Traffic Accident in Panama: What You Must Know and Do

I received the following information and felt it was worth posting. Thanks to Roger Imerman for sending it to me.

UPDATE: I have had a couple requests that the document be available for printing. If you want a copy of the Document, click HERE. This document is the work of Roger Imerman and if you want to use it, for other than your personal use, you will need to get his permission.

Traffic Accident in Panama:

What You Must Know and Do

By Roger Imerman

Introduction

This subject was presented by me at the Tuesday Morning Information and Networking Meeting (TMINM) held weekly at the Fundadores Hotel in Boquete, Chiriquí, Republic of Panama on 18 August 2009. Several people asked if I would post this information on the various community websites and blogs, as it’s critical to anyone who drives a vehicle in Panama. My first reaction was ‘no’, as there are several people in the community who have made it their life mission to create as much disharmony and trouble in the community in which they reside as possible. They do this by personal attacks on people whom they target and generally create stress and hatred. I wanted none of that.

However, upon further reflection, my motive for presenting this information was to promote cultural understanding as to why and how the system works and so others might avoid the trouble and expense that many who didn’t understand the system suffered when they experienced the unfortunate event of a traffic accident.

With that in mind I’ve decided to proceed to post this information in the hope it benefits those who drive in Panama and that those few intent on creating havoc will restrain themselves. The information that follows is current as of the presentation date. Changes to the applicable laws and executive orders may alter some of this information or make it obsolete.

In preparing this information I relied on interviews with insurance professionals, regular police and command police officers here in Panama, as well as my experience with a head-on accident I had on 13 September 2008 on the Inter-American highway in Panama. There is additional information in this material that time did not permit me to include in the oral presentation.

Personal Background

My qualifications for presenting this material include that I was a police officer in the US for 5 years. I also am a retired automotive mechanical engineer. I worked for the major automotive companies and had design and development (ie testing) responsibility for virtually all vehicle systems. I’ve designed components and systems for cars, trucks, SUVs and military vehicles. I’ve had advanced driver training and have driven on every test track facility in North America. I’ve been involved with and conducted certification testing for crashworthiness and conformance to Federal and foreign governmental requirements.

General

Drivers in Panama generally drive slowly. This is due to the fact they are generally poor and cannot afford to properly care for their cars, often driving on bald tires. Also, as verified by police driver license checks, at least 40% of Panamanian drivers, including taxi and bus drivers, do not possess a valid drivers license. And there is no requirement in Panama for driver training, so few have ever had this instruction. They learn ‘on the street’.

Therefore patience and tolerance are the watchwords if you want to avoid stress and live in harmony here, whether you’re a visitor or resident.

At the Scene

When an accident occurs the general rule is ‘don’t move your vehicle’. The reason for this is that Panama is a fault country – that is, someone must be declared responsible for the accident. Therefore, until the Transito* police arrive, the vehicles must remain in their final positions. The Transito officer will then note on the accident report the situation and, presumably, the impact point. This is called ‘accident forensics’. If you move your vehicle prior to the Transito’s arrival, you will be deemed responsible for the accident regardless of the facts. It may take several hours for the Transito to arrive on the scene.

The exceptions to the ‘don’t move’ rule are the following:

  • Single vehicle accident, such as a tree or rock falling on the car/road or hitting a tree or building.

  • A minor accident without personal injury in which the drivers agree to the fault and agree how to pay for the damage. Note: Insurance companies require a police report for a claim.

* The National Police in Panama are divided into 4 divisions. The Transito (traffic) division is one of these.

Note: The driver and owner, when they are not the same person, are equally and totally responsible for the costs of damages and criminal charges when there is a death or felony. The owner is also responsible to ensure the driver is properly licensed to operate their vehicle in Panama.

Your Responsibilities

  • Get the other driver’s information: Name; cedula number; driver license expiration date; vehicle make, model, year & color; license plate number and month and year of expiration.

  • Get witness information: passengers in the other vehicle and bystanders who witnessed the accident. Get name, cedula number, telephone and email if available. If there are no witnesses, note this and insist it be noted in the police accident report.

