Confusion reigns in Germany driver's license issue
By JENNIFER H. SVAN AND MARCUS KLOECKNER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 4, 2015
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Americans in Germany without a current stateside driver’s license scrambling to avoid penalties for driving illegally are encountering conflicting information from local authorities.
It’s been about three weeks since U.S. Army Europe confirmed that some German states were no longer recognizing military-issued driver’s licenses if the bearer did not possess a valid stateside license.
The change has caused confusion across the board, from the members of the U.S. military community trying to come into compliance to the German authorities responsible for administering and enforcing the new policy.
Now the German states have appealed to the Transportation Ministry for clarity.
“We are currently working on a solution to the problem and on clarifying the still-open questions,” the ministry said in a statement Wednesday. The goal is also “to achieve a unified approach among the states.”
It was not clear, however, how that would affect discussions between the U.S. and Germany regarding their divergent interpretations of what constitutes acceptable documentation to drive in Germany under the German supplement to the Status of Forces Agreement. USAREUR maintains that Germany has unilaterally changed its interpretation of the SOFA supplement and argues that any such changes must be agreed by all parties concerned following consultation.
In an exchange of letters in 1993, the year the supplementary agreement was negotiated, the German government said it would interpret Article 9 to mean an expired U.S. state license in conjunction with a current USAREUR-issued “Certificate of License” would be considered a “valid basis” to drive a USAREUR-plated car, USAREUR officials have said.
“We still think our interpretation is the correct one,” Hilde Patton, a USAREUR spokeswoman, said. “That is what we are discussing right now.”
But even USAREUR seems to contradict its own policy. The 2010 USAREUR Drivers Handbook and Examination Manual for Germany reads in part: “To be valid, licenses must be signed in black or blue ink and carried with a valid identification card and a valid country or State license.”
Though the NATO SOFA agreement applies to all NATO foreign forces stationed in Germany, a member of Canadian Forces at Geilenkirchen NATO Air Base said Canadian Forces have not been informed of any changes to their drivers’ license rules in Germany.
“We’ve heard rumblings of it from Ramstein,” said transport NCO Sgt. Mike Thibodeau, referring to the U.S. air base where some Canadians are stationed. “As long as we have a valid license from our office, that was OK,” he said.
Thibodeau added that Canadian Forces members are required to maintain a valid license from their home province, to help ease their transition back to Canada. “Everyone pretty much has it already,” he said.
Meanwhile, Americans in Germany without a current stateside license are trying to figure out what options they have.
It’s not known how many Americans have been driving with an expired stateside license, but USAREUR is advising them to renew the license as soon as possible and, in the interim, to stay off the road until the dispute has been resolved.
Some people have booked hasty trips back to the States to renew licenses they cannot renew online. But others are finding that is not an easy option, especially if they have lived many years overseas and no longer have sufficient documentation to prove residency in the state where their licenses were issued.
Some never had a stateside license, having gone through driver training that was provided by USAREUR prior to the SOFA supplement coming into force in 1998. According to legal experts, those drivers should be entitled to get a German license.
But German licensing offices have been inconsistent on that issue.
Brigitte, a German whose husband is a civilian Defense Department employee without a stateside license, was told by an official at the Rheinland-Pfalz Interior Ministry that he could get a German license. He would need to provide documentation that he got his USAREUR license before 1998, as well as a translated copy of his driving record, which was obtained from USAREUR’s registry of motor vehicles for a $25 fee.
Brigitte, whose husband has been paying 17 euro for taxi rides to get to work when Brigitte can’t drive him, submitted the paperwork to the Kaiserslautern county driver’s licensing office. But an employee there said she knew nothing about it.
“She said it was ‘ridiculous that they (the ministry) would tell a citizen more than they tell us,’” Brigitte said she was told.
Ultimately, Brigitte’s request ended back at the Interior Ministry, which this time sided with county licensing officials, Brigitte said. She asked that her last name not be used because she’s continuing her quest through other channels. In an email, which Brigitte provided to Stars and Stripes, the Interior Ministry official said the ministry was receiving numerous similar requests from members of the U.S. military community. As this was clearly a nationwide problem, it was up to federal authorities and the U.S. to resolve, the official wrote.
Officials in the neighboring state of Hessen apparently can’t agree either.
In Wiesbaden, Americans with a USAREUR driving certificate dated prior to 1998 can get a German driver’s license with the requisite documentation, certifying their eligibility, said Ulrike Jung from the city’s department of drivers’ licenses.
But officials in other towns in Hessen have flatly refused such requests.
Those willing to roll the dice and drive without a valid stateside license while awaiting a ruling from the federal level face large fines — up to 600 euro or more — if caught.
Neither German nor American authorities could say how many American drivers have been cited for not having a valid stateside license since the issue came to light.
In Kaiserslautern — home to the largest U.S. military community overseas of roughly 50,000 — local police said they’ve stopped about 15 Americans with expired stateside licenses since they began enforcing the new policy in early November, said Kaiserslautern police officer Michael Krauss.
Krauss and colleague Andreas Münchschwander spoke to Stars and Stripes during a random traffic checkpoint conducted in a parking lot on a main thoroughfare outside Kleber Kaserne in Kaiserslautern last week. Two Americans, both active-duty, were stopped; their paperwork was up to date.
Police are not targeting Americans, but if they are stopped during a random traffic check, police have to enforce the policy, Krauss said.
USAREUR has not altered its licensing policies in response to the dispute. While Americans need a current stateside license to obtain an initial “U.S. Forces Certificate of License,” they don’t have to show a stateside license to renew it.
However, USAREUR has begun noting the expiration date of drivers’ stateside licenses when they first apply for a military-issued one, Patton said. The dates will go into a database but for what purpose is unclear. “We just think it is now something that should be noted,” Patton said.
Those without a valid stateside license face a predicament with no easy answer.
Army civilian Jordan Lessire, 33, has a California license that expires this month. He submitted paperwork for renewal using his sister’s old address, since he no longer has residency there. He’ll have to wait weeks for a new license — if California even renews it, he said.
When his license expires, he faces a dilemma that countless Americans caught up in the current dispute find themselves in: “Do I show up to work with the risk of getting into huge amounts of trouble? If I do get in trouble, is my chain of command going to back me up?”