Oklahoma House passes international driver's test bill

Wednesday, April 10th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Driver's license exams for Spanish-speaking Oklahomans would test their understanding of international highway symbols rather than English under a measure approved by the state House Tuesday.

Supporters said the bill, similar to laws in 34 other states, would make it easier for members of Oklahoma's growing Hispanic population to get a state driver's license and qualify for automobile insurance.

``To me, this is a matter of public safety,'' said Rep. Hopper Smith, R-Tulsa.

``We're trying to encourage people to drive legally and understand the rules of the road,'' said Rep. David Braddock, D-Altus.

But opponents said drivers who do not understand English might endanger themselves and others by not understanding English-language road signs such as ``Bridge Out'' and ``Icy Road.''

``I think we're endangering our citizenry,'' said Rep. Bill Graves, R-Oklahoma City.

Rep. Lance Cargill, R-Harrah said drivers don't have to read English fluently.

``You don't have to read Charles Dickens,'' Cargill said. But he said it is important that Oklahoma drivers have a basic understanding of English in order to safely navigate the state's roads.

The state already makes allowances on state driving tests for illiterate drivers who cannot read English or any other language, said Rep. Clay Pope, D-Loyal.

During their 90-minute debate, lawmakers strayed from discussion of driver's license tests to the issue of immigration and how the state should welcome an increasing number of Hispanic and Asian residents.

Census data released last year indicates the state's Hispanic population doubled in the 1990s, from 86,160 people in 1990 to 179,304 last year, an increase of 108 percent.

``We all come from somewhere else,'' Pope said.

Rep. Thad Balkman, R-Norman, said. ``A lot has been said about reaching out to people.''

But Balkman added that driving is a privilege and that the state has a right to require an understanding of English before issuing a license.

Graves said learning the English language is part of becoming an American.

``I don't want them to come here if they're not going to be American,'' he said. ``This bill is another step in the wrong direction.''

House members adopted an amendment by Rep. John Wright, R-Broken Arrow, that would require applicants for state driver's licenses to prove they are a legal resident of the state.

The measure's author, Rep. Mike Tyler, D-Sapulpa, said it will cost more than $100,000 to create a driver's license test for Spanish-speaking residents and that more languages can be added once the program is implemented.

The measure, Senate Bill 966, passed 63-34 and was returned to the Senate.