Our Opinion: Retain driver's tests in foreign languages

Legislation advanced by a House panel would end Missouri’s decades-long process of offering driver’s license tests in foreign languages.

The immediate question is: Why?

Among the reasons provided by the bill’s sponsor, one arguably is harsh, another unsupported and a third pre-emptive.

Some background is helpful.

Missouri offers its driver’s license test in 12 languages, including English. The state Highway Patrol, which administers the tests, reports more than 10,000 people elected the foreign-language option in 2010. Foreign-language options have been available since the 1960s, the patrol said.

Applicants must pay the cost of an interpreter, if one is used. Legislative staff estimates the state would save about $52,000 by eliminating the foreign-language option.

Cost, however, is not among the stated reasons prompting the legislation sponsored by Rep. Jerry Nolte, R-Gladstone.

The first reason, which we find harsh, is Nolte’s contention that the bill would “acclimate the (foreign language-speaking) people more quickly in our society.”

The restriction, however, also could serve as an impediment to “acclimation” for legal immigrants who need to travel to work, social events and, possibly, classes teaching English as a second language.

We believe the mobility afforded by a driver’s license could help, rather than hinder, immersion into society.

Nolte also raised safety concerns and said, “at the highway speeds, people need to understand what the signs written in English say, really quickly.”

That reason appears more feeling than fact. Patrol Capt. Tim Hull said the patrol is not aware of any existing data regarding accidents caused by drivers who do not speak English.

The pre-emptive rationale seeks to remove Missouri as a possible legal defendant because it fails to offer driver’s license tests in all foreign languages.

Nolte references a federal discrimination suit in Oklahoma that prompted its legislature to eliminate all foreign language options. The Oklahoma suit alleged discrimination because Oklahoma failed to offer the test in Farsi.

“At some point we are looking at the 322 languages spoken in the U.S., so there’s got to be some point where we draw the line,” Nolte said. “The lawsuit in Oklahoma has pushed us into a position where it’s either everyone or no one, unfortunately so.”

This strikes us as Nolte’s most persuasive argument, but the likelihood of a similar lawsuit in Missouri is impossible to predict.

At this juncture, we would reject the proposal as counter-productive, undocumented and premature.

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