  • Call FIRST your insurance agent or the emergency number on the insurance policy. Your insurance agent is the MOST IMPORTANT PERSON for you. Be sure they are available to you by phone whenever you may need them. Unless you’re fluent in speaking and understanding Spanish, a bilingual bystander or your insurance agent is critical to translate to/for you.

  • Security: The official policy of the National Police is that the officers on the scene, be they regular police or Transito police, are responsible to ensure evidence is protected from disturbance. However, my experience at my accident and talking with regular police is they either don’t know this policy or simply don’t do it. Therefore YOU are responsible to ensure the witnesses and bystanders, as well as other traffic, do not destroy, remove or move evidentiary debris. You can and should request the police present to secure the scene.

  • Laws: The official policy of the National Police is that the officers on the scene, be they regular police or Transito police, are responsible to enforce the traffic laws. However, my experience at my accident and talking with regular police is they either don’t know this policy or simply don’t do it. Therefore YOU are responsible to note any violations committed by the other driver such as not wearing seat belt (as evidenced by head impact shattering of their windshield), lack of/expired driver license, lack of/expired insurance, lack of/expired license plate, drunk (as evidenced by open alcohol containers and smell of their breath – this is not always accurate, but is a valid indication). You can and should request the police cite (ticket) for law violations.

  • Police Accident Report: You will be asked to write your version of the accident on the police report. At my accident, they said it was OK in English (although no one in the system process reads English). You can and should request the witness identifications and law infractions be noted in the accident report.

What to Have in Your Vehicle

  • Pen (not pencil) and paper

  • Camera – film type avoids possible allegation of computer tampering of digital photos

  • Traffic Rule Book – required by law – $50 fine

  • Vehicle registration copy – required by law – verifies the owner and vehicle legality in Panama

  • Insurance policy copy (front page) – required by law – verifies coverage dates

  • Flashlight with good batteries – for the police at night and to direct traffic if needed until the police arrive

What to Have with You

  • Passport or resident visa (if passport copy, must include entry stamp) Note: individual police officers may require the original passport, as ‘doctoring’ has been observed with copies – also there’s no way for them to ensure the entry stamp is from this passport.

  • Driver license – make sure it has not expired; if it’s expired, you have no valid license – $250 fine

  • Emergency notification in Spanish – they will not search the car, it must be in your wallet or purse; they will call only local numbers and will not email; they will likely be speaking Spanish, so the person being called must understand spoken Spanish.

In Case of Injury or Death

  • Other person – the law states you must render aid; this may take the form of notifying an ambulance (Bomberos/Fire Dept 103) or the police (104). They will likely speak and understand only Spanish, which your insurance agent should do for you.

  • You – For minor injuries, do as much of the above as possible. For severe injuries, don’t worry.

Due Process

  • Police report – You/your lawyer are responsible to obtain a copy of the police report. It will not be available at the scene, but rather from the local Transito office in the District in which the accident occurred. No one will call when it’s ready, so you/your lawyer must call and go to the Transito office to get a copy. You will need 3 copies – you, your lawyer and your insurance company.

  • Responsibility Hearing - At the scene the Transito officer will give you notice of the Responsibility Hearing date and location. It’s generally 1 month from the accident date at the local District Transito office. If there are severe injuries, it may be a later date. Postponements are possible.

  • Hire a lawyer – Your insurance company likely will provide a lawyer; however they represent the company, not you. You will have to pay your deductible (assuming you have collision coverage); if you’re found ‘not at fault’, you’ll be reimbursed by the insurance company. I thought this was a conflict of interest for the lawyer, so I elected to hire my own. Do this within a few days of the accident to give the attorney sufficient time to prepare and present your case. They cannot get a postponement of the hearing because you gave them insufficient time to prepare. See How to Hire a Lawyer below.

  • Responsibility Hearing – The hearing will be conducted by a clerk of the Transito office. She will have a computer and enter the responses, in Spanish only, to her questions. There is no opportunity for cross examination or challenge. The police/Transito officers do not attend the hearing. The completed testimony is printed and you and your lawyer sign when it accurately reflects your testimony. By law, if either party to the accident (drivers and owners) fail to appear for the hearing except for health or injury reasons they will be deemed responsible. If there were injuries, postponements are possible, the first being 3 months. Technically you don’t have to appear, however if your lawyer doesn’t appear for you, you will be found at fault.

