While the FMCSA requires that commercial drivers be able to read and speak English, studies have shown that many motor carriers hire non-English speaking drivers.
The FMCSR require that a commercial driver is able to “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.” In 2011, the FMCSA conducted research to make an assessment of the extent to which the English language is needed and used by commercial drivers operating in the United States, and how federal and state enforcement personnel and motor carriers determine whether a driver is capable of understanding and communicating in English sufficiently to ensure safety.
The FMCSA determined that it “is becoming increasingly common” for commercial drivers with limited abilities to speak, read, or understand English to be on the roadways. The FMCSA found stark discrepancies from state-to-state in enforcing the English language proficiency regulation. Additionally, many states allow would-be commercial drivers to take the written CDL test in languages other than English.
Reasons for Hiring Non-English Speaking Drivers
Two major driving forces behind hiring English-language deficient drivers are a lack of qualified drivers and high driver turnover rates. When considering a driver who may have limited English proficiency, compliant motor carriers were found to make the determination based on a driver’s ability to complete a written application, respond to questions during the interview process, and interact during orientation and training.
The FMCSA determined that was little consistency among motor carriers in either the effort or methods use in determining whether a driver could comprehend road signage. The FMCSA found that there were also wide-ranging responses by motor carriers to drivers who had been placed out of service of limited English proficiency in violation of 49 CFR 391.11(b)(2), ranging from the motor carrier disregarding that violation to other motor carriers putting drivers through classes to improve their English.
Results of Hiring Non-English Speaking Drivers
A study done by the FMCSA in 2008 identified tasks and driving activities that required proficiency in English that could adversely affect the driver and others on the roadway if the driver were not proficient in English, including: pre-trip inspections, making logbook entries, reading bills of lading and other paperwork related to loads and delivery instructions, reading and interpreting maps and directions, reading and operating controls and instruments, reading traffic signs.
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 49 C.F.R. § 391.11(b)(2).
 U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, “A Preliminary Review of English Proficiency and Safe Commercial Vehicle Operation,” February 2011, p.25.
 U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, “A Preliminary Review of English Proficiency and Safe Commercial Vehicle Operation,” February 2011, p.78.
 U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, “A Preliminary Review of English Proficiency and Safe Commercial Vehicle Operation,” February 2011, p.86. The FMCSA report found that the industry average annual turnover for over-the-road long-haul trucking companies as 130%, and for short-haul carriers was 25-30%.
Photo by Vladimir Pletenev.