International driving pemit controversy: Florida law causes concern for US visitors

State officials insist that Florida loves Canadians and wants them to visit.

But many Canadians were getting a distinctly different impression this week when news broke in Canada that a new Florida law mandates non-U.S. residents driving in the state carry an international driving permit.

An international driving permit is a license in the language of the country one is visiting. But that requirement would also affect Canadian residents, who already have driver licenses in English.

"Surely our accents aren't that bad," joked Bryan Cleveland, a Toronto-area native and a part-time Naples resident.

State officials insist visitors like Cleveland have nothing to worry about. Although the law is on the books, it may violate a portion of the Geneva Convention, so it isn't being enforced.

"We love Canadians," said Kirsten Olsen-Doolan, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. "They contribute to our economy. We don't want to discourage them from coming here."

Cleveland said he began getting calls from friends and relatives about the requirements when news about the law hit the Canadian press.

"My family members were panicking that I would go to jail or my insurance wouldn't cover me in the event of an accident," he said. "It was giving them negative connotations about the state of Florida."

During the 2012 legislative session, the Florida Legislature amended a section of the Florida Statutes to require visitors from outside the United States to have an international driving permit in order to drive lawfully in Florida.

The law was passed so Florida law enforcement would not be faced with license documents in languages they don't understand, state officials said. But the law didn't discriminate by country, which meant that Canadian drivers who have license documents in English would also have to get the driving permit.

The law went into effect Jan. 1.

But Thursday, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles released a statement that said the requirement may violate the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, an international treaty to which the U.S. is a signatory. Treaties to which the U.S. is a party preempt state laws in conflict with them.

As a result, the Florida Highway Patrol will defer enforcement of violations until a determination of the alignment of the Florida law and the treaty can be made, according to the statement.

"Non-resident visitors to Florida who wish to drive here will be required to have in their immediate possession a valid driver license issued in his or her name ... from their country of residence. However, the FHP will not take enforcement action based solely on the lack of an international driving permit," according to the statement.

The state is also working to propose a change in the language of the new law that would not require visitors with licenses in English to get the international driving permit, Olsen-Doolan said.

"We want to get to the intent of the original idea," she said.

Cleveland said he is relieved to know that common sense is coming into play to fix the problem.

"I understand having a language translation for your license if it is in a language other than English," he said, "but me coming from an English-speaking country, I shouldn't need one."

Olsen-Doolan wanted to reassure residents like Cleveland that they won't have any problems driving in Florida with a Canadian license.

"You'll be fine," she said.


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