U.S. Army Europe is cautioning personnel without a currently valid stateside driver's license to avoid driving on public roads while the U.S. seeks to clarify a dispute with Germany over a new policy governing driving rules in the country.
However, the German Foreign Ministry made clear in a statement that it did not perceive there to be a dispute, saying the decision to require a valid stateside license in conjunction with a USAREUR license was made two years ago and that U.S. authorities were informed at the time.
A USAREUR advisory posted Thursday said the U.S. considered this a new policy and said the issue had been raised with the German government.
"This new policy is based on a recent unilateral change in interpretation of the German Supplementary Agreement to the NATO Status of Forces Agreement by host nation authorities," USAREUR said. "The U.S. Forces dispute this new interpretation, and have raised the matter via the U.S. Embassy in Berlin to the German Federal Government.
"However, U.S. Forces authorities currently have no control over the application of this policy by the German authorities," USAREUR said.
The German Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the federal government is not responsible for driving license issues, that they are determined by the country's 16 states.
"In line with the common practice of U.S. authorities toward members of the German military in the U.S., the (German) states decided in spring 2013 that valid drivers' licenses are to be required from the U.S. military. The U.S. Embassy was informed of this in spring 2013."
No one could be reached at the U.S. Embassy Thursday evening for comment.
USAREUR said this policy had only begun to be enforced recently, but cautioned USAREUR license holders that they would only be legal on the roads if in possession of both a valid U.S. license and the USAREUR license.
"If the U.S. driver's license has expired, the individual is considered to be operating the vehicle without license, regardless of a valid USAREUR license. In Germany, driving without license is a criminal offense," USAREUR said.
Drivers should renew their licenses "in a timely manner," and if the license has already expired, check with the issuing state to see if they are entitled to an automatic extension while stationed abroad, USAREUR advised.
"If the U.S. state license has expired, and an automatic extension is not available, the safest course of action is not to operate privately owned vehicles in German public traffic until the current dispute regarding the validity of expired U.S. state licenses under the applicable international agreements has been resolved with the German federal government," USAREUR said.
The extent to which the policy is being enforced is unclear. At least one DoD civilian has had his keys taken away and been ordered by German police to stay off the road or risk having his car impounded.
Herman-Josef Decker, deputy chief of police in Baumholder, said a person found to be driving without a valid license would be prohibited from driving any further and the military police would be called. The car might be impounded or towed. Punishment could involve a fine, or by repeat offense confinement, Decker said, but that would be determined by legal authorities.
USAREUR said it has been informed other German states intend to take a similar position to Rheinland-Palatinate, which so far is the only jurisdiction that has enforced the policy. But in Bavaria, Christian Simon, a police officer in Eschenbach, said a valid USAREUR license would be "totally sufficient," and that he had not heard anything about a new policy.
Among concerns raised over the new policy was whether drivers would be covered by insurance in the event of an accident, if German authorities determined the driver was not in possession of a valid driver's license.
"I don't think I want to open up that can of worms," said Michael Spears, a longtime civilian at Ramstein Air Base whose Texas license expired last year. "I've been driving over here for 35 years, with the military and as a civilian, and nobody has ever said anything. It's never been an issue until now."
Some German law enforcement officials are now warning drivers without a current U.S. license that they risk being held financially liable should they crash on the road.
"This could have far reaching effects for the driver because the insurance company can make a claim against the driver," Decker said.
However, employees at two auto insurance companies, AIG in Stuttgart and Geico in Kaiserslautern, said on Thursday that a USAREUR driver's license continues to be sufficient to secure insurance coverage.
"You are required to have USAREUR drivers license to have insurance with our company -- does not matter if you have a U.S. license or not," AIG stated in an email.
It is unclear whether a new German policy could at some point alter rules governing insurance eligibility.
U.S. personnel who have been charged for driving without a license should contact the local legal office for assistance, USAREUR said.
-- Stars and Stripes reporter Jennifer Svan contributed to this report.