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Truck Topics

Truck Driving and The English Language

By Sandy Long
Posted Aug 20th 2014 5:37PM

It used to be a rare occurrence that one would run into a trucker on American soil that did not speak English, usually a Canadian who only spoke French Canadian. That has changed radically over the last decade or so. With the influx of drivers to the United States from all over the world, truck stops and warehouses have become almost the Tower of Babel.

The FMCSA has regulation 391.11 (b) (2) that says, “[a driver] Can read and speak the English language sufficiently to converse with the general public, to understand highway traffic signs and signals in the English language, to respond to official inquiries, and to make entries on reports and records.”

While the FMCSA did go to proposed rulemaking in 1997 to modify 391.11 (b) (2), due to challenges by the ACLU, it did not do so and retained the wording as is.

In June of 1995, NAFTA added this resolution to the treaty, “That in recognition of the three countries’ (Canada, Mexico and the United States) language differences it is the responsibility of the driver and the motor carrier to be able to communicate in the country in which the driver/carrier is operating so that safety is not compromised.’’

The Mexican Border Pilot Program also requires that drivers participating in the program have proficiency in speaking English. “ D. English Language Proficiency Requirement Every CMV (as defined in 49 CFR §390.5) driver of a Mexico-domiciled motor carrier participating in the Cross-Border Demonstration Project will undergo an assessment to determine whether the driver meets the requirements of 49 CPR §391.11(b)(2). Guidance for performing the English language proficiency assessment is outlined in the July 20, 2007 policy memorandum titled ''Placing Drivers Out of Service for Violating 49 CFR Section 391.11(b)(2) - English Language Proficiency (MC-ECE-0005-07)" and memorandum titled "49 CFR Section 391.11(b)(2) English Language Proficiency" dated February 1,2008.”

With all of the regulations about a trucker being able to speak English, why are we seeing so many who cannot? Part of the problem is that many states allow the written part of the testing for a CDL to be taken by the applicant in their own language. Then there are the fraudulent CDL licenses. States from Illinois to Michigan and Florida, among others, have all had charges brought against both trucking schools and license officials for ‘selling’ CDLs.

After a fatality accident in Tennessee in 2005 that killed two adults and two children, it was found that “According to the charges, Nazov (the truck driver) failed the first time he took the required road test but passed on a second try. A translator also assisted Nazov, who doesn't speak English, on the written test, a practice barred in Illinois as a result of the bribes-for-licenses scandal.”

What is the big deal one might ask whether a trucker can adequately speak English in the United States; it is about safety for the most part. In a study done by the FMCSA in 2008, many areas were identified that required proficiency in speaking English.

Pre-Trip Activities.

Complete pre-trip inspection form.

Make logbook entry.

Read bill of lading and other paperwork regarding load and content.

Read paperwork providing location of and di

rections to delivery/pick-up stations.

Read and interpret maps and/or directions provided to plan trip.

En-Route Activities.

Drive to delivery stop.

Read and operate primary and secondary controls and instruments.

Read traffic signs (permanent and temporary; stationary, dynamic, and variable messages) pertaining to parameters such as speed limits, traffic conditions, construction areas, and lane restrictions.

Communicate with other drivers and dispatchers through communication devices such as radios, cell phones, and computer-input devices.

Listen to radio to obtain information(e.g., on weather and traffic conditions).

Arrive at store or receiving/shipping facility.

Read safety procedures/policies of facility.

Talk to security (sometimes through intercom) to gain access to facility.

Update logbook (electronic or paper)to note arrival at destination.

Communicate with facility representative (e.g., store manager) regarding delivery details such as parking location and load.

Unload truck.

Count and check off number of items (e.g., totes or pallets).

Sign bill of lading.

Depart for next stop.

Ask for directions to next location.

Call dispatcher or store manager at next stop to provide status information (e.g., whether driver is ahead of/behind schedule or is en route).

Update logbook (electronic or paper) to indicate change in duty status.

Post-Trip Activities.

Complete logbook.

Announce return to dispatcher.

Write up and submit repair request.

Sign paperwork to accept responsibility for contents and delivery.

“Emergencies occur infrequently, but when they do it is important that the driver be able to interact effectively with enforcement and emergency personnel as well as with the public. These interactions can be quite complex and can require a certain level of language proficiency.

Finally, the observations highlight the need for drivers to be able to communicate effectively with inspectors. Inspectors performing vehicle inspections subject themselves to potentially dangerous conditions, and it is important that drivers understand what inspectors are doing so that mishaps can be prevented.”

Other truckers often deal with the irritations that are caused by truckers who do not speak English adequately. Shipping and receiving clerks find trouble in trying to make a non English-speaking driver understand what dock to back in to and what the load entails. Mistakes happen when a non English-speaking driver cannot read his/her bills to verify that they have the right load or understand that they need a pick up number. This adds to the clerk’s stress levels and often this is taken out on the next driver in line.

Recently, an oriental man approached another driver at a warehouse with his cell phone in his hand. After about ten minutes, the driver finally figured out that the oriental driver was lost and tried to explain he was on the wrong side of the building. Finally, the driver had to climb down out of the truck, take the oriental man by the hand, and lead him around the corner of the building to show him where to go.

At truck stops, the cashier lines become backed up when a non English-speaking driver is in line. Many times, they do not understand the questions asked by the cashier to obtain fuel tickets, cash advances or to purchase goods. Moreover, unable to read no parking signs at truck stops, non English-speaking drivers often ‘creatively’ park and do not understand that they are blocking egress by other drivers; many get angry when asked to move.

Some states are taking not speaking English in both truckers and car drivers seriously. Texas has issued approximately 36 tickets over the last several years to non English-speaking drivers. Alabama wrote a California trucker a ticket for not being fluent in English during a traffic stop. Nine states, as of 2009, require all driver license testing to be in English only, Arizona, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. Around thirty states have adopted English only legislation for governmental meetings.

Not surprisingly, there is controversy over English only legislation with opponents citing that immigrants will feel isolated and will not be able to participate in governmental processes. The controversy does not stop with governmental legislation, truckers who have been cited, or who were terminated, for not being able to speak English, or speak it clearly enough have cried discrimination and filed suit.

On our highways where safety is so important, being able to read signs and communicate clearly with both business people and the communities truckers serve is equal to saving lives. It behooves anyone coming to the United States to be able to speak and communicate adequately in English; after all, if we were to go to their countries, we would have to be able to speak enough of their language to be safe and communicate as well. Shrugging one’s shoulders in response to questions or information can and will get one nowhere.


  • - August 24, 2014
    Tanja-=|=-All driving tests must be done in English as this is the prominent language in North America. Failure to do so is a good reason not to be granted permission to possess a cdl. Customers, truck stops and travelling would be safer.
  • - August 24, 2014
    Tanja-=|=-All driving tests must be done in English as this is the prominent language in North America. Failure to do so is a good reason not to be granted permission to possess a cdl. Customers, truck stops and travelling would be safer.

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