Snowbirds driving in blithe violation of Florida law were saved by the Geneva Conventions – not the ones governing the conduct of war, but the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic.
The licensing brouhaha surrounded an obscure new law – section 322.04, Florida Statutes – which meant that Canadians motoring in Florida, along with all other foreigners, risked arrest unless they were armed with an International Driving Permit. No longer was a Quebec or Ontario drivers' licence good enough.
But after a flap lasting a few hours on Thursday, Florida – faced with an avalanche of inquiries from Canadian media, not to mention that international treaty – blinked.
"The Florida Highway Patrol will defer enforcement of violations of the amended statutory section until a final determination of the alignment of the amendment with the treaty can be made," said a densely worded statement from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
The climb-down apparently reflects a sloppy bit of wording in the state law. Passed last year, the law was intended to require holders of some foreign drivers' licences to also have the UN-mandated International Driving Permit, which includes translations into multiple languages.
Although the new rules took effect on Jan. 1, no one apparently noticed – or got arrested for flouting it – until the Canadian Automobile Association issued a warning to its members and the public. The CAA noted that "the state of Florida has passed into law a requirement for all non U.S. residents, including all Canadians, to carry a valid International Driver's Permit (IDP) when driving their own vehicle or a rental vehicle in Florida." State officials "say the law was passed so that Florida law enforcement officials would not be faced with documents in languages they could not read, but the law captures drivers from all countries, including Canada," said the CAA – which also happens to be the only organization in Canada with a mandate to issue the International Driving Permit, for a fee of $25.
In Ottawa, some snowbirds were waiting outside a CAA office to get their international permits before it opened on Thursday morning, said association spokesman Ian Jack. The organization sold more than 1,000 permits in a few hours Thursday before Florida reversed itself.
"We made it very clear and an awful lot of Canadians have made it very clear over the last day to Florida officials that they're not at all happy about this and don't feel that it's necessary," Mr. Jack said. "We're happy that they've found a way not to enforce this law on Canadians."
In fact, the about-face by Florida applies to all holders of drivers' licences issued by countries that are signatories to the Geneva pact – although Canadians, with more than three million visits a year to the Sunshine State, are by far the most frequent foreign visitors.
More than 70 countries – including Canada, the United States and most European states, but not China, the Holy See or Costa Rica – are parties to the convention, which binds signatories to respect and accept drivers' licences issued by other states.
Within hours of the media frenzy over the new rule, it had been effectively suspended, although it will take an amendment to the legislation to clear up the apparent contravention of international law.
"This requirement may violate the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic (1949), an international treaty to which the United States is a signatory," the Florida highway safety department said in a somewhat sheepish statement. "Treaties to which the United States is a party preempt state laws in conflict with them."
So, with an international treaty to back them, Canadians with valid drivers' licences from their home province can resume motoring in Florida without worry. The Florida Highway Patrol "will not take enforcement action based solely on the lack of an International Driving Permit," the state promised.