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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