States pursue English-only driver testing requirement

| 4/2/2010

Multiple states have taken on the task this year of trying to ensure that aspiring truckers and other drivers have a firm grasp of the English language before they obtain their licenses to drive.

At least nine states already limit licensing tests to English only. Efforts on the move in the Georgia, Tennessee and Missouri statehouses would add those states to the list.

The Georgia Senate voted 39-11 Tuesday, March 30, to approve a bill that would make English the only language for a driving test. Currently, the exam is available in 13 languages.

The bill – SB67 – would make the driver’s exam available only in English to individuals who intend to be permanent residents of the state. An exemption would be allowed for anyone seeking a temporary license.

Critics point out that the bill doesn’t apply to illiterate Georgia residents. They also say the bill is hostile to immigrants and could hurt economic development in the state.

Supporters counter that it’s a matter of public safety. Drivers should be able to read directional and warning signs. They doubt it would have any effect on the state’s economy.

The bill now heads back to the House for final approval before it is cleared to move to Gov. Sonny Perdue’s desk.

The state’s driver’s license exam is offered in four languages. Legislation on the move in Tennessee would restrict all testing to English.

Originally the bill – HB262/SB63 – called for the written portion of the test to be offered solely in English, but it now requires all portions of the exam to be administered in English.

Exceptions would be made for persons legally authorized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to be in the country for a “specific purpose.”

House lawmakers have approved a related effort – HB2685– to give private businesses the right to allow only English to be spoken in the workplace. Opponents say it’s unnecessary because federal law already permits businesses to dictate language requirements.

Aspiring truck drivers in Missouri already are required to prove they have a firm grasp of the English language to obtain a license to get behind the wheel of a big rig. The House International Trade and Immigration Committee has advanced a bill that would apply the same rule for all other drivers who want to be licensed in the state. The bill is HB1231.

Both portions of the driver’s examinations – written test and skill test – would be required to be administered only in English. Currently, it is available in 12 languages.

Applicants’ ability to understand traffic signs and signals written in English also would be required. They would be prohibited from using translators while taking the tests.

Rep. Cynthia Davis, R-O’Fallon, says it’s a commonsense change.

“Everybody who comes to America knows ahead of time that we are an English-speaking country, and they expect to learn our language,” Davis wrote in a newsletter.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor

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