A bill that would require all written examinations for all driver licenses be in English passed in the public safety transportation subcommittee of the Tennessee House of Representatives.
Rep. Eric Watson, prime sponsor of the bill, said that HB 0262 "will put thousands of taxpayer dollars back into our budget, and most of all, make it safer for our drivers on our Tennessee roadways.
"As a legislator who represents the people of my district in Bradley, Polk, and Meigs Counties, I often discover the solution to a problem is not passing another law, but simply enforcing a law that already exists. Here is an example.
"In 1984 Tennessee adopted a law making English the official language of our state. The law read in part, 'All communications and publications …produced by governmental entities in Tennessee shall be in English.' In the minds of most people I think the meaning of that sentence is pretty clear.
"But what is clear to ordinary people too often seems beyond the grasp of government bureaucrats. For instance, Tennessee Department of Safety officials decided that the phrase 'all communications and publications' some how does not apply to Tennessee driver’s license examinations or driver’s license study guides. They think it is perfectly okay to print study guides and administer driver’s license exams in three other languages in addition to our state official language. Those other languages are Spanish, Korean, and Japanese. That concerns me. It is bad enough to ignore a law if doing so has no consequences. But it is a different matter if ignoring a law has consequences, and they happen to be serious.
"In this case the stakes could not be higher. Ignoring the law jeopardizes the safety of everyone using our roads and highways. Drivers who cannot read highway warning and traffic signs, or hazard signs on other vehicles, or talk to police or public safety personnel in the event of a serious accident or emergency are a danger to themselves and everyone else on the road. To cite one example, a few years ago 23 passengers in a bus being evacuated ahead of Hurricane Rita in Texas burned to death because their driver did not know enough English to warn them that the bus was on fire. That kind of public safety risk is unacceptable.
"So to enhance safety and enforce our official language law
I introduced legislation this month to eliminate multi-lingual driver’s license tests and require applicants to take and pass their written and oral tests in English.
"While safety is the overriding reason for my bill, there are sound fiscal reasons too. Last year the General Assembly’s fiscal review committee found that the Department of Safety spent $64,500 just to print driver’s license study guides in Spanish. In 2008, the General Sessions Court’s language interpreter coordinator scheduled 6,838 court interpretations in the State of Tennessee and the taxpayers spent $1,058,673.96 statewide for court interpreters. Whether the actual cost is large or small, at a time of severe budget crisis it is money we simply cannot afford to spend.
"There are those who will object to my bill by saying it will discourage foreign corporations like Volkswagen from locating in Tennessee. That’s nonsense. Corporations don’t base multi-million dollar investment decisions on anything as trivial as driver’s license exams. The dozen or so managers who relocated to the U.S. when Volkswagen built its plant here all spoke fluent English. And the absence of driver’s license tests in German hardly discouraged Volkswagen.
Corporations are motivated by things like tax incentives, access to markets, transportation infrastructure, and the availability of a skilled and (English) literate workforce. And the safety of their employees on our roads is a priority for them as well.
"But the most inaccurate argument of all will be that passing my bill will make Tennessee seem “anti-immigrant.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. Census data shows that immigrants who speak English fluently on average earn almost twice as much as those who don’t. Making sure that immigrants who come to Tennessee in search of a better life have real incentives to learn English, assimilate, and become self-sufficient like generations of immigrants before them is about the kindest thing we can do for them. If we keep making driver’s licenses available in some languages and not in others, where do we draw the line?
I think it is time to put public safety ahead of other considerations and start enforcing Tennessee’s official language law the way it was written. I hope my colleagues in the legislature – Republicans and Democrats – will agree.