TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Manuel Castillo was driving a truck through Alabama hauling onions and left with a $500 ticket for something he didn't think he was doing: speaking English poorly.
Castillo, who was stopped on his way back to California, said he knows federal law requires him to be able to converse in English with an officer but he thought his language skills were good enough to avoid a ticket.
Still, Castillo said he plans to pay the maximum fine of $500 rather than return to Alabama to fight the ticket.
"It just doesn't seem fair to be ticketed if I wasn't doing anything dangerous on the road," he said.
Federal law requires that anyone with a commercial drivers license speak English well enough to talk with police. Authorities last year issued 25,230 tickets nationwide for violations. Now the federal government is trying to tighten the English requirement, saying the change is needed for safety reasons.
Most states let truckers and bus drivers take at least part of their license tests in languages other than English. But the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has proposed rules requiring anyone applying for a commercial drivers license to speak English during their road test and vehicle inspection. The agency wants to change its rules to eliminate the use of interpreters, and congressional approval isn't required.
Drivers could still take written tests in other languages in states where that is allowed, and they wouldn't have to be completely fluent during the road test, said Bill Quade, an associate administrator with the agency.
"Our requirement is that drivers understand English well enough to respond to a roadside officer and to be able to converse," said Quade, who heads enforcement. Drivers need to be able to communicate with authorities about their loads and their vehicles, he said.
A handful of states and organizations are supporting the change, and no one opposed the new rule in comments submitted to the agency.
The rule change, which Quade said would likely take effect next year, could particularly affect the nation's fast-growing Spanish-speaking population.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated last year that more than 17 percent of the nation's 3.4 million truck drivers were Hispanic, as were more than 11 percent of its 578,000 bus drivers. It's unknown how many speak both Spanish and English.
The issue of English-speaking drivers also could become larger if the Bush administration succeeds with efforts to make it easier for trucks to enter the United States from Mexico. Trucks already are allowed to enter border areas under a pilot program.
An Alabama state trooper thought Castillo, 50, couldn't speak English well enough to drive an 18-wheeler when he was headed back to California from picking up onions in Glennville, Ga. A driver for 20 years, Castillo was stopped in west Alabama for a routine inspection.
Castillo, who says he speaks English at roughly a third-grade level, said he understood when the trooper asked him where he was heading and to see his commercial driver's license and registration. He said he responded in English, though he speaks with an accent.
Castillo wasn't speeding, and the inspection and computer check turned up no offenses, so he was surprised to get a ticket for being a "non-English speaking driver."
"I had heard that Congress had passed that law, so I knew people were getting tickets," he said in an interview in Spanish. "But it didn't seem fair to me because I was communicating fine with him. I don't know a lot of things, but when it comes to my work I understand everything people say to me."
Castillo, a permanent U.S. resident who lives in a farming community near Fresno, said he took his California license test in Spanish because it's the language he's most comfortable speaking.
Jan Mendoza of the California Department of Motor Vehicles said the state gives the written test in both English and Spanish, but the roadside portion of the exam is in English only because of the federal rule.
Limiting the road portion of the CDL test to English-only conversation would help eliminate drivers who don't speak English well enough to talk to an officer on the roadside, Quade said. He sees no conflict in continuing to let applicants take the written test in languages other than English.
"The level of English proficiency we are looking for at the roadside is basic. The (written) CDL is a whole different level. There's multiple choice, fairly in-depth quarters that require more of an understanding of the English language."
English-only testing for commercial licenses is limited to just seven states, according to the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which tracks the issue. Those include Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wyoming and Missouri, which recently passed the rule, according to the group.
The OOIDA supports the English-language rules for commercial drivers, as does the American Trucking Association, said spokesman Clayton Boyce.
"It doesn't require them to be super fluent, just to follow road signs, directions and be able to comply with an officer," said Boyce. "It's not a cultural requirement, it's a safety requirement."
Boyce's group teamed with another industry organization, the Truckload Carrier Association, in recent years in a driver recruitment campaign that included trying to bring more Hispanics into trucking amid a driver shortage.
Deborah Sparks, a spokeswoman for the Truckload Carrier group, said the driver shortage has eased now, she said, but language and driver recruitment could become an issue again.
"Once the economy picks up we'll have a shortage again," she said.