Breaking News
More () »

'An unnecessary barrier' | Tennesseans pushing for better access to driver's license knowledge test

The exam is currently offered in five languages, but several community leaders say those languages do not accurately represent the ones most used in Tennessee.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Moving to a different country comes with a unique set of challenges, but there's one bump in the road University of Tennessee doctoral student Nagham Abou Zeid wasn't expecting when she arrived in the United States.

"I realized that it's really hard to live in Knoxville or any non-major U.S. city without a car," she explained.

Two years ago, Abou Zeid left her family and friends in her home country of Lebanon. Soon after, her new life in East Tennessee quickly came to a halt. 

"It was very depressing the first few months—being stuck at home, not being able to buy groceries," she recalled.

Without accessible walking or biking paths and no nearby bus stops, Abou Zeid realized a driver's license would have to be her ticket to success in Knoxville. But the journey to obtaining one was more difficult than she expected.

"It took me at least a month to be fully prepared, and I was still very nervous taking the test," she said.

Getting behind the wheel was no problem for Abou Zeid. She obtained a driver's license in Lebanon six years ago and has been driving ever since. Like many Lebanese people, Abou Zeid is fluent in Arabic and French. She also speaks some Spanish and became proficient in English as an undergraduate student.

Even so, she said she wishes she had the option of taking the Tennessee driver's license knowledge test in Arabic. 

"The shoulder of the road, or the rear of the car or the rearview mirror—these are words I've never heard in my life," Abou Zeid said. "You are fully capable of driving; it's just you don't understand the language on the driver's test."

Some Tennesseans are calling on state officials to offer the driver's license knowledge exam in more languages.

The test is currently offered in five languages: English, Spanish, Japanese, Korean and German. However, several community leaders say this list does not accurately represent the languages most used in Tennessee.

According to census data, Arabic is the third most spoken language in the state

As the founder and director of Elmahaba Center in Nashville, Lydia Yousief leads one of the organizations fighting for the exam to be offered in more languages. "We are creating an unnecessary barrier," she said.

Yousief works first-hand with immigrants, refugees and people who speak English as a second language. "How much do immigrants spend just to get on their feet that is completely unnecessary? The amount of times they fail the exam, the amount of times they can't go to work, the amount of times they can't see a doctor for being sick, because who's going to drive them?"

Elmahaba Center is one of six organizations leading a petition demanding greater access to driver's licenses. Yousief said the lack of language access on the exam makes Tennessee roads more dangerous for everyone.

"It is actually safer to translate material and make sure people understand how to interact with each other with huge machinery, as opposed to expecting them to just memorize things anxiously because they have to get to work," Yousief added. "I feel like it should have been done 20 years ago, like most states." 

Nearby states including Kentucky, Georgia and Alabama offer the exam in multiple languages, including Arabic.

"I [have been] in Knoxville for 10 years now. From the first day I got here, it is still an issue," Knoxville resident Egide Irambona explained.

Originally from East Africa, Irambona now helps lead Sodela, a nonprofit assisting new Americans in East Tennessee—a position he was once in.

"Even myself, I failed [the knowledge exam] twice. I failed it twice, but I did not give up give up. I keep fighting, fighting until I get a driver's license," Irambona said.

Now, his fight continues on behalf of others: "If other states offer this, why Tennessee cannot offer it?"

For decades, that question has led to a dead-end, but advocates say it's time to drive Tennessee forward.

The petition calls on the state to offer the exam in several other languages, including Kurdish and Somali.

These changes would fall under the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security. WBIR has contacted the department for comment and has not heard back.


Before You Leave, Check This Out