TORONTO – Canadians on both sides of the border expressed surprise and indignation Thursday upon learning they need an International Driving Permit to motor around the Sunshine State.
Under new rules introduced at the beginning of the year, Florida now requires all visitors with foreign licences to have an international permit issued by their country of residence in addition to a valid licence from home.
The quiet implementation of the regulations — which apply to any vehicle, including rentals — resulted in many Canadians being caught off guard.
“I had no idea, we’ve been coming down here for years and never had a problem,” said David Whitford, a Norwich, Ont., resident currently in Cape San Blas, Fla., who realized he’d technically been driving around illegally for the past few weeks.
“I can’t see what the problem is … for whatever reason they’ve decided that we’re being made to feel a little unwelcome here.”
The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles has said the law was passed so police are not faced with foreign licence documents in languages they can’t understand.
An IDP translates existing driver licence information into 10 languages and is valid for one year. It is not a substitute for a valid driver’s licence but rather, accompanies one.
The Canadian Automobile Association — which issues international driving permits — is calling on Florida to amend the law to exempt Canadians.
“No North American jurisdiction has ever asked for an IDP before from another North American jurisdiction. This is a first,” CAA spokesman Ian Jack told The Canadian Press.
“They’ve subsequently told us that they’ve recognized that it was a mistake to include Canada and that they will be moving to exempt Canada, but on the other hand, because it’s legislation and their legislature doesn’t sit till mid-March, it’s going to take some time for that to happen.”
While it has not had reports of Canadians being censured for driving without an IDP in the state to date, the CAA is advising Canuck drivers to make sure they have an international permit until the law is clarified.
“Florida officials are saying they don’t want to actively pursue this against Canadians at this point, but they cautioned us at the same time that they control the state troopers … but they don’t control every local sheriff’s department across the state,” Jack said.
“Nobody’s going to be thrown into jail over this, but it is unclear at the same time exactly what the penalties might be.”
Florida’s official state tourism marketing corporation has identified Canada as its top international market. Visit Florida said 3.1 million Canadians travelled to the state in 2010.
As word of the change spread on Thursday, many expressed astonishment at the lack of publicity around the new rules. Even the CAA said it only learned of the change when an American Automobile Association worker in Florida called to discuss the new rules two days ago.
“When I first heard I thought maybe it was a joke and then obviously it’s not…it’s serious,” said Christine Ellison, a Georgetown, Ont., resident who often spends her winters in Florida.
“The driving down here is no different than driving in Canada, our licenses are in English, surely they can read them. I don’t understand why it would even be necessary.”
The IDP costs $25 and can be obtained through CAA offices. Canadians currently in Florida can apply for one through the mail.
The association has been issuing the permits, which are recognized in some 140 countries, since the 1920s.