Note: You/your lawyer are responsible to ensure your witnesses attend the hearing. You may have to compensate them to do so.

  • Judgment – The District Alcalde (mayor) makes the final decision of responsibility. They are usually not lawyers and, depending on their time in office, may have no knowledge of the law other than what they read in the testimony. Although the Alcalde is required to have completed high school, they may not be able to read or write Spanish, although this is rare. If you disagree with the judgment, it may be appealed to a judicial court at additional expense.

  • Judgment Copy – You/your lawyer will need to return to the Transito office 1-2 weeks after the hearing to get the official copy of the judgment. You’ll again need 3 copies.

Note: If the other driver and owner are found responsible, this gives you the legal right to pursue damages, including legal fees, at additional legal cost. Neither the Alcalde nor the Transito office will enforce the recovery of damages.

How to Hire a Lawyer

Your lawyer is your second most important person. Ask if they’ve handled traffic accident cases, how many, when was the most recent, what were the outcomes (although this is determined by the facts of each case), if they’ve practiced before this Transito office & Alcalde before, what support and connections they have, what their case load is and, finally (not first), how much they’ll charge you and for what (total case, by the hour, phone calls and trips, etc).

For a stolen car: If your car is stolen, you must report it to the local DIJ (formerly PTJ – National Police Investigative Division) office – not the regular police station. You must have the original of the vehicle registration/title and, for vehicles not titled in Panama (such as being driven during visiting), the border documents authorizing the vehicle’s entry into Panama, as well as your identification and entry validation (such as your passport or resident visa). In Boquete the DIJ office is behind the Accel station on the right as you leave Boquete toward David.

It’s my sincere desire that this information serves to help you avoid the stress, heartache and financial loss inherent without this knowledge. Of course, it depends upon your diligence, attention and tactful, respectful assertiveness in its application. It’s also my sincere desire you never have to use this information.

Panama Traffic Accident Check List

Pen

Paper

Vehicle registration copy

Rule Book

Camera Film Date ___________ Battery Date ____________

Insurance Copy Expires _______________

Flashlight Battery Date _____________

Insurance Agent

Police 104 Fire/Ambulance 103
Driver/Conductor Name/Nombre
Cedula
License Expiration / Expiración de licencía

Insurance # & expiration/ # & Expiración de seguro

Plate # & expiration / # & Expiración de placa

Phone/Teléfono
Email
Vehicle/Vehiculo Make/Marca
Car/Carro Year/Año
Truck/Camión Color
Other/Otro Plate # / # de placa
Expiration/Expiración
Passengers / Pasajeros Name/Nombre
Cedula
Phone/Teléfono
Email
Name/Nombre
Cedula
Phone/Teléfono
Email
Name/Nombre
Cedula
Phone/Teléfono
Email
Name/Nombre
Cedula
Phone/Teléfono
Email
Witness/Testigo Name/Nombre
Cedula
Phone/Teléfono
Email
Name/Nombre
Cedula
Phone/Teléfono
Email
Name/Nombre
Cedula
Phone/Teléfono
Email
Name/Nombre
Cedula
Phone/Teléfono
Email
Name/Nombre
Cedula
Phone/Teléfono
Email
Name/Nombre
Cedula
Phone/Teléfono
Email

16 thoughts on “Traffic Accident in Panama: What You Must Know and Do

  1. Don Ray:
    Still no 911 for Emergencies? In 2006 a Teleton was done with the object of start a 911 national service, it seems not done yet.
    Jaime^

  2. Thank you, Roger, for taking the time to do the research and author this information. This will likely save a lot of folks a lot of grief. You answered the question that’s been lingering in my mind for several months. Thanks, Don, for posting this information. This kind of information (among others) is what makes CC el mejor de los mejores blogs.

  3. This is such important information! Thank you, Roger, for taking the time to both report on this at the Tuesday meeting in Boquete and then to follow up with the written version for the rest of us. I have been very concerned about these issues every since the Sabin’s had their accident. So, my question is, what happens if you are deemed at fault and and, therefore, are responsible for someone’s death or injury?
    Thanks,
    Joyce

  4. I think there is a 911 system but they do not use it because there were so many false reports. Over 90%, I believe. There is no way of tracking who made the calls because the callers are using a cell phone.

