Op-ed column: Teach immigrant drivers in a language they can understand

A couple of years ago, a big issue in New York was driver’s licenses for non-citizens. Although the
William Brown/Tribune Media
William Brown/Tribune Media

A couple of years ago, a big issue in New York was driver’s licenses for non-citizens. Although the furor passed, those involved were half right; the current system of driving privileges for new arrivals does not work well and should be re-examined.

Over the past few years, I’ve taught driving to several people who were new in America. These included both Chinese graduate students and newly arrived refugees. Although none were citizens, some hoped to become citizens. They were all here legally, all contributed to the economy and all paid taxes on wages they earned in New York. They spoke English at widely varying levels.

First, we share our roads with people who don’t speak English, so it might reduce problems if information on safe and legal driving expectations were provided in a variety of languages.

Since most Americans don’t speak a second language, they seriously underestimate the time and effort it takes to learn English. Considering that non-English speaking immigrants began arriving in New York with the Dutch in the 1630s, it’s amazing how unwilling we are at times to face up to the existence of non-fluent English speakers in our midst.

Everyone’s best interest

I am not advocating that we change road signs, but if a person needs a driver’s license for such things as getting to work, taking children to school and, yes, even getting to English lessons, it is undoubtedly in everyone’s best interests that they have access to information on road regulations and expectations in a language they can understand before they get behind the wheel of a car.

(Why would someone come here not knowing English well? With Chinese graduate students, it’s educational and career opportunities. As for refugees, reasons usually include a mixture of political persecution, war, mass death, ethnic cleansing, and encounters with teenage draftees with machine guns and a fondness for rape who enjoy burning down churches, businesses and homes. Personally, I don’t ask refugees for details but just listen carefully when they choose to share. Instead, I just eat their food and joke with them about New York weather.)

Essentially, non-English speaking immigrants want driver’s licenses for the same reason everyone else does. To become the tax-paying, job-holding, English-speaking success stories we want them to be. But, ironically, it’s often those who come from Third World places with the most obscure languages who have the least understanding of American road expectations. Simply offering materials in English and Spanish, as New York does now, is not enough. (It’s irksome when government agencies reflexively offer a refugee from Burma who speaks four obscure Asian languages information in Spanish.)

Without proper language materials, non-English-speaking driving students focus on memorizing answers to obtain their learner’s permit. On the Internet, one can find sample lists of learner permit test questions and answers in several languages. These are, however, presented without context or explanation.

The five-hour driving class includes no test. I know people who attended the class in languages they did not understand and still received the certificate. There not only should be a test, but the test or class itself should be available, perhaps on-line, in a variety of languages.

Until new drivers are presented with information in a language and format they can understand, they will always be confused about how to drive safely and legally. And don’t assume the problem can be solved with road tests.

Making it easy

It is much too easy in New York to drive without a license.

One can, without a driver’s license, purchase a car, register, receive license plates and even insure a car in one’s name. You can even, in most cases, generally get your boss to give you a parking sticker for work.

This is a tragedy waiting to happen.

To many poor people in the Third World, ownership of a car was a fantasy, a dream, and is now a symbol of success in America. If you allow such a person to buy a car before they have a license and expect them to wait to drive it, sometimes this is just too much temptation. And many new immigrants come from countries where it’s not uncommon to drive without a license. (And when I lived in Taiwan, almost all the Americans and Canadians I knew rode motor scooters without a license, so it works both ways.) Some immigrants assume that driving without a license is not a big thing in America.

And what’s terrible is that they are actually correct. If they are caught, the penalty is surprisingly light. A first offense will receive a fine of up to $150 plus an $85 surcharge, with possible suspension of one’s learner’s permit for up to two months.

For subsequent offenses, the penalty is up to $300 plus the $85 dollar surcharge. Your car may be towed and impounded, but it will eventually be returned after a fine is paid and should you have an accident, the insurance will pay for it. I’ve heard accidents for a non-driver described by friends of offenders as “a small thing.”

Immediate changes

It is stupid to allow people without a driver’s license to buy, register and insure a car, It is also stupid to give that car license plates that look like everyone else’s. This should be changed immediately.

In conclusion, America has been and continues to be a land of immigrants and their descendants. It’s part of our ideals and self-image that we accept the unwanted and discarded of the world, just as we accepted my Pilgrim ancestors 300 years plus ago when they illegally immigrated on the Mayflower.

But if we expect people who come here to do what we want, such as following road regulations, realistically we need to both explain to them what we expect in a language they can understand while simultaneously having strong consequences when they knowingly violate our society’s rules of the road.

Peter Huston lives in Scotia. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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