Do drivers need to learn English? Another truck stuck in Vermont's Smugglers' Notch

Screen Shot 2021 06 28 At 3 39 52 Pm Headshot
Updated Aug 17, 2023
truck stuck on smuggler's notch road in vermont
As far as Smuggler's Notch stuckages go, this one isn't that bad. We've seen worse!
Vermont State Police

Perhaps the most dangerous road for truckers claimed another victim on Tuesday, with a tractor-trailer getting stuck on the Smugglers' Notch stretch of Vermont State Route 108.

This makes at least three trucks this year that plowed past warning signs, and sometimes screaming bystanders, warning about the treacherous pass in multiple languages. It's also yet another Smuggler's Notch stuckage that involves a language barrier. 

"The operator of the truck was identified as Ramiro Suarez Cadena," police wrote of the most recent incident. "Cadena told Troopers that he was unable to read or understand the English language, so he did not heed the multiple signs prior to entering the Notch."  

Cadena was ultimately issued multiple tickets for traversing the route, and blocking traffic after he got stuck, local police noted. 

[Related: Truck driver takes a swim after crashing into reservoir]

Overdrive previously spoke to the Vermont Agency of Transportation, who said there are at least half a dozen signs in French and English warning trucks about the route. A local towing company said that, often, language issues compound the problem. 

Todd Sears, Operations and Safety Bureau Deputy Director at the AOT said the "majority of stuckages, however, do not involve language issues."

Of course, in this case, the driver admitted to not being able to read English. But with English-language signage the main form of communication over the road, is it even legal for a CDL driver to lack such a core skill?

The answer is no, and yes. 

According to 49 Code of Federal Regulations 391.11(b), "a person is qualified to drive a motor vehicle if he/she ... Can 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."

This driver clearly fails the "understand highway traffic signs and signals in the English language" part, but the FMCSA has in fairly recent years issued guidance on policy that says "formal driver interviews to confirm [English Language Proficiency] will not be conducted during roadside inspections," and that drivers can use "I-Speak cards, cue cards, smart phone applications," and/or an "On-Call Telephone Interpretation Service" to help communicate with inspectors. 

Partner Insights
Information to advance your business from industry suppliers
The ALL NEW Rand Tablet
Presented by Rand McNally

Basically, they won't check if a driver speaks English, and as long as they can find some means of communicating with authorities, that's fine. Keep in mind, these rules also protect the hearing-impaired. 

FMCSA's more lenient policy on language violations was issued in 2016 by then-Associate Administrator for Enforcement Bill Quade after the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance removed the English-language-proficiency violation from the out of service criteria. Even with that policy, though, one thing is clear: "If a non-English speaking driver acknowledges that he/she does not speak English," the policy states, "the driver should be cited" for a violation of 391.11(b)(2).

So, does a driver have to speak English? Not really. They just can't admit to not speaking English. 

Did the driver get a violation in this case for admitting to not knowing English and then causing a blockage? No.

No inspection was performed, given the responding officer was not a CVSA-certified inspector. No other certified officer responded on-scene at what's honestly kind of a back road between two small towns in the nation's second least populous state.

Long-term, Vermont plans to install a "chicane course" leading up to the passage "intended to mirror the tight angles found in the Notch itself, and will force a turnaround of oversized vehicles when they discover they can’t navigate it."

Here's hoping that actions speak louder than words. 

[Related: Truck stuck in Smugglers' Notch, again -- and Vermont plans to take action