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Speak English well, or get a ticket

Tuscaloosa, Ala. —- Manuel Castillo was driving a truck through Alabama hauling onions from Georgia and left with a $500 ticket for something he didn’t think he was doing: speaking English poorly.

Castillo, who was stopped on his way back to California, said he knows federal law requires him to be able to converse in English with an officer, but he thought his language skills were good enough to avoid a ticket.

Still, Castillo said he plans to pay the maximum fine of $500 rather than return to Alabama to fight the ticket.

“It just doesn’t seem fair to be ticketed if I wasn’t doing anything dangerous on the road,” he said.

Federal law requires that anyone with a commercial driver’s license speak English well enough to talk with police. Authorities last year issued 25,230 tickets nationwide for violations. Now the federal government is trying to tighten the English requirement, saying the change is needed for safety reasons.

Most states, including Georgia, let truckers and bus drivers take at least part of their license tests in languages other than English. But the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has proposed rules requiring anyone applying for a commercial driver’s license to speak English during their road test and vehicle inspection.

The agency wants to change its rules to eliminate the use of interpreters, and congressional approval isn’t required.

Drivers could still take written tests in other languages in states where that is allowed, and they wouldn’t have to be completely fluent during the road test, said Bill Quade, an associate administrator with the agency.

“Our requirement is that drivers understand English well enough to respond to a roadside officer and to be able to converse,” said Quade, who heads enforcement. Drivers need to be able to communicate with authorities about their loads and their vehicles, he said.

A handful of states and organizations are supporting the change, and no one opposed the new rule in comments submitted to the agency.

The rule change, which Quade said would likely take effect next year, could particularly affect the nation’s fast-growing Spanish-speaking population.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated last year that more than 17 percent of the nation’s 3.4 million truck drivers were Hispanic, as were more than 11 percent of its 578,000 bus drivers. It’s unknown how many speak both Spanish and English.

The issue of English-speaking drivers also could become larger if the Bush administration succeeds with efforts to make it easier for trucks to enter the United States from Mexico. Trucks already are allowed to enter border areas under a pilot program.

An Alabama state trooper thought Castillo, 50, couldn’t speak English well enough to drive an 18-wheeler when he was headed back to California. A driver for 20 years, Castillo was stopped in west Alabama for a routine inspection.

Castillo, who says he speaks English at roughly a third-grade level, said he understood when the trooper asked him where he was heading and to see his commercial driver’s license and registration. He said he responded in English, though he speaks with an accent.

Castillo wasn’t speeding, and the inspection and computer check turned up no offenses, so he was surprised to get a ticket for being a “non-English speaking driver.”

“I had heard that Congress had passed that law, so I knew people were getting tickets,” he said in an interview in Spanish. “But it didn’t seem fair to me because I was communicating fine with him. I don’t know a lot of things, but when it comes to my work I understand everything people say to me.”

Castillo, a permanent U.S. resident who lives in a farming community near Fresno, said he took his California license test in Spanish because it’s the language he’s most comfortable speaking.

Jan Mendoza of the California Department of Motor Vehicles said the state gives the written test in both English and Spanish, but the roadside portion of the exam is in English only because of the federal rule.

Limiting the road portion of the test for the commercial driver’s license, or CDL, to English-only would help eliminate drivers who don’t speak English well enough to talk to an officer, Quade said. He sees no conflict in continuing to let applicants take the written test in languages other than English.
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© 2009, Truck Drivers News. All rights reserved.

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3 Responses to “Speak English well, or get a ticket”

  • Mark:

    Well, this won’t make me popular but I don’t have a problem with this. If you going to work in this country, you have to speak English. That is the language of this country. When I go to Germany, France, or Italy I am expected to speak the local language. And that is as a guest. I expect the same when people come here.
    Driving a truck demands communication skill. I can’t tell how many times I have waited at the fuel desk while a driver grinds slowly over his truck, trip, and tag number. This is really simple, this is an English language country. You are welcome to be proud of all your heritage, and do as you please in you private life, but when your on the road…English.

  • Thanks Mark for the comment. I agree with what you are saying 100%, also because it is the rule as well. You must be able to read, write, and converse the English language well. Or face fines and no license.

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