Frank Klees

Frankly Speaking

Article by Frank Klees, MPP
As published in the Auroran

February 19, 2013

A Reckless Law + Irresponsible Reporting = PANIC

On my drive to Queen's Park this past Thursday morning I heard a news report that effective January 2013, all non-U.S. driver’s license holders in the state of Florida would be required to carry a valid International Drivers Permit (IDP), and that failure to carry such a permit would be considered to be driving without a license. I knew this news would create panic among hundreds of thousands of Ontarians heading south for vacation or for the winter, and wondered whether it was some kind of joke.  But as I started hearing it all over the radio dial I realized it was the real thing.

The law, passed by the Florida legislature late last year, is intended to make it easier for State Troopers to understand non-English driver’s licences. But there were no exceptions for Canadians or those from any other English-speaking jurisdiction. The consequence of driving without a valid driver’s licence carries serious implications, and it didn't take long for that to settle in as people began reacting to the news.

The media picked up on this story through a press release issued by the Canadian Automobile Association, an organization that was founded in 1913 for the purpose of furthering the interests of Canadian motorists. (My CAA membership card tells me I've been a member since 1989, and I wouldn't leave home without it).

I'm a satisfied customer of the CAA, but in this case they got it wrong!

When I got to my office, I immediately asked my staff to call the Governor's office in Florida. None of this made any sense to me. No advance warning or grace period for something that would have an effect on thousands of Canadians who winter there? One day, you’re driving in accordance with the law and the next day you’re not? Even if the state legislature was as dysfunctional as ours, they couldn’t get it this wrong – or could they?

I then instructed my staff to put calls in to every government office that would have any jurisdiction over this issue and within a matter of minutes we’d registered concerns with offices that included the Secretary of State and Florida's Lieutenant Governor.

While we waited to hear back on those calls, my staff called police departments in several major cities in the state to ask if this law was being enforced. My suspicion was that if we didn't know about it, they didn’t either. Jacksonville, Miami, Tampa, Naples...... as the calls went out, my suspicions were confirmed. No one was aware of the law and most confirmed they had no intention of enforcing it until they were instructed to do so.

I had heard enough and sent out the following message on my Twitter account:

"Florida's International Driver's Permit law will not be enforced against Ontario drivers. That's the word from my canvass of Florida police."

Within minutes, I got a call from Newstalk1010 asking me to join Jim Richards on his show to discuss the issue. It was the first of many interviews throughout the day and the beginning of the end of this panic.

So, what went wrong?

This is a classic example of bad law-making. Here's a quote from Representative Ben Albritton, who sponsored the bill...." I work hard to understand bills and their unintended consequences. This one I just missed. I want to tell the people in Canada I am sorry."

It’s also a text book example of irresponsible reporting on the part of the CAA and the panic that can ensue when far-reaching issues aren’t dealt with effectively. The CAA should have gone to the source – like we did – to confirm the facts before sparking a media frenzy with an irresponsible press release. It’s worth noting too that the CAA is the only issuer of the IDP in Canada, and charges $25 for the service. It’s hard to know whether that may have clouded the judgment of those in charge there, but interestingly its website still encourages drivers to buy one even though refunds are being offered to anyone who purchased one during last Thursday's frenzy.

And while it was gratifying that my staff and I were able to get to the bottom of this on behalf of my constituents, and the thousands of Canadian snowbirds who were justifiably concerned, I had to wonder where the Ontario Government was while people were scrambling. It was radio silence on their end.

So what becomes of this reckless law ? It will be repealed in Florida's next legislative session.