Friday, February 15, 2013

The Sound of Angry Snowbirds

I do not like the sound of angry snowbirds, especially when they are right.

We’re vacationing in Montreal where we have a flat. Yesterday (Thursday) we stopped by to say hello to an acquaintance of ours who owns a shop in Old Montreal. After a few moments of chit chat she mentioned something about now needing an international driver’s license to visit Florida. I said, “Are you kidding?” Being a newspaper reading, news junky resident of Florida, I figured I would have heard about that if it were true. I thought, “She must be mistaken. Why would the U.S. do that? We do not need an International Driver’s License when we drive in Canada, even in French speaking Quebec.” 

Sadly, she was not mistaken.  But it was not the U.S. that created the new requirement; it was just my state of Florida which quietly and with no fanfare or heads-up, passed a bill effective January 1, 2013.  JUST Florida, no other state in the US has such an all-encompassing requirement.  Our State legislature passed a bill requiring that ALL foreigners including those from English speaking countries who wish to drive in our state must have an International Driver’s License.   The requirement was part of a 105-page piece of legislation introduced last year by Florida Rep. Ben Albritton, R- Wauchula, dealing with Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

On Thursday, newspapers all across Canada had front page articles about disgruntled Canadians rushing to the CAA offices to pay $25 plus the cost of passport-sized photos for an International Driver’s License. And stories of vacationing Canadians already in Florida who are perplexed and trying to figure out what to do since the only place they can get an International Driver’s License is in Canada and they are already in Florida.

Interestingly, there were no stories in Florida papers, until this morning, when Florida woke up to the outcry of angry snowbirds.

A rational person must ask why did the legislature see the need to pass this measure?  There could be three possibilities: Safety, Money, or Making the job of a Highway Police Officer a little Easier.  

Safety? I have seen no evidence that we have a rampant problem with unlicensed drivers from foreign countries causing unsafe driving conditions on Florida highways. Why would we? In order to rent a car when visiting, one must show the rental company a valid driver’s license.  They are not going to rent to someone without a license. Some rental companies even require an International Driver’s License from certain foreign countries where language may be an issue. Snowbirds arriving in their own vehicles are coming from Canada. They are not driving all the way down from Canada without a driver’s license.  

And what exactly IS an International Driver’s License anyway.  You do not have to take a test for one. It’s simply a document that translates into a number of different languages the fact that your driver’s license is in fact, a driver’s license.  That’s all.  You are not going to be a better or more informed driver just because you have an International Driver’s License. All it does do is make it a little easier for a Highway Patrol Officer to figure out your license, that’s all. And really, what is most important on a license? That it is current. And numbers are numbers…dates are dates. An officer should not need a translation to figure out if your license is current or not.

But what makes this piece of legislation truly bizarre is that it applies to all foreigners whether your license is already in English or not. One can just imagine how visitors from UK, the birthplace of modern English, must feel about the requirement to get an International Driver’s License when in fact their license is ALREADY IN ENGLISH.

So if the legislation will not necessarily result in safer conditions on the highway and only helps out Highway Patrol officers a little, could the rationale for the law be money? I certainly hope not, but it must run through the minds of visitors to Florida, especially those who come every year for months at a time. If they get pulled over and do not have the appropriate International Driver’s License they can be fined even if they have not broken any other law.  Penalizing the very people that provide the state of Florida with a robust tourism economy, not smart?

And let’s talk practicalities, what if a visitor from the UK flies into, let’s say, Boston. They rent a car with a valid foreign driver’s license and take off on a road trip of the eastern US. Everything is fine.  They decide to head to Orlando and Disney World. How would they know they are required to have an International Driver’s License once they hit the state border just north of Jacksonville? They would not. And if someone tells them in a truck stop somewhere in Georgia, what can they do about it, since you cannot get one except in your home country?

So in one case “happy foreign family” enters the sunny state of Florida not knowing they need an International Driver’s License.  In Orlando they get into a small, fender bender, when someone rear ends them at a stop sign. Police come. “Happy foreign family” is already concerned about the dent in their rental car and then they are informed they will have to pay a fine because they do not have an International Driver’s License.  How does that say “welcome to Florida we’re happy you are here and spending money in our economy”?

In another case “happy foreign family” finds out from a fellow traveler, somewhere along Interstate 95, that they need an International Driver’s License to enter Florida (or else they might get a ticket and have to pay a fine).  The “happy foreign family” thinks that maybe the 6 Flags Amusement Park and beaches of North Carolina look friendlier and they’ll skip Florida this time.

As you might guess, the Florida Tourism Board is up in arms, as it should be, with concerns as to how this nonsensical measure could impact tourism in a state whose economy is tied heavily to visitors, domestic and foreign. The state has been informed that the law may in fact violate provisions in the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic so they are, for now, not enforcing the requirement.

Florida is not an island. Florida relies on the kindness of strangers…those wonderful visitors from foreign shores who come and visit, make friends, and spend money.  Let’s not embarrass ourselves with this bit of nonsensical red tape that will not result in safer streets but would result in many unhappy visitors to our sunny Paradise.

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