HELENA – Currently motorists in Montana can take the written drivers license test in Russian, Chinese, Spanish or English.
A new law before the legislature proposes the written test be given in English only.
A hearing on House Bill 302 was held on Thursday afternoon in front of the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee.
Supporters say the issue is a matter of safety and that people who are not able to read English on the written test may have difficulty reading important messages on road signs written in English.
Opponents said there is no evidence that drivers proficient in English have better driving records and that making the test English only is discriminatory.
Bill Sponsor Janna Taylor, R-Dayton, said 20 percent of other states currently give the test in English only.
On Thursday, the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported that the Missouri House passed that would require drivers license tests be given only in English.
Bozeman resident Paul Nachman said English is the official language for public business in the state according to Montana code and said it is a safety issue.
“There are a number of cases in other states where drivers caused accidents for others or themselves because they couldn’t read English,” he said.
Three people spoke in favor of the bill.
Four people spoke in opposition to the bill, including representatives from organizations of the ACLU, Human Rights Network and Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
Deborah Smith, a Helena attorney who has practiced immigration law, said similar bills have been defeated in other states because of opposition by the business community.
“This bill…is on the wrong side of history,” Smith told the committee. “A bill like this is bad for business…It’s a form of discrimination.”
During time for questions from the committee, Sen. Anders Blewett, D-Great Falls, said he has driven in other countries where English isn’t the official language.
“I’d be offended if those places told me, ‘Hey, Bucco, you can’t drive because you can’t speak the language’…What if they retaliate against us?” Blewett asked the sponsor.
Taylor said the bill does not address international driver’s licenses.
“If this bill is discriminatory then everything we do is discriminatory, because why did we just pick those (four) languages,” Taylor said in her closing remarks.
House Bill 302 passed a third reading in the house in February by a vote of 62 to 38. To read the full bill click here.