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New Florida law makes many foreign tourists illegal drivers

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - State officials in Florida plan to amend a new state law that has turned thousands of unwitting foreign tourists into illegal drivers and may make it hard for them to collect insurance claims if they get in auto accidents while visiting the state.

"We will work with the legislature to amend the law this year so it does not burden international visitors to our state, who make up an important part of our tourism industry," a spokesman for Governor Rick Scott wrote in a statement to Reuters on Tuesday,

The law, which went into effect largely unnoticed on January 1, requires foreign drivers to have an international driver's permit from their home country.

The intent was to make sure all drivers in Florida held a license translated into English, but many frequent visitors from Canada, England and other English-speaking countries have visited the state without realizing they needed the documentation.

The Canadian Automobile Association is warning members that insurers may not pay claims for any accident they have while driving without an international drivers permit in Florida.

"Every single time someone drives without an IDP, it's a risk," said Kristine Simpson, public relations manager for the CAA in Ottawa, which sounded the alarm last week.

Florida's state highway police have said they would not enforce the law and encouraged local law enforcement agencies to follow suit, citing a possible conflict with an international treaty, the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic.

But the law remains on the books.

Visit Florida, the state's tourism agency, posted an article on its website on Tuesday warning foreign travelers that they need an international driver's permit, and that the law's impact on their personal auto insurance and ability to rent a car is "uncertain."

International travelers accounted for nearly 15 percent of Florida's 87.3 million visitors in 2011. Canada tops the list of foreign visitors at 3.3 million, followed by 1.5 million Brazilian and 1.3 million British tourists.

The CAA's Simpson said it could take until summer before legislative action takes effect. The auto club in the past week issued more than 20,000 international drivers permits to Canadians who jammed its offices after learning about the new law, Simpson added.

CAA government relations director Ian Jack estimated more than a million Canadian snowbirds are already in Florida for the January-to-March season, and many are turning to rush mail delivery to obtain a permit.

Jack described the reaction of Canadians as "stupified, frustrated and concerned."

Paula Rivera, public affairs manager for the Hertz Corp rental car company, told Reuters the company would continue to rent cars in Florida to foreign visitors who do not hold international drivers permits while "the law is on hold."

Customers who choose to purchase auto insurance from Hertz will be covered despite any implications of the law, she said. For customers who rely on their personal auto insurance to cover them in the rental car, Rivera said, the impact of the Florida law "is one of those additional questions you need to ask your insurance company prior to renting a car."

(Editing by Tom Brown and David Gregorio)

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