States address English-only license testing

| 4/19/2011

State lawmakers around the country continue to discuss efforts to ensure that aspiring drivers have a firm grasp of the English language before they obtain their licenses to drive.

Supporters say they are concerned that people are allowed to drive on roads without a command of the English language. They say it’s a matter of safety.

Another argument in favor of outlawing tests in various languages is concern about lawsuits alleging a state favors one language over another.

Opponents say there are no studies that suggest English proficiency makes better drivers. They also note that legislative efforts do not apply to illiterate residents.

There are nine states that already limit licensing tests to English only. In contrast, five states offer their tests in at least 17 languages. California leads the nation with 32 language offerings.

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 voted 102-56 to advance to the Senate a bill that would apply the same rule for all other drivers who want to be licensed in the state.

HB167 would require both portions of the driver’s examinations – written test and skill test – 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.

According to a fiscal note on the bill, the state’s highway fund would save $52,580 in the coming fiscal year by doing away with the printed tests in 11 languages and computerized versions in seven languages.

A similar effort in the House Transportation Committee – HB488 – includes a $15 testing fee that would increase to $30 and then $45 for people that repeatedly fail the test.

According to a fiscal note on the bill, the state would receive about $2 million a year with the fee in place. The fees would be divided between the Missouri Highway Patrol, the DARE drug awareness program, school districts with driver’s education programs, and a Fire Investigator’s Fund.

A bill in the state Senate would narrow the language options on the state’s written portion of the driver’s license exam, including commercial licenses, from four to one. Tennessee now permits exams to be conducted in English, Japanese, Korean and Spanish.

“I believe we need to offer the driver’s test either in all 52 languages, so as not to discriminate against any residents, or offer it only in the native language of our country,” Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, wrote on his website. “It will be much less costly to offer the test only in English.”

The bill – SB10 – would require all portions of the exam to be administered in English. It has been deferred from consideration until lawmakers return to the capitol in 2012.

A House bill would require English-only driver’s tests for all license applicants. Currently, testing for a standard vehicle license is available in English and Spanish. CDL’s for intrastate haulers are also available in both languages.

Sponsored by Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt, R-Lexington, the bill – HB615 – is in the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee.

Gov. Gary Herbert put his signature on a bill to help refugees attain their driver’s licenses.

Effective July 1, refugees legally in the U.S. will be provided a translator to help them take their first license test, which will be provided in English. Intended to help new refugees become self-sufficient by getting a four-year license, the new law prohibits use of a translator when they renew.

“The ability to drive and get around is critical for employment and self-sufficiency. For the refugee community, language has become a barrier to receiving a driver’s license,” Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City, told lawmakers during discussion on the bill.

Illegal immigrants attempting to gain a license are not affected by the change. They must still pass the test in English without the aid of a translator.

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