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Game over for paper driving licences


Saturday 19 January 2013

In America, driving certification is a state issue. In practice, this can mean that the driving licences (or ‘drivers licenses', as we call them) can end up looking remarkably different from one another.

While the federal government does set some basic requirements for what information a state has to put on a licence, the designs can differ dramatically. Some states choose to design quite elaborate licences with very complicated security features - for reasons of state pride as well as an effort to combat forgery. But other states have very simple licences. The placement of information can be anwhere on either side of the licence, creating an often difficult challenge for bartenders to find the date of birth for different states, when they are checking to see if someone is of drinking age.

I remember in college those of us from Northeast states, where licences tend to be quite intricate and contain lots of information, would gently tease our friends from other states who we thought had licences that looked like they had come from a third world country. Not coincidentally, those states with simple licences without holograms were the most frequently chosen for the creation of fake IDs.

But none of those US licences compares to some I have seen in Europe. I was actually quite shocked when I moved to Europe and my friends showed me their driving licences. They can be huge – about the size of a passport – and made of paper. Some of them don't even have a photo. Some American states may have simple licences, but they are all credit-card sized. These paper ones aren't exactly easy to fit in a wallet. Even stranger to me as an American, many European driving licences are issued for life! In the US they have to be renewed every six years.

Perhaps this is because Europeans don't really need to keep their driving licences in their wallet, because (on the continent at least) they have national IDs. Because we have no national ID in the US, driving licences are the de-facto form of ID for everything from buying alcohol to opening a bank account. You need it all the time, not just for driving. Since (most) Europeans have national IDs to use for these purposes, they can leave their very large driving licences in their car.

However the days of paper licences for life are now over. As of today, all EU member states must issue credit-card-sized plastic licences. And they must expire in, at the most, 15 years. Interestingly, the new rules will actually standardise EU licences in a far stricter way than the US federal government standardises state drivers licences. However people with the lifetime paper licences don't have to exchange them just yet. They can continue using their existing licence until 2033.

The new EU rules were not put into place in order to make the cards more convenient by fitting into a wallet, although this will be a nice byproduct. The directive, which was passed in 2006 but didn't fully enter force until today (19 January), has two aims – to make licences easily readable across the EU and to reduce the ease of making fake documents with paper licences.

Under EU law a member state's driving licence must be recognised by all other member states. But because driving licences have differed so greatly, law enforcement officers have had to carry a large reference book with details on other countries' licences. In reality, few actually carry this book. 

The new EU standards introduce a system of numbers for information fields (name or expiry date for example) and letters for vehicle categories. This is designed to make the licences easily readable for law enforcement officers even if they don't speak the language of the licence. Though the language will differ, the placement of information and design of the licences must be the same in every EU country. If member states want to add some defining national characteristic, the most they can do is add a small national symbol in a specific spot on the licence. For example, Ireland has chosen to insert a harp in this spot. By contrast, US states are mostly free to design their licences however they want in terms of layout.

There is a similar federal requirement for states to recognise other state licences in the US – but with one interesting difference. When you move from one US state to another, you can only use the licence from your old state for a limited period, usually just a few months.  In the EU, you can use your old licence in a new member state for as long as it is valid – which as I mentioned, in some cases is eternity.

This strikes me as rather strange, given that penalty points on a licence cannot transfer from one country to another. So if I was using a UK licence to drive in Belgium, Belgium would be unable to assign any penalty points to my licence. And since the UK used to issue licences for life, I could drive on a British licence in Belgium until I die!

The directive taking effect today goes some way to address so called “licence tourism”, where someone who has had their licence revoked in one member state can just go get one in another member state. A new database will be created so driving authorities can share information and find out if a person has been denied a licence in another member state (US states have a similar system).

A quick survey of my expat friends in Brussels reveals that few have exchanged their home country driving licence for a Belgian licence, even though some of them haven't lived in their home country for many years. To be fair, that's surely also true of my friends in New York City who have come from other states.

Meanwhile, here in Belgium, it looks like we're going to have to wait some time to get these fancy new plastic licences. The Commission is already aware that Belgium will not be compliant as of today - they are still issuing paper licences. France and Cyprus are also facing delays, but say they will have the new licences ready within six months.

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