truck driver fined for bad english

Dennis Baron debaron at
Fri Jul 18 18:28:05 UTC 2008

FYI, from the Associated Press:

July 17, 2008
Feds look to tighten English law for truckers
Associated Press Writer
Manuel Castillo was driving a truck through Alabama hauling onions 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  

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 drivers 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 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 drivers 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  

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 from picking up onions in Glennville, Ga. 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  

Limiting the road portion of the CDL test to English-only conversation  
would help eliminate drivers who don't speak English well enough to  
talk to an officer on the roadside, Quade said. He sees no conflict in  
continuing to let applicants take the written test in languages other  
than English.

"The level of English proficiency we are looking for at the roadside  
is basic. The (written) CDL is a whole different level. There's  
multiple choice, fairly in-depth quarters that require more of an  
understanding of the English language."

English-only testing for commercial licenses is limited to just seven  
states, according to the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers  
Association, which tracks the issue. Those include Maine, New  
Hampshire, Oregon, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wyoming and Missouri,  
which recently passed the rule, according to the group.

The OOIDA supports the English-language rules for commercial drivers,  
as does the American Trucking Association, said spokesman Clayton Boyce.

"It doesn't require them to be super fluent, just to follow road  
signs, directions and be able to comply with an officer," said Boyce.  
"It's not a cultural requirement, it's a safety requirement."

Boyce's group teamed with another industry organization, the Truckload  
Carrier Association, in recent years in a driver recruitment campaign  
that included trying to bring more Hispanics into trucking amid a  
driver shortage.

Deborah Sparks, a spokeswoman for the Truckload Carrier group, said  
the driver shortage has eased now, she said, but language and driver  
recruitment could become an issue again.

"Once the economy picks up we'll have a shortage again," she said.


Associated Press reporter Garance Burke in Fresno, Calif., contributed  
to this report.

Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

office: 217-244-0568
fax: 217-333-4321

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