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KENT: English-only tests will save lives on the road

Georgia is one of 30 states that have made English their official language of government operations, yet there is a dangerous loophole. Despite the law, Georgia's Department of Driver Services gives driver's license tests in 13 other languages, ranging from Farsi to Laotian.

To close that loophole and protect the safety of everyone using Georgia's roads, state Sen. Jack Murphy, R-Cumming, introduced legislation requiring that all permanent residents take their written driver's license tests in English. It passed the Georgia Senate by a vote of 39-11 and is expected to pass the House.

Murphy argues that "permanent residents who intend to make Georgia their home need to be able to answer in English the basic questions asked on this important test." By the way, a practice exam in English is available on the DDS Web site so test-takers can familiarize themselves with it.

His bill does not apply to those here on temporary visas. The driver's licenses of international business executives, tourists and foreign students will continue to be honored. Contrary to what opponents are saying this is not a "Kill Kia bill"--a reference to the massive new automobile plant built in Georgia by a South Korean company. If anything, it is a "Drive Your Kia in Safety" bill because it will make it safer for everyone to drive in Georgia.

National polls have consistently shown that more than 80 percent of Americans -- black and white, Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative -- support making English the official language of government. This is reflected by the strong bipartisan support Senate Bill 67 has received. State Rep. Alan Powell, D-Elberton, says passing this law will help potential drivers understand warning signs and will help them communicate with police or safety personnel in an emergency.

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulations require drivers engaged in interstate commerce to "read or 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." What is required of drivers to protect public safety in interstate commerce should be required to protect the safety of Georgia drivers as well.

For example, a few years ago an Atlanta-based Department of Labor expert attributed a steep rise in work-related traffic fatalities in Alabama to the increasing number of non-English-speaking driver's on that state's roads.

Adding Georgia to the growing list of states that require written driver's license tests to be taken in English is also an important incentive for legal immigrants in Georgia to learn English and assimilate. That can only strengthen, not weaken, Georgia's desirability as a place to do business. The Arlington, Va.-based Lexington Institute issued a white paper called "The Value of English Proficiency in the U.S.," which conservatively estimated that the lack of English skills costs the U.S. economy a whopping $65 billion in lost wages every year.

Taxpayers also deserve to know why, at a time of serious state budget cutbacks, the Department of Driver's Services continues to waste money on foreign language driver's license tests -- money that could be used to save jobs.

But the overriding and urgent reason to pass this legislation is to save the lives of innocent motorists. If we can prevent even one fatal accident by passing this bill, it will be worth it. Georgia House leaders need to move promptly to pass this bill and send it to Gov. Sonny Perdue to sign into law.

Phil Kent is an Atlanta resident and is a member of ProEnglish, which advocates English as the official language of the United States.