    There is talk of registering all cell phone chips. There are two side of this coin because some are concerned about privacy. Others say this is a way to track down the calls and stop the false reporting.

  5. Don,
    A good check list for here in the states also…thanks for your time and effort.
    JQ

  6. As a new resident to Panama, this is most helpful information. Thank you for your time in getting it all together.

  7. Very good article, and very good recommendations to drivers. Just one correction: the decision from the ‘Juez de Tránsito’ (Transit ‘Judge’, although it is really an administrative clerk, many times with no legal training at all), is subject to appeal not to a judicial court, but to his superior. If there is a ‘Juez de Tránsito? on the District in question (Panama City mainly), then the Major will decide the appeal. If there was no ‘Juez de Tránsito’ and therefore it was the Major who issued the decision, then the ‘Gobernador’ will decide the appeal.

    There is no judicial review (meaning a proper Judge in a Judicial, really independent court) of decisions in transit cases.

  8. This was a very nice gesture but all it will do is place confidence in people to believe they will have a chance at winning their cases…..NOT TRUE….at all. I have lived in Panama for 26 years and I can tell you from being in 6 accidents (NONE my fault) there is no such a thing as a GUILTY Panamanian…..only guilty Gringos and if you think for just a second that I am wrong then you will have a hell of a time living in this country as there are many new comers in Panama that think they have this place figured out only to find out THE HARD WAY they were not even close….If you do get into a major accident and DEPENDING ON WHO IT WAS WITH and WHAT HAPPENED…you had also better have a QUICK and UNANOUNCED exit strategy OUT OF THIS COUNTRY…as if you are a GRINGO then you are already about 99% guilty…period. And if you are dumb enough to have ANY property in your name to include cars, homes land etc that can be found by any lame ass attorney in Panama then you can count it gone as well…I have preached this to newcomers for over ten years and about 90% don’t listen as they think because they have a few years experience living in Panama makes them experts. I don’t claim to be an expert on panama even after 26 years here but one thing I do know is just when you think you got a handle on this place is just about the moment something will happen and let you know you don’t….one thing is very clear though is that the only Predictability about panama is it’s unpredictability and if you learn just this one thing and always remember it you will get along better here…..ALWAYS have a plan A,B,C and D if not you will find out then hard way many times by losing everything you have and or some nice jail time while you’re at it. I have seen over 15 people that I gave advice to about certain situations not listen to a thing I told them to do and went about it using some carpetbaggers advice and then lost all their money and or went to jail as well only to be calling me in the middle of the night trying to get me to FIX the problem that I already had fixed OR PREVENTED to start with if they would have listened….I even tell my “Local” friends about each incident and what happened only to get a loud laugh from them…and me about these things….and to hear them say “Dumb Gringos” about each case. Respect is something that hardly exist in the local population but it does exist but only in the form of fear….meaning the upper ruling class (or people with a name here) is the only thing besides MONEY that the locals respect….so to get out of a bad situation (even if it was NOT your fault) you had better be ready to PAY UP or BEND OVER if you cannot get out of here in time….Getting out of here also gives you leverage to fight without being behind bars because most of the time you will be fighting your OWN attorneys from taking everything you have as well…
    So to beat the locals at their own game…learn how to get to the judge or person making the decision first….even the cop making the report as you can damm well believe that is what the locals do….oh…and if you are one of these people that thinks that by paying people to get something done is furthering corruption then junior you have definitely moved to the wrong country. There is absolutely NOTHING you can do to change things here as far as corruption goes so don’t even try….learn the GAME and be a player or take your whining ass back where you came from…

  9. Dear Vaquero,
    I would not disagree with the knowledge you have obtained firsthand but I feel compelled to ask, why do you continue to live in Panama if it is such a stressful environment? There must be some alternative open to you that would allow you to live a much better quality of life. It does not seem to me that you have established many close personal relationships with the Panamanians whose country you have adopted as your own?

    jim and nena
    fort worth, tx

  10. Pingback: Fausta’s Blog » Blog Archive » The last Monday in August Carnival of Latin America and the Caribbean

  11. si tengo un accidente de transito en panama como pasajera de un vehiculo particular quien me responde por mi tratamiento medico

Leave a Reply