An Uber Driver Is Fined for Not Speaking English, but Tech Innovation Provides Smarter Solutions

Why should local governments demand a default language when we have the tools to sort it all out?


Koen Van Weel/EPA/Newscom

County and municipal government agencies in the Miami area have fined several dozen for-hire drivers for violating a regulation requiring them to be able to speak English.

One of the people penalized, a Spanish-speaking Uber driver named Carmen Hechevarria, has gone to the press to talk about her treatment and her $250 fine. The incident highlights how poorly government regulations have adapted to both cultural change and technological advances.

Licensing regulations in Miami-Dade County require that cabbies and other for-hire drivers "be able to communicate in the English language." According to the Miami Herald, Hechevarria was not fined because her lack of English skills caused problems for any customers. A Miami airport traffic officer greeted her in English when she was dropping off her passengers, and she didn't respond. This apparently was enough to trigger the officer's concerns, and after questioning her with the help of another officer who spoke Spanish, they determined that she was not able to speak English. Therefore, they concluded, she was operating in violation of the regulation.

After the case started getting publicity, the county's Department of Transportation put out a statement explaining that the purpose of the regulation is to make sure that the driver can communicate with the passenger in an emergency or to receive basic directions. (This, oddly, assumes that the passenger is going to be an English speaker.) A representative from Uber says that the company doesn't require drivers to be able speak English. Its app operates in English to arrange trips, and Uber believe that complies with the law.

Just think of the many ways technology could bypass this "problem" without fining Hechevarria or, worse, telling her she's not allowed to drive. Uber has already added tools to its app that make it easier for deaf and hard-of-hearing people to be drivers. When using an app to order a car, couldn't passengers inform the service whether they need somebody who speaks English? Even better: What if the customer needs somebody who speaks a different language entirely? We're talking about Miami here. Hechevarria could probably confine herself to driving around people who exclusively speak Spanish and never go hungry. UberX does allow customers to request Spanish-speaking drivers in six cities (Miami, surprisingly, is not yet among them). Imagine a tool like that expanded to other languages and other cities—and countries.

Innovations like those can help fix problems in ways that work for everyone. That's a nice contrast with occupational regulations, which instead block people from getting jobs and contributing to the economy.

NEXT: Mitch McConnell Might Hold a Vote on an Obamacare Rewrite Next Week. It's Not Even Drafted Yet.

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  1. I had a non-English speaking Uber driver one time. It was nearly impossible to communicate anything or get where we were going. It was frustrating as hell, even though I plugged in the address in the Uber app. We do need technology to fix these problems, but I don’t think we’ll ever be able to completely eliminate them. Then there’s the need to read signs and listen to instructions in an emergency.
    When it comes to language, I guess I’m not very libertarian. I think everybody should be required to learn basic English for any vehicle-driving or construction occupations. I’m an engineer, and having non-English speaking construction workers is dangerous and has led to frequent unsafe conditions.

    1. Had the same experience with a taxi driver.

      Also, as one who drove a cab in my youth and later, having driven in half a dozen countries where I did not speak or read the language, I can assure anyone that not knowing the local language would be a serious handicap to a cabbie.

      1. Gotta agree. Between driver and passenger speak whatever the hell language you want but Uber should not be employing people who can’t speak the quasi-national language.

        1. OTOH, I know people who would prefer if their driver was unable to speak to them, and despise conversing with cabbies. Some are the reverse, naturally.

          1. despise conversing with cabbies

            That’s me. Fortunately with the rise of the cell phone, they don’t talk to me any more. I have not had a ride in the last 10 years where the driver was not literally speaking on the phone the entire time.

    2. You could cancel your ride or give the driver a one star rating and a review that says “Didn’t understand English.” They get more than a few of these and the free market solves the problem.

      1. I was going to say the same thing.

        But those rating systems have their own problems. For example, say the driver didn’t speak English and got a few zero-star reviews. The driver could see the bad reviews and begin taking English courses and get better at communication. But the old reviews are still there. So in some circumstances the bad review is a disincentive.

        Ebay has a friggin’ review bureaucracy. They think they solved one problem but their solution created another problem. The buyer gives a bad review so the seller gives a bad review. A friggin’ simple transaction and the “solution” to a bad experience winds up introducing Game Theory into the equation, ultimately rendering the review system pointless.

        1. Don’t Uber drivers review their passengers too?

          Agree that these kinds of review systems are… problematical at best.

          1. They do, and the real problem is they’re REQUIRED TO before they get their next ride. Passengers have the option, and can wait until their ratings come in (or even watch over your shoulder), so they can retaliate.

    3. Stop signs and Arabic numerals look the same the world over.

      1. The only Arabic numeral I’m aware of is zero…

        1. Zero is Indian.

  2. Could be that’s what the people who vote in the local government want.

    No, the “tools” do not “have it all sorted out”.

  3. When China takes over, everyone will be speaking Mandarin, so… be patient.

    1. Hey, were you that guy from the 80’s saying how we’d all be speaking Japanese by the year 2000? Because if so, I want my money back for those language tapes.

