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Example 9: Assessing Road Safety in Costa Rica


Costa Rica is a small Central American country. It is a democratic republic with a strong constitution. The country is run by a president, 2 vice presidents, a 15 member cabinet, and a Legislative Assembly. Nobel Peace Prize winner, Óscar Arias, has held office for 4 years. Costa Rica has managed to avoid much of the violence that is prevalent in the rest of Central America and, as a result, has been viewed as an example of political stability in the region. It was the first country in the world to constitutionally abolish its army. There have been only two short periods of violence in the region since the late 19th century. Although the country has no military it does maintain domestic Police and armed National Guard forces for internal security.

Costa Rica is, for the most part, an agricultural country; however, it has achieved a standard of living that is fairly high. The economy has been expanding for Costa Rica, partly because the Government implemented a seven year plan of expansion in the high tech industry. The central government offers tax exemptions for those who are willing to invest in the country. High levels of education among its residents make the country an attractive investing location. Autonomous state agencies enjoy considerable operational independence; they include the telecommunications and electrical power monopoly, the nationalized commercial banks, the state insurance monopoly, and the social security agency.

Costa Rica is bordered by Nicaragua, Panama, the Caribbean Sea, and the North Pacific Ocean. The country is approximately half the size of Ireland, and encompasses several islands. The country is highly recognized and praised for its national park system: a developed and progressive system which stresses ecotourism. Costa Rica protects over 25% of its national territory within national parks.

In 2005, Costa Rica had an estimated population of 4,016,173 persons. Most people in Costa Rica are mestizo to various degrees, though there is also a large unmixed European minority, which is primarily Spanish. These two groups account for a combined 94% of the population. Some 3% of the population is of Black African descent, and another 1% is composed of ethnic Chinese. The indigenous population today numbers less than 1%, or around 29,000 individuals.


In low- to middle-income countries and regions, the majority of road deaths are among pedestrians, passengers, cyclists, users of two wheelers, and occupants of buses and minibuses. The thing that matters most to community members is safety for themselves and for their families. The community members realize the growing public health problem with traffic safety and recognize the current traffic laws, practice, education, vehicles, and road conditions as a threat to their well-being.


Organizations from the governmental, civil society, and private sectors are all involved in road traffic safety in Costa Rica. The Consejo de Seguridad Vial (COSEVI - National Road Safety Council) is the main national organization addressing road safety issues. The Minister for Public Works and Transport is the President of the Council. The Council has four executive departments: traffic engineering, road safety education, traffic police, and public transport. These people are in charge of ensuring the safety of their citizens. As the economy of Costa Rica continues to grow, the people in charge feel it necessary to take the proper steps needed to promote public health and improve conditions so that the citizens of Costa Rica are safe. This desire includes coming together in collaborative teams to plan interventions that will make widespread change and allow for safer roads.


Road crash injury is, for the most part, preventable and predictable, and yet it remains one of the leading causes of death around the world. It is the ranked number 2 in age groups 5-14 and 15-29, and number 3 in age group 30-44. These three groups alone suffer at least 718,500 deaths a year from road traffic injuries. The fatalities cause by road traffic injuries are only the beginning, and do not include all the loss of human and societal resources.

Rapid motorization, which often accompanies rapid economic development, is a major contributing factor to increasing road traffic injury risk.  In countries that see rapid economic growth like Costa Rica, there are larger stretches of vulnerable road than in higher-income countries. In many developing nations, though vehicle use has greatly increased, most people still walk or bicycle to work. Those traveling in motorized vehicles are often bus passengers or motorized two-wheeler riders. Vehicles are also less safe in developing nations. Buses are often second-hand imports from wealthier countries and lack up-to-date safety features. Passenger cars tend to be older and do not have air bags, collapsible steering columns, or other crash-protective features. In addition, vehicles are not as well maintained in developing countries. Another factor is poor road and land-use planning. This often leads to a deadly mix of high-speed through traffic, heavy commercial vehicles, MTWs, pedestrians, and bicyclists on developing-country roads. Accommodations for vulnerable road users, such as sidewalks and bicycle lanes, are rare in developing countries.

In Costa Rica, traffic crashes and their consequences are clearly a public health problem. The economic cost of traffic crashes to the country amounts to almost 2.3% of the gross domestic product. There were 68,804 road crashes in 2002, accounting for 673 fatalities and 2,783 serious injuries. 64,797 road crashes were responsible for 668 fatalities, and 2,914 serious injuries in 2001. In 2000, there were 13,507 light injuries, 2,562 serious injuries and 670 fatalities in the 59,496 road crashes that occurred.

Traffic accidents are the leading cause of violent deaths, the leading cause of death in the 10–45 years age group, and the third leading cause of years of life lost due to premature death.


A big barrier to success is that, in most countries, current road safety efforts fail to match the severity of the problem. Often in developing countries, residents are at a much higher risk of sustaining road traffic injuries. These people are also at a higher risk of death when a crash does occur. This is because developing countries have inadequate trauma systems and are often unable to care for crash victims. In Costa Rica, the highest crash risks are actually for the pedestrians and cyclists. This is because the modern traffic system often forgets to make provisions for other road users because it was set up primarily for motorized vehicles.  In particular, young drivers or riders are at higher risk for crash involvement. Men, especially young men, are more likely than women to be in a road crash.

Drivers drive too fast, overtake others at wrong places, drink and drive, and ignore road signs and rules. Estimates show that the cost of road accidents corresponds to almost one percent of Costa Ricas GNP each year. And, as an increasing number of people are buying cars, the problem is growing.

The population of Costa Rica is roughly 4 million, with 900,000 vehicles, and a road network of 29,000 km only 9000 km which are surfaced, and only 20% of these roads are in a satisfactory state of repair.

As a result of then recognized importance of finding a solution to this problem in Costa Rica, there have been interventions set in motion to promote road safety and make it a desirable behavior. A national road safety plan, aimed at reducing the mortality rate by 19% during the period 2001–2005, is being implemented, providing for action in the fields of traffic laws, police surveillance, education, infrastructure, and research.