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Written portion of driver’s tests should steer clear of confusing language, House lawmaker says

The written test for a driver’s license may not be easier to pass next year, but it could be easier to read.

Sponsored by Rep. Brad Tabke (DFL-Shakopee), HF3071 would direct the state to use plain language in manuals and written drivers’ examinations. The goal is to ensure drivers prove they understand the rules of the road rather than an ability to decode complex sentences.

The House Transportation Finance and Policy Committee approved the bill, as amended, Tuesday and referred it to the House Ways and Means Committee.

The Department of Public Safety has been working on simplifying language, but this bill would help ensure that’s done in a timely fashion, Tabke said. In a time of long waits at driver’s license stations, more clearly written tests could reduce the number of people needing multiple tries to pass the exams, even when they know what it takes to be a good driver.  

Amna Kiran, who teaches English as a second language in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, has seen firsthand how challenging the wording can be for her students. She began researching the difficulties and discovered through extensive surveys that native and non-native English speakers often find the language more challenging than content.

“Backing up is not allowed on freeways or expressways except for what,” is an example of a question with multiple complex layers, Kiran said. A simpler version would be: “Only (blank) vehicles are allowed to back up on freeways.”

Among specifics listed in the bill, language should:

  • use the word “you” to address test takers directly;
  • use the active voice;
  • use concrete, familiar words;
  • avoid long and complex sentences;
  • minimize the use of abbreviations; and
  • omit double negatives and terms such as "except for", "unless" and "indicated otherwise."

The bill would appropriate $212,000 from the driver and vehicle services operating account to implement the new standards. The bulk of the cost would be for translation services.

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