The English-only driver’s exam

This campaign ad by a gubernatorial candidate in Alabama is racing across Planet Internet this week.

There’s certainly no mincing words there. “We welcome non-English speaking people, who are legally in the U.S., to Alabama. However, if you want to drive in our states, public safety concerns dictate that you need to speak English,” Tim James said after liberal commentator Rachel Madow took him to task.

Earlier he’d said it was an economic issue.

How does Minnesota compare to Alabama on this “issue”? Doug Neville, an information officer with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety has the answer:


Minnesota currently provides the class D knowledge test in six languages; English, Spanish, Hmong, Vietnamese, Russian and Somali. The decision to provide test questions in these languages was based on population demographics. Exam stations do allow the opportunity for customers to provide an interpreter for the test. These tests must be set up ahead of time at the exam station so that exam staff can be scheduled to monitor the testing process.

It’s a big issue in Georgia where a bill mandating English-only testing is being considered

In Utah, a “picture-based” exam for a driver’s license was eliminated recently. The Salt Lake Tribune this week described the odyssey of an immigrant who speaks seven languages, but hasn’t been able to pass the text-based exam.

California offers the test in 32 languages. Several states offer it in 17.

Are you a better driver if you speak English fluently? That should be at the heart of the issue, but there’s very little data to support any of the arguments on either side of the issue. Accident investigators aren’t testing people’s language skills at accident scenes.

The federal government anticipated the “problem” many years ago when it eliminated many critical text-based signs, and adopted the international traffic signals. The theory was — and is — that even if you don’t speak English, you’ll know what this means.

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  • John P.

    I can see the problem in that not all signs conform to the international standards. “No Right Turn on Red” comes to mind.

    Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that is not what motivates these “English only” people. The cure is to make all signs conform.

  • JackU

    At the heart of the ad and some of this thinking is “As a businessman that doesn’t make sense to me.” Well you’re not running a “business” here, you’re running a government. I’m just tired of candidates who run on the basis of government should be run like a business, so elect me because I’m a successful businessman. (or businesswoman don’t mean to be gender biased here.)

    The problem with that reasoning is that businesses can choose to get out of a particular product or service if it’s not profitable. If turns out to be something that people need or society thinks is important then the government usually is asked to step in and make those services available. Precisely because they didn’t/don’t make good business sense. The one that comes to mind is the fire department. Sure you could make it part of your insurance, but who pays to protect the abandon house down the road? You can’t just “let it burn” because that endangers houses around it. Society for its own protection funds the fire department, not because its a good business decision, but because it makes sense for the betterment of the society as a whole. One would think allowing people to take a drivers test in the language they are most proficient will make them better drivers, which is good for society.

  • http://www.insidetheclassics.org Sam

    I lived in Alabama for 18 months about a decade ago. During that short time…

    …the sitting governor told the US Supreme Court that the Bill of Rights was never intended to apply to the state of Alabama, and that a local judge in Gadsden could therefore not be told to remove the Ten Commandments from his courtroom. (That judge was later elected chief justice of the state supreme court. He was impeached after installing a massive stone monument of the Commandments in the court’s rotunda.)

    …the incoming governor won election by promising to once and for all rid Alabama politics of corruption. He would be sent to prison several years later for corruption.

    …a Birmingham-area judge regularly accompanied sheriff’s deputies on raids of bars running illegal video poker games while dressed in full camouflage, just because he liked to.

    …the new lieutenant governor spent an entire legislative day peeing into a water jug secreted under the Senate dais, because he was convinced that the Democrats planned to seize the chamber the moment he went to the bathroom. The Dems admitted that this had, in fact, been their plan.

    So this Tim James guy? He barely qualifies as interesting by Alabama standards…

  • Kassie

    I just don’t know how it will hold up in court. Without an official language how can we force people who don’t speak English to not have the opportunity to drive?

    And it is just going to lead to more people without drivers licenses, and therefore insurance, on the road.

  • TJ

    Uh, so, how does this fix the “public safety issue” of people with international driver’s licenses? Wow, you’d think programs would cover that eventuality, or some people would think that the laws are poorly-concealed ways to harass immigrants! Thank god there are so many studies proving that the mixed languages and international road signs make Europe the world’s deadliest place for driving.

    This crap reminds me of what Stephen Colbert called the new immigration law in Arizona this week. I believe it was “Juan Crow.”

  • Tim

    There are literally hundreds if not more US licenses, permits, etc that all have an understanding of English as a requirement.

    Government is without a doubt the biggest business in the country.

    No other nation goes out of their way to accommodate those who do not learn their language.

    Think of nothing more than the printing expenses. One thing the government does better than anything else is generate paperwork. How much is it costing to translate it all into 6, 12, 32 languages? Many states (if not all) are printing tax forms and instruction books in many languages.

    Come to America. We’ll spare no expense in accommodating you.

    Printing everything many times over is great for business!

  • Emily

    Not sure about Minnesota and Alabama, but here in Georgia, the test can be administered aurally for those who are illiterate. Seems to me if we’re talking about safety concerns because people who don’t speak English can’t read English, we should also take into account people who can’t read at all should also not be able to drive…

    …But that’s not the point, is it?