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  • Driving while Spanish nets trucker $500 fine

    Manuel Castillo, a California trucker with twenty years experience, was stopped and ticketed by an Alabama state trooper for failure to speak English well enough. 

    Manuel Castillo 

    Castillo, shown in the AP photo above with his truck, was on his way from Georgia back to California with a load of onions when he was stopped in Alabama for a “routine inspection.”  Castillo has a Spanish accent, but he readily answered the trooper’s questions in English. However the officer, who could find no other violations to charge Castillo with, judged the driver’s English to be insufficient – a violation of federal trucking regulations – and wrote Castillo a $500 ticket, the maximum fine for this particular offense. Castillo paid the ticket – tickets are part of the cost of doing business for a trucker – and drove on home.

    U. S. Department of Transportation regulations require commercial truck drivers “to be able to read and speak the English language sufficiently to” speak with the public, understand road signs, respond to “official inquiries,” and keep records. The states are charged with enforcing these requirements.

    A Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration pamphlet outlines the kinds of things truckers should be able to say, in English, if they want to keep on driving: 

    Questions truckers have to answer in English

    Not all government agencies enforce an English-only policy. In fact, last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the Salvation Army for requiring its workers to speak English. But many conservative congressmen were outraged that a government agency was attacking, not defending, the English language, and in December, 2007, Republicans in the House of Representatives offered a resolution, H. Con. Res. 277, condemning the EEOC’s action and asking the agency to desist in its efforts to drive English from the workplace.

    After rehearsing the usual whereases about English being the glue that holds this fragile nation together, the resolution noted, “there may be rare circumstances in which an English-only employment rule is a pretext for intentional national origin discrimination, but in most cases such an employment rule has little or nothing to do with a person’s national origin.”

    But it seems that national origin may be just what the Alabama state trooper and his fellow officers have been targeting. 17% of the nation’s truck drivers, and 11% of its bus drivers, are Hispanic, and authorities gave them 25,230 tickets for insufficient English last year. While government officials insist that they’re not waging a campaign against Mexican truck drivers, these numbers suggest a concerted effort by the Department of Transportation to criminalize driving while Spanish.

    To reinforce this message, the DOT pamphlet on the offense of insufficient English, with a picture of a happy Hispanic posing in front of a big rig, clearly suggests that the department’s English-only policy has quite a lot to do with “a person’s national origin.” 

    Pamphlet on language regulations for drivers

    Many states allow drivers to take part of the written part of their license test in languages other than English. The FMCSA, on the other hand, is proposing to tighten its language regulations by making drivers pass their road test and vehicle inspection in English before they get their license.

    Drivers and regulators alike agree that a basic command of English is a business and safety necessity for all drivers – not just truckers. Furthermore, it may be obvious to a police officer, and to anyone else, if a driver speaks no English at all. But since there’s no tube a driver can breathe into that will produce a readout of the amount of English that they know, police officers have no objective standard for assessing whether a driver speaks English well enough to continue safely to their final destination.

    Because, as the FMCSA pamphlet further suggests, Castillo, who speaks enough English to have survived twenty years of trucking and has no tickets or violations on his record, is lucky the cop who stopped him didn’t yank his license for driving under the influence of Spanish:

     Drivers can lose their licenses if they don't speak English well enough

sjones@sltnet.lk Jul 21, 2008 5:29 am

It's truly horrendous. In the EU a Spanish truck driver who speaks no French or English will drive oranges from Valencia to Manchester with no problem. German truck drivers rarely speak French and the reverse is true but they still go from one country to the other regularly.


Everything to do with jingoistic nationalism and nothing to do with road safety.

jensfiederer@gmail.com Jul 29, 2008 11:36 am

....in the EU, there are standardized road signs that are readable without language knowledge, whereas the USA has many signs that require reading in English ("Road Closed",  "All trucks commercial vehicles next right", "road narrows", "right lane ends")

(see http://www.trafficsign.us/regsign.html )

So at least part of the problem is not CARING about the needs of people speaking other languages rather than activive jingoism.

That does not mean I am not appalled.  $500 is a large fine to be arbitrarily inflicted.

millersj2@hotmail.com Aug 27, 2008 6:10 pm

If this was such a big deal, then the cab drivers like in NYC would be POOR!  This is typical of our authorities to bully people instead of using both common sense and decency.  I will investigate how many tickets are issued to other ethinicities besides hispanic.  I will post my results later.  If I were this guy, I would fight the ticket in court in........ENGLISH!!!   One last inportant piece of info I would like to get is what was it that made the officer feel convinced that this guy didn't know sufficient English?

ceruleanbill@comcast.net Sep 4, 2008 9:09 pm

One wonders if, perhaps, the driver simply could not make himself understood due to the trooper's  Alabama dialect.

robi@alum.calberkeley.org Jan 10, 2009 9:19 pm

 I am surprised that someone in Alabama would erect himself as a judge of Englishj knowledge.  How did that trooper know the Spanish truck driver did not know enough English?  Was the trooper a U.S. Certified Oral Language Proficency Examiner?

benj444@yahoo.com Jan 10, 2009 10:38 pm

Exactly (post of 4 Sept). When I moved from northern California to North Carolina in the late 1980s, I had occassions on which I could not understand the locals. During the first week of my relocation, I asked a North Carolinean to repeat what she had said 7 (that's right, seven) times, and still unable to catch it, I was too embarrassed to ask again. Some months later, I met my landlord in the yard of our duplex; she told me she'd seen me in the garage the previous day. I was confused, since I had no key to the garage.... Only when she mentioned "Winn-Dixie" did it dawn on me that she hadn't said "garage," she'd said "grocery." So here's the question: how is it that I heard a two-syllable word when she had enunciated a (supposedly) three-syllable word?

And that's me - as you probably can tell from this post, I'm a native speaker of English.  I can imagine the incomprehension of a non-native speaker when confronted by a thick Alabama accent. The cop should be asked to dictate a short paragraph to a panel of native speakers located in California and (say) Ohio, and if there's not perfect comprehension among them, the fine should be refunded.

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