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English, please

TORONTO, Ont. - Since July, truck drivers who fail to communicate sufficiently well in English with US enforcement officials have risked being put out-of-service.

COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN?: Many drivers that are new to Canada can speak English just fine, thank-you. But others could be placed out-of-service under a language crackdown in the US.
COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN?: Many drivers that are new to Canada can speak English just fine, thank-you. But others could be placed out-of-service under a language crackdown in the US.

TORONTO, Ont. – Since July, truck drivers who fail to communicate sufficiently well in English with US enforcement officials have risked being put out-of-service.

But the decision to make English language proficiency an out-of-service violation is still controversial, especially in light of the fight between Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) officials and Public Citizen lobbyists over whether Mexican truckers should be allowed to operate in the US.

“The English language proficiency requirement has nothing to do with the Mexicans,” says Milt Schmidt, North American borders division chief for the FMCSA.

The new enforcement policy became a topic of discussion yet again when Schmidt appeared on a panel at the recent Ontario Trucking Association convention in November.

Schmidt pointed out language proficiency (in the language of the country being travelled in) has been a requirement of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance since the North American Free Trade Agreement was created in the ’90s.

Be that as it may, the English-language proficiency requirement has historically met with no little opposition, most strikingly from a group of truck drivers of Hispanic origin who were cited by Florida enforcement officials in the late ’90s. US citizen and CDL holder Antonia Cuba led a group of plaintiffs in successfully challenging the rule in court in 1998, calling it: “constitutionally vague,” alleging that it “denied (the plaintiffs) equal protection by virtue of race, ethnicity, heritage or national origin,” “deprived (the plaintiffs) equal benefit of driving privileges,” and constituted “discrimination” and “malicious prosecution.”

To this day, the English proficiency regulation is not enforced in Florida.

Still, Florida’s decision not to enforce the language requirement offers little protection to non-US citizens.

In essence, a great deal of the anxiety over the effect of the language proficiency requirement stems from the ambiguity of the policy itself, say Canadian trucking industry insiders.

“I think the new enforcement policy puts too much power in hands of enforcement officials,” says Roman Wiktorowicz, editor of the Polish truckers’ publication Truck n’ Roll.

“It’s completely subjective. How can a police officer measure language proficiency? And besides, it’s absolutely unnecessary. If a driver can pass his CDL test in Canada, he clearly is able to communicate well enough to travel into the US.”

Wiktorowicz says he has yet to receive any complaints from his readers, but points to the fact that most Polish truckers arrived in Canada in the mid-to late ’80s.

“Their language skills are much better now,” he says. “But still, what if they don’t understand an accent? Some truckers may have trouble understanding a southern accent. Sometimes I can’t understand the accent of a guy from Louisiana.”

Indeed, the question of whether an enforcement officer and a driver can understand each other’s accents is a valid concern, says David Coombes, head of Success Immigration Services, a Victoriabased agency that recruits truck drivers and other workers from abroad.

“I think that having a minimum standard of English for people running trucks and other equipment on major highways is a good idea,” says Coombes. “But there are huge problems with the way US officials have decided to enforce this.”

Born in England, but educated in Canada, Coombes himself had to take a proficiency exam when he decided to stay. He said even he had difficulty understanding some of the accents in the recordings that made up part of his proficiency test.

“Even so, I thought that it was better than having an official in another country or at a border crossing make that judgment,” says Coombes, who believes US DoT officials should offer an inexpensive English test to truck drivers as an alternative.

“It could be given online at a border crossing or at a Homeland Security office and that taking the test be a requirement only when that is available. I say inexpensive because it should be possible for a consultant such as me to be able to have foreign applicants take the test and be sure that if they pass, they will be admissible into the US.”

Indeed, now that immigration is playing such an important role in the Canadian trucking industry’s recruitment of much-needed drivers, the need for Canadian carriers to recruit immigrants who can meet English proficiency requirements is that much more pressing.

“In the past, the majority of Canadian carriers have targeted countries where English is a second language,” says Linda Gauthier, executive director of the Canadian Trucking Human Resources Council. “But we also know that companies are now having to look at other countries where English isn’t necessarily a second language, for example, the Philippines, Korea and some eastern bloc countries. Testing for English language proficiency when entering Canada is required, but it is not specific to the trucking industry. That means that if carriers don’t invest time in upgrading the language skills of their drivers with regards to technical terminology, those drivers may have difficulty driving across the border.”

Bison Transport, based in Winnipeg, does provide English-asa-second-language training for new immigrant drivers.

Garth Pitzel, director of training and driver development for Bison, is convinced it’s this kind of training that will keep Bison’s new immigrant drivers in service when trucking south of the border.

“Will the new enforcement policy affect us? We don’t believe so, because we have programs in place to ensure our drivers are capable of speaking and reading English – we provide about 30 hours of ESL training to make sure our drivers from overseas are comfortable and confident using the language on a day-to-day basis.”

As for the possibility of accents getting in the way of comprehension, Schmidt admits there is some subjectivity.

“The officer has to be able to understand the driver and the driver has to be able to understand and respond to the officer’s questions.”

Schmidt was unable to provide the exact number of language-related OOS violations since the new enforcement regime began in July, but did say some drivers have been cited.

“In Minnesota I was told they stopped some vehicles with drivers who were communicating in some African language. I think they were from Somalia.”

Schmidt was not aware of any French-speaking Canadian truck drivers being cited to date.

And Pitzel did not anticipate Quebec enforcement officials would enact out-of-service violations against truck drivers travelling through Quebec but unable to communicate in French.

“That would be easy to fight,”said Pitzel. “After all, Canada has two official languages.”

Quebec trucking association officials did not return calls with regards to this matter.

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