March 12, 2013

Lawmakers do about-face on foreign driver’s permit requirement

The Florida Legislature moved to repeal a 2012 law that requires foreigners to get an international driver’s permit in order to drive in Florida.

From election reform to tougher ethics laws to retooling the campaign finance system, the Florida Legislature will spend much of this legislative session undoing many of the problems it has helped cause in recent years.

Almost no piece of legislation epitomizes that sentiment more than HB 7059, the hurried push to repeal a 2012 law that forced foreign tourists to obtain an International Driver’s Permit.

On Tuesday, the Florida House moved forward on repealing the law — which has caused near-pandemonium among Canadian tourists — in an attempt to fast-track it to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk before any further damage.

“Oftentimes when we pass legislation, we don’t really understand how we could have some unintended consequences, with it,” said Rep. Daniel Davis, a Jacksonville Republican who is behind the repeal effort. "In this case we need to repeal some legislation because it, in effect, has hurt our tourism industry.”

Gov. Rick Scott indicated he was ready to sign the repeal at once, stating that the original law he signed last year “made no sense.”

Canadian tourists mobilized in opposition when they learned of the 2012 law, which required them to get a new license before they could drive in Florida. Traditionally, drivers from Canada and other countries could use their licenses from their home country when visiting the Sunshine State. Lawmakers toughened the statutes in 2012 after concern that some of those licenses were not written in English, but didn’t foresee all the problems that would ensue when the law went into effect on Jan. 1.

After Canadian journalists wrote about the new requirement, frustrated snowbirds from Toronto and Quebec began calling lawmakers and scrambling to get the new permit, which costs $25 and is valid for a maximum of one year.

The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles said in February it would not enforce the law because it likely violated an international treaty of the Geneva Convention. And even as state officials asked law enforcement officials to ignore the new law, some agencies did not get the message.

“Just this past weekend we received word that a tourist was stopped, a Canadian tourist, in Sarasota,” said Karen MacFarland, who lobbies for the American Auto Association. “He didn’t have an IDP. He received a fine for $268 and was not allowed to leave until he paid that fine.”

The number of Canadian tourists visiting Florida each year has increased from 1.2 million in 2002 to 3.6 million in 2012, making Canada far and away the top market for Florida’s international tourism efforts.

The 14 million vacationers who visit Florida from Canada and other countries spend billions of dollars each year — much of it in South Florida — and lawmakers realized quickly that upsetting them with a new driver’s license law probably wasn’t a good idea.

It’s one of several measures that lawmakers are seeking to overturn or walk back since 2010 when the Republican supermajority took the helms of the Legislature in a conservative wave election.

“No body of politic is perfect,” said Davis. “Whenever we do have unintended consequences or even do make mistakes, we need to make sure we own up to it and address it and make it right.”

Toluse Olorunnipa can be reached at tolorunnipa@MiamiHerald.com or on Twitter at @ToluseO.

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