Americans Relieved, Angry at Resolution of Driver's License Issue

Customers fill out paperwork to obtain a U.S. Army Europe license at Daenner Kaserne, Germany, Jan. 15, 2015. Joshua L. Demotts/Stars and Stripes
Customers fill out paperwork to obtain a U.S. Army Europe license at Daenner Kaserne, Germany, Jan. 15, 2015. Joshua L. Demotts/Stars and Stripes

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Americans caught up in the driver's license dispute between the German and U.S. governments expressed a mix of relief and anger Friday at news that Germany will again recognize the U.S. forces license without an accompanying valid stateside license.

Most frustrated were those who had spent hundreds of dollars to fly back to the U.S. to obtain or renew a stateside license. German authorities said they would recognize only a legal a combination of a valid stateside license and a U.S. Army Europe license. The new policy was enforced starting in January in the state of Rheinland-Pfalz, home to the largest U.S. military community in the country.

"The German government has put me through about six weeks of anxiety and torture, of being worried about driving and a lot of money to get this resolved," said Jennifer Sherbert, an Army civilian financial counselor in Kaiserslautern.

Sherbert estimates the ordeal cost her $1,500 in airfare: for her own trip to Virginia, to get a license, and for her father's flight to Germany, where he drove her around and stayed with her daughter while she went back to the States.

"Some people still drove, but I wasn't willing to take that chance," she said. "It was too much of a risk for me."

Had she known Germany was going to drop the new policy, she would have waited to get her license until moving back to the States.

"I'm happy for the people that did not jump on a plane and go spend their money. It caused a lot of anxiety and confusion for a lot of people," Sherbert said. "I think it could have been avoided."

U.S. military officials said Thursday that German authorities had agreed to go back to the old policy, under which Americans in the country under the Status of Forces Agreement are entitled to drive, even if their stateside licenses have expired, as long as they have valid U.S. forces licenses.

The issue centered on the interpretation of an article in a supplemental agreement to the SOFA. USAREUR disputed Germany's unilateral change to an interpretation that had been agreed to in 1993.

Last month, German police in Rheinland-Pfalz began enforcing a new interpretation. Some Americans without a valid stateside license who were pulled over during random traffic stops had their keys taken by police on the spot and faced a steep fine or possible court hearing for breaking German traffic laws. USAREUR said Thursday that cases initiated solely because of an expired license would be dropped.

So far, German officials have not said what prompted the decision to return to the initial interpretation of the SOFA supplement.

Uwe Marx from Rheinland-Pfalz's Land Office of Mobility said only that the Federal Transportation Ministry checked the driver's license issue and concluded "that everything has to go back to the way it was before the change."

His office informed all the driver's licensing offices in the state about the news, he said.

Air Force civilian Michael Spears was at the driver's license office in Kaiserslautern Thursday, applying for a German license when he heard he would no longer need one to be a legal driver.

A week ago, Rheinland-Pfalz had relaxed some of the new rules, announcing that it would allow U.S. forces license holders who went through a defunct driver training program before March 29, 1998, to apply for a German license.

Spears, who obtained his USAREUR license in 1991, was seeking a German license through that accommodation.

"I don't know how long this situation is going to last," Spears said, "until somebody else tries to put their nose in somebody else's business."

U.S. Army Europe spokeswoman Hilde Patton said the statement USAREUR released Thursday about the German policy reversal "was a quick, early announcement." The command is still seeking clarification on certain details, she said.

"We're still saying it's always a good idea to get your proper (stateside) license," she said. But she confirmed again that Americans with expired stateside licenses are now legal to drive in Germany as long as their USAREUR licenses are current.

"Right now, that's the way it looks," Patton said.

Sherbert and other Americans said a valid stateside license in hand feels like an insurance policy against capricious German bureaucrats tinkering with the policy again.

"I felt stupid, actually, when I heard the news — gosh, if I had just waited," said Michelle Irwin, an Army civilian employee in Kaiserslautern who spent 600 euros to fly back to Indiana to renew her driver's license in early February. "Then again, what if it goes back the other way? I'm covered."

Irwin expressed frustration at both the German and U.S. governments for how they handled the situation.

"I feel angry at all parties involved," Irwin said. "I had just been in the States in September of 2014. Had I known (of the policy change) I would have gotten a license then. I felt communication wasn't there from our government and I felt it was arbitrarily enforced right outside the places I had to work."

Irwin used up four days of leave to get her expired Indiana driver's license renewed. The journey there took 27 hours because of a snowstorm. A request to take administrative leave was denied.

"I'm angry all around. I want my money back and my leave," she said.

One silver lining: "Indiana normally does four-year licenses. They gave me an eight-year license" because she lives overseas, Irwin said.

Reporter Marcus Kloeckner contributed to this report.

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