FMCSA Cracks Down on Language Requirements

A driver who is unable to meet the language requirements set forth in Section 391.11(b)(2) of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations may be placed out-of-service (OOS), according to a recent Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration enforcement memo. Prior to the memo's issuance, enforcement personnel cited drivers but did not place them OOS.

FMCSR Section 391.11(b)(2) says that all drivers must "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 the past, each employer and law enforcement personnel interpreted the rule subjectively and, therefore, differently. Even though the rule has been in effect since 1970, no one had been placed out-of-service because it was not incorporated into the North American Standard Out-of-Service Criteria (a.k.a. Out-of-Service Criteria). The OOS Criteria is published by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance.

In 2004, CVSA revised its OOS Criteria to reflect a need to communicate sufficiently in the language of the country in which the driver is operating so he or she can understand and respond to officials. This could affect drivers in French-speaking Quebec who speak English, and English-speaking drivers entering Spanish-speaking Mexico. By the same token, drivers entering the United States would have to speak English fluently enough to perform their tasks as drivers and communicate with inspectors and other law enforcement officials. Even though the OOS Criteria included the new language proficiency requirement, citations were mostly the extent of the violations until this enforcement memo.

Now, the memo instructs inspectors to converse in English with drivers, at minimum, about their origin and destination; record of duty status, on-duty time, and driving time; driver's license; and vehicle components and systems regulated by FMCSA. Mexico-domiciled carriers that operate exclusively in border commercial zones are exempt from the OOS order. The driver would be cited only, and not put out of service. Inspectors are told that they must conduct a portion of the road inspection in English, specifically the driver interview. Drivers must respond appropriately in English to demonstrate proficiency. Failure to respond appropriately to basic questions will result in an OOS violation. Inspectors are instructed to speak slowly, but naturally. They are not to rush through questions and may paraphrase in English the sample driver interview questions included in the enforcement memo.

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