or collapse a rim in a pothole the size of a bathtub within a matter of minutes. The massive reduction in the number of potholes is a huge improvement for drivers but now speeds up to 120 kph are common with grim results for pedestrians and cyclists.
Nearly a year later the drunk driver accused in the cyclists’ deaths is free while prosecutors “prepare a case.”
What Can You Do to Stay Safe?
Don’t Walk or Jog on Roads
Seems sad that you can’t go out for a walk but save it for the trails.
If you do walk be very paranoid and never assume that the vehicle is aware of you and is planning to move over. If you choose to walk at night use lights, reflectors, and again a good dose of paranoia.
The only thing that might ruin your vacation as fast as being hit by a car, bus or truck while walking in Costa Rica is to be behind the wheel and accidentally hit a pedestrian.
In March of 2012 a vacationer from Connecticut named Michael Phillips slammed on his brakes and swerved to miss someone running across the highway to catch a bus. He avoided the runner, but unfortunately hit another man standing on the side of the road, or by some accounts in the road, fracturing the bystander’s leg.
There was no alcohol involved and no moving violation was cited – it was quite obviously an accident. Phillips’ insurance company immediately agreed to pay all the expenses for the injured man.
You might reasonably expect that would be the end of it, but things aren’t so simple in Costa Rica. After seven weeks of daily court appearances Phillips fled the country by illegally crossing the border into Nicaragua when a judge granted a request to imprison him for three months while an investigation was undertaken to determine if there might be some charges that could be filed.
A lawyer (who prefers to remain anonymous) explained to us that it’s common to use the court system as a tool for extortion. In Costa Rica individuals can hire their own prosecutor (to replace the impartial government prosecutor) and the prosecutor can request months or even years of imprisonment while they research the possibility of filing criminal charges. Corruption is rampant and often has more to do with the outcome than guilt and innocence.
It must have been a very difficult decision for Phillips to become an international fugitive when all he was trying to do was enjoy a week vacationing in paradise but the only sure way to avoid putting yourself in the same situation is not to drive.
When in doubt call a cab.