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Few options for US drivers in Germany whose US licenses expired

An instructor with the Opp driving school, left, and a student, right, finish training Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015, in Kaiserlautern, Germany. The U.S. and Germany are in dispute over whether a USAREUR license is valid if the bearer's U.S. state license has expired. Getting a German license may not be an option.

JOSHUA L. DEMOTTS/STARS AND STRIPES

By JENNIFER SVAN AND JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 16, 2015

Americans in the crosshairs of a dispute between the U.S. and Germany over a change in driving rules face few options now that an expired U.S. license means it’s illegal for them to drive in some German states.

So far, military officials don’t have a ready solution either since the U.S. command seems to have been caught off guard by the sudden change in policy.

While many U.S. states grant automatic license renewal to active duty members while they’re living outside that state, such leniency is rare for civilians. Requirements for renewing a driver’s license vary by state and often include multiple proofs of residency, such as utility bills and bank statements. Those rules put some Defense Department civilians who have spent long careers overseas in a difficult spot.

Michael Spears, 64, a civilian at Ramstein Air Base, who has been in Germany for 25 years,no longer owns property in Texas.

“Unless I show residency in Texas, I cannot renew it,” he said an employee from Texas’ motor vehicle office told him.

An untold number of other civilians are in the same position.

“It’s all very frustrating,” said Todd, a Defense Department contractor in the Kaisersalutern area who asked that his last name be withheld for fear of being targeted by German police.

Todd’s Florida license expired four years ago and he hasn’t been back to his home state in years. Now, he said, he will likely have to make an unplanned trip to get a new license, but establishing residency remains a problem.

In Florida, two pieces of evidence are needed to establish proof of residency. He already has one: a voter registration card.

“My mom still lives in Florida,” said Todd, saying that having his name added to her bank account or utility bills could offer a solution.

In the meantime, Todd, whose work requires him to drive across Germany and other parts of Europe, said he has no choice but to keep on driving, even if the Germans say he is breaking the law.

“If I get caught I’ll have to deal with it,” Todd said.

German law enforcement officials in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate have warned that violators could have their cars impounded or towed and could face fines or even confinement for repeat offenses.

While several other German states have indicated that they also will impose the new license policy, there have been no signs yet of enforcement outside Rhineland-Palatinate, according to U.S. Army Europe.

USAREUR requires a valid stateside license when a member of the military community first applies for a USAREUR license, but generally has not asked to see a valid stateside license for renewal.

On Thursday, USAREUR warned personnel without a current stateside driver’s license to avoid driving on public roads while the U.S. seeks to clarify with Germany what USAREUR says is a new policy governing driving rules in the country.

The German Foreign Ministry, however, said the decision to require valid stateside licenses in conjunction with a USAREUR license was taken in Spring 2013 and was communicated to the U.S. Embassy at that time.

U.S. military and diplomatic officials have so far not said if they were informed about the change in 2013, and if so, why the issue is only now coming to light.

“The U.S. Diplomatic Mission to Germany prefers not to make public diplomatic correspondence,” Jackie McKennan, the embassy spokeswoman, said in a statement.

USAREUR said the dispute over the new policy is being negotiated at the diplomatic level.

Spears asked, if it’s true the U.S. was notified of the changes in 2013, “why wasn’t anything put out since then?”

An auto mechanic at Ramstein, Spears said that about half his shop of 14 employees is in the same boat as he. Carpooling isn’t an option, with employees scattered all over the Kaiserslautern area.

“What am I going to do? That’s my biggest concern,” he said. “I can’t stop driving, because I’ve got to go to work.”

Meanwhile, it remains unclear whether obtaining a German license is a viable alternative to flying back to the States to renew a U.S. license.

The supplement to the U.S. Status of Forces Agreement states such an option should be possible with force approval.

However, in practice, that may not be so.

“We tell people to check with the locals first,” said Thomas Lorenzini, registrar at the U.S. Army Europe Registry of Motor Vehicles. Some jurisdictions have in the past refused to give licenses to U.S. personnel.

“Some places have said you have to be separating from the service or they won’t give it. So people really need to check first with their town,” Lorenzini said.

Employees at city driver licensing offices in two German states, Rhineland-Palatinate and Hessen, said Friday that Americans who are in Germany under the SOFA cannot obtain a German driver’s license because they are not registered as residents.

And, procuring a German license can be costly in terms of time and money.

Some states have a reciprocal agreement with Germany, which exempts drivers from theoretical and behind-the-wheel lessons, but that requires a valid stateside license, an official with the Kaiserslautern motor vehicles department said.

The full training costs at least 1,500 euros and includes a first-aid course, a vision test and at least 12 hours of on-road training, said Ilse Weber a employee at a Kaiserslautern driving school.

Military officials said Friday they don’t yet know how many people are in violation of the law. The U.S. military community in Germany is comprised of about 90,000 active duty, civilian personnel and family members.

“At this level, we haven’t got a lot of calls where people are in that position,” said Capt. Sheryll Klinkel, a spokeswoman for U.S. Air Forces in Europe — U.S. Air Forces Africa at Ramstein.

The command is urging airmen and civilian employees to ensure their stateside licenses are current, and if not, check state requirements to see if one can renew online or get an extension, Klinkel said.

“In the worst case, look at other options for transportation,” she said. “Try to find alternate ways to work, such as carpooling or having a spouse drive or getting a German’s driver’s license.”

Officials recommend that people check with the base legal office if they have specific questions about whether they’re compliant, said 2nd Lt. Clay Lancaster, spokesman with the 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein. “If they’re invalid according to the German government, get compliant with the German law as it stands now,” he said.

Thirty-six states extend automatic renewal to military members while serving on active duty outside that particular state. However, a German police official said he was unaware of such extensions and did not know if that would be recognized under German law.

Some states allow drivers to renew their licenses online, as long as they haven’t yet expired or have only been expired for a certain period.

One state that offers to renew expired licenses for both active duty troops, DOD civilians, contractors and dependents is Delaware, so long as official orders show the expiration occurred while on assignment overseas.

Reporter Marcus Klockener contributed to this report.
svan.jennifer@stripes.com
vandiver.john@stripes.com

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