By Michael Pollick and Justine Griffin, Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Just because a law isn’t being enforced doesn’t mean it can’t still bite you — in the wallet, anyway.
In the international driver’s license furor now straining relations between the Sunshine State and the Great North, insurance appears to be the rub.
Though a chastened Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles said that it would not enforce a law approved by state legislators last year requiring that foreign drivers in Florida have an international driving permit, Canadian and American insurance experts continued to warn snowbird drivers without the permit that they are risking a big financial hit in case of an accident.
As a function of the way their country handles insurance, the vast majority of Canadians tooling around Florida this winter season have the same basic policy — Ontario Automobile Policy 1 or similarly named coverage, depending on the province where it was issued.
A clause in that policy could allow a carrier to balk on a claim from a driver who has no international permit: “The insured shall not drive or operate or permit any other person to drive or operate the automobile unless the insured or other person is authorized by law to drive or operate it.”
The Insurance Bureau of Canada on Friday was strongly discouraging “any insurer from using the amended Florida Statute as a reason to deny coverage on the basis that the non-resident driver was not authorized to operate a motor vehicle in the State of Florida.”
At the same time, though, the insurance group’s spokesman, Pete Karageorgos, was appearing on a Toronto-area TV show to warn snowbirds to get the permits in order to play it safe on their trip south.
Reached minutes before that appearance on “Square Off,” Karageorgos told the Herald-Tribune that Ontario 1 clearly states that drivers “have got to be authorized by law. So that is a statutory provision an insurer may use to deny a claim.”
A similar warning came from the Financial Services Commission of Ontario.
“You must be authorized to drive in whatever location you are driving in,” said commission spokeswoman Kristen Rose. “If you’re not, claims may be denied.”
Meanwhile, those who want to make sure Canadians keep their trips on track are pointing to the Florida highway department’s statement on Valentine’s Day as a reason to consider all well.
“Whether you fly or drive to Florida, visitors can be assured that the Sunshine State is doing business as usual,” it reads. The Florida Highway Patrol “will defer enforcement of a law that requires visitors from outside the United States to have an International Driving Permit to drive lawfully in Florida.”
Pointing to the statement, Avis Budget Group spokesman John Barrows said the permit issue was moot.
“The state of Florida has reversed its position and so it’s business as usual for Avis and Budget,” Barrows said in an email. “International customers can continue to rent using their valid native country driver’s license just as before.”
But some American insurance experts weren’t so sure.
“I wouldn’t say it is a moot point,” said Jessica Brady, spokeswoman for Tampa-based AAA Auto Club Group. “The temporary fix is Highway Safety saying they won’t enforce it, but that does not mean the issue is resolved.”
Canadians seeking to comply with the new law have been streaming into Canadian offices that provide the international driving permit.
The forms are available online and in all AAA offices in the United States, said Kristine Simpson, a spokeswoman for the automobile organization’s Canadian counterpart, the CAA.
But the trick is that all the forms filled out by Canadians already residing or traveling in Florida must be mailed or sent by courier to the CAA to be processed.
That will take a week, possibly two.
“We are trying to do them as fast as we can,” said Simpson, who recommended using a courier service to send the completed forms and the Canadian $25 application fee to the CAA.
Her advice is not likely to mollify many Canadians who were caught off guard this week by the rules, which quietly went into effect on Jan. 1.
In Venice, winter residents John and Terry Blahut of Mississaugua, Ontario, were shocked to read in the Herald-Tribune Friday of the insurance risk they have been running since January.
“We feel that because of the repercussions of this legislation, we are not valued,” Terry Blahut said.
The couple bought a condominium in Venice in 2000 and have been regular winter visitors each year since.
“If I were a seasonal renter, I wouldn’t come back to Florida,” Terry Blahut said.
It was not just Canadians confused by the messages emanating from Florida and Canada regarding their retreat to southern warmth.
Olivia Allder renews her temporary six-month Florida driver’s license every year when she returns to Sarasota from her home in the United Kingdom. With her U.K. license, she has never had issues driving around Sarasota County during her stay in Florida.
But the uproar over the international driver’s permit left her stumped just weeks before she is scheduled to leave for Florida’s Gulf Coast.
“Will the sheriff’s office honor U.K. licenses in the same way as they have done the Canadian ones?” she asked.
She likely doesn’t have to worry about being arrested, but she will have to be guided by her own insurance policy or the one she gets from her rental car company regarding her potential insurance risk.
NO SIMPLE SOLUTIONS
Local and state tourism are unhappy about this cloud of uncertainty just as they are trying to capitalize on the biggest boost for tourism-related businesses of the year, the so-called high season.
“The statute wasn’t on our radar screen because the language suggested it had nothing to do with tourism,” said Kathy Torian, a spokeswoman for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism agency. “We can’t really guess how many of our 14 million annual visitors this will affect if it will be enforced, but it’s possible many of those visitors will decide to go somewhere else.”
At least one Southwest Florida legislator said there is no question the requirements of the law will be deferred, but fixing the offending law is more complicated.
To revise the particular sentences addressing the international driving permit, legislators are likely to pass a “glitch bill” when they reconvene this spring, said state Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, chairwoman of the senate’s tourism and commerce committee.
But, based on legislative cycles, that still means no official fix until July.
“It is ridiculous,” Detert said of the law. “I hope I didn’t vote for it.”