Dear Readers,

The coronavirus pandemic has caused widespread disruption to the lives of everyone in Tampa Bay and to so many businesses in our community. Here at the Tampa Bay Times, we continue to provide free, up-to-date information at as a public service. But we need your help. Please consider supporting us by subscribing or donating, and by sharing our work. Thank you.

  1. News

Angst from Canadians prompts Florida driver's license change

Winter resident Mary Louise Howard heard the disturbing news Thursday morning from her daughter back home and rushed to tell her Treasure Island neighbor and fellow Ontarian Andrew Watson.

Tedd Nash, about to head south from his home near Toronto, saw it on Canadian TV and immediately emailed 20 friends who had already come down. By midday, the snowbird community from Vancouver to Halifax was abuzz with dismay.

The state of Florida would no longer honor Canadian driver's licenses — or any foreign licenses — unless the driver also carried a $25 international driving permit. The law, which quietly took effect Jan. 1, was intended to help law enforcement agencies decipher regular foreign licenses, which come in many languages.

But no one, not even the law's creator, considered the effect on Canadians, who add billions of dollars to Florida's economy and whose regular licenses — outside of Quebec — are printed in English anyway.

"We bring a lot of money into this country and pay a lot of rent," said Howard, who hails from Kitchener, Ontario, and has wintered in the same beachfront condo for eight years.

"This is a kick in the face. It was so sneaky. They've got a lot of nerve."

The only place Canadians can get an international license is from their automobile association back home. What happens to people who have already come south for the winter? Ontarian Tom Moffatt wondered from his part-time Largo residence. Could he face a huge fine or jail time for driving without a license? Would his insurance cover him in an accident?

"Has the state of Florida gone crazy?" he asked the Tampa Bay Times. "Are they trying to drive us out of here?"

Word of the law surfaced Wednesday in a British news report, then spread through the Canadian press on Thursday.

Maureen Wright, who represents Florida's tourism agency in Toronto, said the Canadian Automobile Association issued 3,500 international permits over those two days.

"They have been inundated with calls," Wright said. "We have been getting calls from tour operators, airlines, rental car companies and consumers."

Meanwhile, in Tallahassee, Florida officials backpedaled quickly.

The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, which had requested the legislation, issued a news release that essentially said: Oops.

"It has come to the department's attention that this requirement may violate the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic (1949), an international treaty to which the United States is a signatory," the statement said.

Countries honor each other's driver's licenses and "treaties to which the United States is a party pre-empt state laws in conflict with them."

Until the Legislature can fix the law, the Florida Highway Patrol will not enforce it, the Motor Vehicles statement said.

Though Howard and her friend Watson mistakenly heard through the snowbird grapevine that former Gov. Jeb Bush was somehow responsible, that honor falls to state Rep. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican.

"I work hard to try to understand bills and their unintended consequences," Albritton said Thursday evening, after a day of fielding confused and angry calls. "This one I just missed. I want to tell the people in Canada I am sorry."

The law was one of several dozen requests from Motor Vehicles officials designed to make their jobs more efficient, Albritton said.

"There are all these people traveling here from other countries and their licenses are in Greek or Hebrew or Russian," Albritton said. "If they are speeding, and they may be used to driving on the autobahn, the trooper doesn't know if they have a valid license."

Albritton said he would work quickly in the current session to rework the law.

"Clearly, there was no negative intent," he said. "If I messed something up, I am man enough to fix it."

According to Visit Florida, about 9.3 million foreigners visited the state in 2011, 3.3 million of them from Canada. That compared to 75 million tourists from other U.S. states.

The average U.S. tourist stayed five nights. All foreigners averaged 11 nights. The average Canadian stayed 18.

That year, tourism brought in $4 billion in sales taxes.

Thursday's flap over driver's licenses even fueled internal resentments north of the border, with some English-speaking Canadians figuring that Florida was targeting Canada's French-speaking population.

"This could have been averted if only the Quebec government chose to make (driver's license's) a bilingual document with BOTH official languages," someone named Alex in Montreal posted sarcastically on the CA-TV website. "But God forbid — that would be so anti-Quebec."

Albritton chuckled at that comment.

"Help is on the way," he said. "Let's not start a trade war or a civil war over driver's licenses."