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International Driver’s License

Written by Joe Petrocelli

The International Driver’s License is a scam that has claimed many victims—civilians and law enforcement officers alike. Like any good scam, there is a slim basis of truth in the outrageous claims. Experienced law enforcement officers should know that there is no such thing as an International Driver’s License.

The scam is rooted in Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on Road Traffic (1949). The United States and many other nations entered into a treaty allowing residents of one country to drive in another country using the driving privileges of the native country.

It seemed to make sense instead of forcing tourists and travelers to obtain a driver’s license in every country they visited. The treaty recognized that most law officers in the world could not read every other language in the world so they developed a translation booklet.

The translation document, called the International Driving Permit (IDP), provides a translation of the native driver’s license in 10 different languages (The 5 official United Nations languages: English, French, Spanish, Russian, and Chinese plus German, Arabic, Italian, Portuguese, and Scandinavian languages). The International Driving Permit was designed to help officers in one country recognize a person’s lawful driving status in another country.

A key element of the International Driving Permit is the operator’s valid status in his native country. The permit could not be used in lieu of a valid driver’s license. It is merely a translation of one’s existing privileges. The permit is not a stand alone document; it is a supplement to a legal driver’s license. A person can drive with his license and no IDP, but not with an IDP and no driver’s license. One can not obtain an International Driving Permit without a valid driver’s license.

The United States Department of State authorizes certain agencies to issues International Driving Permits. Currently, the American Automobile Association (AAA) and the American Automobile Touring Alliance are the only officially sanctioned distributors of IDPs in the United States. This does not mean that there are not many different organizations of dubious origin offering documents similar to IDPs. Enter “International Driver’s License” into any computer search engine and several companies offering international driving documents will appear.

These companies would seem legitimate to the untrained eye. They start the ads with truthful information about the UN Convention on Road Traffic. They point out the many benefits of having a document police can read. They explain that many countries prefer that you carry an international driving document. They use International Driving Permit and International Driver’s License interchangeably though they are talking about two entirely different entities.

They speak in the legality of the International Driving Permit then offer an International Driver’s License. For a fee usually between $25 and $50, these companies will gladly forward an “International Driver’s License.” There is no driver’s test and there is no attempt to verify any of the information the customer provides.

In researching this article, I submitted the required payment and a passport size picture to an Internet company. Within three weeks, the company provided an official International Driver’s License. The license contained the (obviously unverified) information provided. The document contained a false last name, false date of birth, false weight, false eye color, and a false country of birth.

Law enforcement officers will encounter these bogus documents in two forms. The first is a 3.5” by 2” plastic card. Pertinent information appears on the front; usually a picture appears on the left side of the document. A list of restrictions appears on the reverse side. The other common form is a passport style book. This 6” by 4” booklet usually has six to eight pages. Similar to a legitimate passport the same information appears on different pages in different languages. A photo usually appears on the inside of the front or rear cover.

Whatever the format, astute officers must be aware that these international driving documents are only valid if they accompany a valid driver’s license. In absence of a valid driver’s license, officers should be very skeptical about the veracity of the information contained on these bogus International Driver’s Licenses.

Detective Joseph Petrocelli has been in law enforcement for 18 years and currently serves as the training coordinator for the Passaic County, NJ Sheriff’s Department. He is the co-author of Anatomy of a Motor Vehicle Stop. He may be reached at joepetro2003@hotmail.com.

Published in Law and Order, Jan 2006

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