FMCSA upholds English language rule

WASHINGTON, (July 28, 2003) — The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has dropped an inquiry into the English language requirement for truck drivers, concluding that there is not enough quantifiable data to support changes.

The issue goes back to 1997 when the Federal Highway Administration, which at the time was in charge of motor carrier safety, issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking requesting comments on the provisions in federal safety regulations. Those provisions required that commercial vehicle drivers in interstate commerce be able to “read and speak the English language sufficiently to converse with the general public, understand highway traffic signs and signals, respond to official inquiries, and make entries on reports and records.”

The rule, which dates back to the mid-1930s, makes employers responsible for evaluating a driver’s proficiency in the English language. There is no provision for roadside enforcement, and English proficiency is not a pre-requisite for a Commercial Drivers License. In fact, CDL rules authorize the states to administer tests in foreign languages.

The notice posed a series of specific questions but the debate centered on whether or not there should be a definitive standard, whether the rules should be more stringent, and whether they violate federal discrimination laws. “The rule as written gives carriers the flexibility to individually determine if a driver has the communication skills necessary to operate safety,” the agency said. “There is no data to suggest that this flexibility has caused discrimination or to conclude that motor carriers are employing the requirements in anything other than an evenhanded manner, tailored to the requirement of each particular company’s operations. The intent of the English-only regulation is not to discriminate, but to advance public safety.”

Further, the agency said it finds no inconsistency in the fact that states are allowed to offer CDL tests in languages other than English while carriers must ensure a level of proficiency. “The tests, training and study manuals associated with obtaining a CDL are complex,” it said. “Therefore, the administration of the CDL test in languages other than English is justified. However, in actual operation on the highway, the CDL driver must be able, based on the needs of the carrier’s operation, to have a sufficient command of English to ensure that safety is not compromised.”

The notice was published in the July 24 Federal Register which can be accessed on the Internet at


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