Demand for driver's license tests in new languages is high as the Utah Legislature considers a bill that would further expand the test's language options.

The Utah Department of Public Safety said about 800 individuals have requested to take the test in a language other than English since Jan. 2, when the Driver License Division began offering the test in Spanish, Tongan, Vietnamese, Mandarin and Portuguese. Officials said Spanish is the most requested language, followed by Mandarin.

The new language offerings are thanks to SB216, a law passed last year that required the test to be offered in the top five languages spoken in the state other than English. However, HB141 seeks to expand upon that law and would allow individuals to take the test in their preferred language and to use an interpreter.

Sen. Luz Escamilla, who sponsored SB216, said many individuals with little or no English skills were failing the driver's license test multiple times because of minor language comprehension issues.

"Sometimes it's one word," Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said. "People ask, 'Well, don't they have to understand what they're doing?' Absolutely, but have you seen the manual? Have you tried taking the test? It's about comprehension as well."

Nubia Peña, director of the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs, added that the legislation goes beyond just making the test more accessible or improving public safety.

"This is so much more than just taking an exam. This is about growing opportunities for families to thrive. This is linked to economic pathways to better jobs that are able to give them access to higher-quality living for their families and then being able to contribute to the state," Peña said. "If you want to work in the state of Utah, you have to be able to move around and drive."

Utah Driver License Division Director Chris Caras discusses the new statute in which Utah’s Driver License Division will now provide the driver’s license test in the top languages spoken throughout the state at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Who is eligible to take the test in another language?

The language options are available for anyone who is eligible for a driver's license. Individuals with refugee or asylum status are eligible for limited-term licenses, and previous legislation already allows them to take the test in their native language.

The new language offerings do not apply to driving privilege cards, which are available to undocumented immigrants and individuals on humanitarian parole who do not meet the documentation requirements to obtain a driver's license. Escamilla said there are conversations about expanding language offerings to driving privilege cards but that there won't be legislation addressing that issue this session.

She said although some legislators see those who are eligible for driving privilege cards as a separate population, the reality that many families are mixed immigration status means barring undocumented immigrants from taking the test in their preferred language also impacts their citizen or resident family members.

"We're working with some of the legislators that feel strongly by providing more evidence that this is a public safety issue, not necessarily a conversation on immigration," Escamilla said.

Christopher Caras, Driver License Division director, said he welcomes feedback from the community if they find that they are turned down from taking the test in the languages that are offered. Individuals can give that feedback and make an appointment for a test on the division's website. It is important to note, however, that those languages are provided through the Driver License Division and not the Division of Motor Vehicles, which does not have the same language offerings.

Nubia Peña, Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs director, speaks about the new statute in which Utah’s Driver License Division will now provide the driver’s license test in the top languages spoken throughout the state at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. With Peña is Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, and Utah Department of Public Safety Commissioner Jess L. Anderson. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News