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Legal Tip: How language proficiency can affect a truck accident case

Written by Steve Gursten Posted February 17th, 2014


A little known rule in Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR) requires that all commercial drivers be proficient in English. Most attorneys have never heard of it.

It only takes a moment to realize why it’s important that a truck driver be able to speak and read English well. A driver has to read and understand road and traffic signs on the highway. As an attorney who has litigated a number of very serious trucking accident cases caused by French speaking, Canadian drivers coming into Michigan and New York from Canada, and now an increasing number of Spanish speaking drivers in Texas and neighboring states, I can see the expanding scope of this problem.

The problem is not just interstate or one that involves truckers coming into the U.S. from Canada or Mexico. I also see it in the much smaller owner-operator and mom and pop trucking companies in cities like Detroit, where it is increasingly common to see a driver who only speaks Albanian, has been in the country for only a few months, and is driving a semi-truck without insurance.

I recently was consulted about a serious truck accident in the northeast. The truck accident was caused by a trucker who broke numerous safety rules in the FMCSRs, which are the federal regulations that govern all commercial trucking companies and truck drivers.

This trucker was speeding. He was driving distracted. He was using his cell phone. And he was quickly trying to switch lanes because he was about to miss his exit when he struck and injured an innocent motorist. The motorist called the Truck Accident Attorneys Roundtable for a free consultation. We were able to help her.

What stood out to me about this truck wreck was the reason this trucker nearly missed his exit. He tried to veer over into the exit lane at the last second because he could not read the sign. The truck driver was not proficient in English.

The rule at hand requires all commercial drivers “[c]an 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.” § 391.11(b)(2).

Yes, preventable truck accidents do happen for a number of reasons, and our attorneys write about these different causes and about the cases we litigate. Increasingly, like the truck crash I was consulted about above, they result from being unable to accurately read and understand traffic signs and road directions.

This little-known regulation is often ignored by accident lawyers. Less experienced accident attorneys may not know that the rule exists. I have reviewed cases where a translator was required at a truck driver’s legal deposition, but the question about English proficiency was never asked, or alleged in any legal pleadings.

But it is critical.

There are often important messages displayed on flashing and electronic signs on highways to alert motorists of slow traffic ahead, or about accidents, poor road conditions, construction, or other unexpected hazards in the road ahead.

Furthermore, what are signs for? We rely on signs to guide us! We read directions – North, South, East, West, — exits and on-ramps and much more when driving.

How can a trucker possibly NOT be a serious threat to everyone around him if he or she cannot read the signs we rely upon every day to navigate and facilitate traffic?

The answer is, they cannot.

Next time you, the attorney, are litigating a serious truck accident injury, remember this rule. It can be very helpful in holding bad trucking companies, and dangerous truck drivers, accountable when they put innocent people at risk.

Related information:

Mexico-U.S. pilot program allows certain Mexican truck companies to operate in America


About Steve Gursten

Attorney Steven Gursten is president of the Motor Vehicle Trial Lawyers Association and past president of the American Association for Justice Trucking Litigation Group. He has been named a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Leader in the Law" for his efforts to prevent truck accidents and promote national truck safety. Steve was also a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Lawyer of the Year" for a record settlement in a truck accident case. He has received the top reported truck accident jury verdict and top reported truck accident settlement in Michigan for multiple years, according to published year-end compilations of all jury verdicts and personal injury settlements by Michigan Lawyers Weekly. He has been named a "Top 50 Super Lawyer," by SuperLawyers, is listed in Best Lawyers in America, and has been awarded an AV-rating by Martindale-Hubbell, which is the highest rating for legal ability and ethics. Steve speaks to lawyers throughout the country on truck accident litigation. He is a founding member of the Truck Accident Attorneys Roundtable, head of Michigan Auto Law, and has dedicated his legal career to making our roads safer.
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