States pursue English-only license testing

| 2/4/2011

Efforts to ensure that aspiring drivers have a firm grasp of the English language before they obtain their licenses to drive are drawing consideration at statehouses around the country. Another measure seeks to simply do away with driver?s licenses.

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.

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.

At least nine states already limit licensing tests to English only. Seven states have the language mandate for commercial drivers. Six 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. HB167, which could come up for consideration on the House floor as early as next week, would apply the same rule to all other drivers who want to be licensed in the state.

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.


The pursuit of English-only license testing is on the move in the Montana statehouse. House lawmakers voted 62-38 on Thursday, Feb. 3, to advance a bill to require the knowledge test, road test, and skills test to be offered only in English.

Montana now allows exams to be offered in English, Chinese, Russian and Spanish.

Rep. Janna Taylor, R-Dayton, said that it is a form of prejudice to offer the test in only four languages.

?We?ve decided for some reason we only care about the people speaking these four languages. That is being pretty prejudiced,? Taylor told her counterparts during House floor consideration.

This is not the Legislature?s first time to consider the English requirement. During each of the previous two sessions an effort to apply the English requirement to all forms of driver?s licenses, including commercial driver?s licenses, never emerged from committee.

This year?s version ? HB302 ? now heads to the Senate for consideration.


State Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, is once again pursuing a bill to 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,? Ketron wrote on his website. ?It will be much less costly to offer the test only in English.?

In 2010, Ketron pursued a similar effort that sought to require all portions of the exam to be administered in English. This year?s version ? SB10 ? is awaiting consideration in the Senate Transportation Committee.


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 awaiting assignment to committee.


The Senate Transportation Committee has advanced a bill that would help refugees attain their driver?s licenses. Refugees legally in the U.S. would be allowed to take their first license test in their native language.

Intended to help new refugees become self-sufficient by getting a four-year license, the bill ? SB47 ? would require English-only testing when they renew.

Illegal immigrants attempting to gain a license would not be affected by the change. They must still pass the test in English.

The bill now awaits Senate floor debate. If approved there, it would move to the House.


The state of Georgia now limits the signage portion of the written test and the driving test to be in English. The House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee voted Thursday to approve a bill ? HB72 ? that would trim the written portion of the test from 14 languages to English only. Its next stop is the House floor.

Affected applicants could still get a temporary license in another language, but for only 10 years. At that time, testing must be done in English.

According to the Asian American Legal Advocacy Group, the bill would affect about 5,000 applicants each month. The group has also raised concerns about the proposal potentially leading to the loss of some federal funding.

Meanwhile, another effort in the House would make the English-only debate a moot point. Rep. Bobby Franklin, R-Marietta, has introduced a bill that would do away with Georgia?s driver?s licenses.

In his bill, Franklin states: ?Free people have a common law and constitutional right to travel on the roads and highways that are provided by their government for that purpose. Licensing of drivers cannot be required of free people, because taking on the restrictions of a license requires the surrender of an inalienable right.?

Franklin?s bill ? HB7 ? is awaiting consideration in the House Motor Vehicles Committee.

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