      1. NO REFUNDS. Give you store credit only! Have big sale on Mandarin tapes. Just for you.

        1. Hey! These are just some hillbilly playing the mandolin!

  4. how many English words does the law say she needs to know? seems like one word would satisfy the law as written, such as the word no which is English and Spanish.

  5. How did she get a driver’s license? If those are issued for Spanish-speakers, WIH should Uber drivers be under other requirements?
    And it seems easy to deal with regarding passenger/driver comm; when you ask for a pick up, spec ‘English-speaking’.

  6. If your driver can’t understand an instruction such as ‘stay off the toll way, I don’t want to pay for it’ does that mean I’m not obligated to pay for the toll way when they take it, disregarding my instructions? How will we barter that out, I wonder, if they can’t understand me? I find it bizarre that an article would say that people who are charging you money for a service don’t really need to understand what you’re asking for as a customer. That’s pretty retarded, yeah?

    Could there be a technocratic way of solving such a problem, such as translation software? Sure. Was there, in this case? Nope. That’s a problem, and you would know that if you’ve been in a taxi with someone who didn’t understand anything you said to them, and they took you by the worst possible route to inflate their fare. Yeah, I’ve had it happen and I was pretty pissed.

    1. That’s a problem, and you would know that if you’ve been in a taxi with someone who didn’t understand anything you said to them, and they took you by the worst possible route to inflate their fare.

      Except that is not how Uber works; the fare is set before you ever order the car. I was in an Uber car in Paris a few months ago and my driver didn’t understand a word I said to him. I didn’t understand a word he said to me. It didn’t present the slightest problem and the silence made it one of the nicest rides I have ever had.

      1. It’s been a while since I used Uber, but my recollection is that I have to pay the toll fees and that if the route differs I still have to pay more if it’s a longer distance traveled.

        What they cite you at the start of the trip is an estimation if memory serves.

  7. As America doesn’t have an official language, sounds like a bad regulation.

    That said, the discussed “solutions” don’t actually “fix” anything. They just enable people to avoid the problems.

    1. I, for one, want to avoid the problem of a cab driver not understanding my requests.

      1. And Uber aggressively avoids having to screen their drivers for, well, anything.

        Including language ability (they fought this in London too).

        1. As well they should. Uber shouldn’t *have to* screen their drivers; yet they screen them anyway.

    2. It’s not a national regulation, dumb fuck. America’s “official language” would have absolutely no bearing here.

  8. Are Muslim Uber drivers required to take passengers carrying liquor or having a dog with them?

    1. Drivers with deadly allergies are required to take dogs.

      Source: was one.

    2. And if you don’t drive people with alcohol in/on then, you won’t last long as an Ubermensch.

  9. How does fining someone for not speaking English not violate someone’s civil liberties?
    English is not an official language, and it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of national origin, so writing English-speaking requirements into an occupational licensing law strikes me as a blatant violation of the CRA.

    1. You have a civil liberty to be employed even if you don’t speak the language of the people you serve? That’s an odd claim to make since there is no such right even within the EEOC. Notably, not hiring someone because they don’t speak English is not at all the same as not hiring someone because of their national origin.

      1. No one said he has a right to be employed; he has a right to seek employment, which the occupational licensing restriction prohibits.

        That’s some mental gymnastics though to characterize opposing an occupational licensing restriction as supporting a right to a job.

    2. Depends on whether or not a lawyer can convince the judge that “language” is a proxy for “national origin”. And, y’know, whether or not she’s an American citizen. If she is, she’s not naturalized. But she might very well be a born and bred American who just never learned English (it is Miami, after all).

      That said, even if a lawyer can convince a judge that it’s National Origin discrimination, that just raises the bar for the city to prove it’s justified. That “driver must be able to communicate with passenger in emergency” is probably persuasive to folks that aren’t as lenient on the ethics of professional licensing (hint: all lawyers and judges have to pass the bar, so they’re invested in the system you’re arguing is ethically wrong).

      1. No, I mean at the most baseline it is immeasurably foolhardy to require an employer to hire someone who literally can not complete the functions of that job due to a baseline inability to communicate with their customers. This is so obvious that it would take a true intellectual to miss the obvious on-the-ground utility of such a regulation.

        1. Too much baseline, oh well.

          You get the idea. If you can’t take an order, or give an intelligible order, you are unemployable.

          1. So why do we need a regulation to keep someone unemployed who is unemployable?

            Markets, they work.

        2. This is so obvious that it would take a true intellectual to miss the obvious on-the-ground utility of such a regulation.

          It would take either a true intellectual or a true fucking idiot. Guess which one you’re dealing with in this case?

  10. When I drove for Uber, not speaking Mandarin was a bigger hurdle with my passengers.

  11. So, what will we do with non-english speaking computers that auto-drive us everywhere?

  12. It is obviously racist to ask drivers to understand English. It isn’t as if all of the fucking ROAD SIGNS are printed in English or anything. I mean I know the holy Mexican is Reason’s god, but you do want them to be driving their taco trucks on the right side of the road and not running people down in marked crosswalks, right?

  13. So should non English speakers be prohibited from being passengers seeing as how they could not communicate in the event of an emergency?

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