Lawmakers seek English-only drivers’ tests
At least seven state legislatures consider bills to require driver's license tests to be given only in English

By Keith Goble
state legislative editor


Out of concern for safety on their states’ roads, legislators around the nation are touting legislation intended to help ensure that drivers don’t get licenses unless they understand English.

Five states already limit licensing tests to English only. Those states are Maine, New Hampshire, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming. Efforts to adopt English-only standards for the tests have been offered in several other states.

Federal regulations already require people with Commercial Driver’s Licenses to be able to read and speak English well enough to read road signs, prepare reports, and communicate with the public and with law enforcement officials.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association is encouraged by the increased effort in states to make sure potential truckers can communicate in English.

Rick Craig, OOIDA’s director of regulatory affairs, said that making the English requirement standard for both portions of the test is vital and all states should be doing it.

“It’s the only way you’re really going to know for sure” that applicants can communicate in English, he said.

Following are details about the English-only legislation being pursued in several states.

The South Carolina Senate has approved a bill intended to ensure that aspiring truckers and other drivers have a firm grasp of the English language before they obtain their licenses to drive.

Sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, the bill would require all state agencies and local governments to “offer all services, publications, printed, audio, and video materials, and tests in an English-only format” unless directed otherwise by federal laws or regulations.

A separate effort in the Senate would apply the requirement solely to the Department of Motor Vehicles. The DMV now offers tests in German, French and Spanish.

Opponents say there are no studies that suggest English proficiency makes better drivers. Others say there are more pressing issues to address in South Carolina.

Advocates for the English standard say it’s a matter of safety. As of press time, McConnell’s bill had moved to the House for further consideration.

If an Alabama state lawmaker gets his way, the state’s driver’s license test would be offered only in English. As of early February, Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, was saying he planned to introduce legislation that would end the state’s practice of offering the exams in 14 languages.

The legislation would implement a state constitutional amendment approved in 1990 that made English the official language in Alabama. Beason said it also would improve safety on the state’s roadways, pointing out that road signs are in English.

Opponents say the proposal sends the wrong message when the state is trying to recruit business from foreign countries.

A bill in the Missouri House would call for trucker-hopefuls to prove they have a firm grasp of the English language to obtain a commercial driver’s license.

House Transportation Chairman Neal St. Onge, R-Ballwin, offered the measure that would require the written test to be offered only in English. It would also require license applicants to demonstrate the ability to understand traffic signs and signals written in English. They would be prohibited from using interpreters or translators while taking the test.

St. Onge said he introduced the bill because he is concerned that people are allowed to drive trucks on Missouri roads without a command of the English language. The bill was awaiting assignment to committee at press time.

In New Hampshire, a bill in the Senate Transportation and Interstate Cooperation Committee is intended to strengthen the state’s existing rules. The bill would make it clear that aspiring truck drivers must have a firm grasp of the English language before they obtain licenses to drive in the state.

Sponsored by Sen. John Barnes Jr., R-Raymond, the bill would add the same requirements regarding English comprehension to New Hampshire law that are already included in federal regulations regarding CDLs. The bill received consideration by the committee during a January hearing.

An Ohio state representative wants to make it more difficult to obtain a license to drive truck in the Buckeye State. Rep. William Batchelder, R-Medina, has offered legislation that would require the state’s CDL test to be given entirely in English only.

Since fall 2007, Ohio has allowed the written part of the test to be given in Spanish. Interpreters are allowed to assist applicants who don’t speak English. However, the driving portion of the test is required to be English-only.

Batchelder said the bill is about more than being able to speak English.

“When you have truck drivers who do not speak or understand English, safety concerns increase as it is difficult for them to read and understand road signs in English,” he said in a written statement.

The bill is in the House Infrastructure, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs Committee.

A legislative effort in Tennessee is intended to make sure wannabe truckers and other drivers have a strong grasp of the English language. Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, introduced the bill, which would require all written driver’s license examinations in the state to be given in English only.

Tennessee law now allows the written part of the test to be given in Spanish. Doing away with the Spanish option, according to a fiscal analysis on the bill, would save the state $66,500 annually in printing costs. The bill is in the Senate Transportation Committee.

Safety concerns were cited by a Virginia lawmaker who has introduced legislation intended to help ensure that people issued driver’s licenses understand English.

Delegate Daniel Marshall III, R-Danville, offered the bill. It would require all driver’s license exams in the state to be conducted exclusively in English. It also would prohibit the Department of Motor Vehicles from supplying or permitting the use of interpreters to help applicants with the exams.

Virginia law now allows driver’s license applicants to take the written and driving portions of the exam in Spanish. Aspiring truckers and motorists also are allowed to use interpreters. They are even allowed to provide their own interpreters if the DMV can’t provide someone who speaks their language. Applicants can also have the test read to them if they can speak English, but are unable to read or write.

Another House bill in Virginia would go one step further to encourage immigrants to learn English. Sponsored by Delegate Scott Lingamfelter, R-Woodbridge, the bill would require all government-written communication, including Web sites and official documents, to be in English.

Exceptions would be made for court and police documents, health care materials and schools.

At press time, both bills were in the House Rules Committee with a deadline looming. LL