Though Miami-Dade County is home to the nation’s largest Cuban, Colombian, Honduran and Peruvian communities, one would never know it by reading the electronic signs on the highways.
Close to 1 million signs are spread throughout the county to “assure the safe and efficient flow of pedestrian and vehicular traffic,” according to the Traffic Signals and Signs Division of the Miami-Dade Transportation and Public Works Department.
But approximately 1.9 million Hispanic residents who speak English “less than ‘very well’”— roughly 48 percent of the county’s Spanish-speaking respondents, according to 2016 Census data—risk missing important information every time they get behind the wheel.
“Following the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, our messages are displayed in English,” Florida Department of Transportation District Six spokeswoman Tish Burgher said in an email.
This includes messages on Dynamic Message Signs, the changeable signs FDOT uses to communicate safe driving reminders – such as using your turn indicators or driving with your lights on in the rain – traffic hazards, lane closures and numerous other bits of information both mundane and vital. In addition, these signs are used for Silver or Amber Alerts — letting the public know about children or the elderly who are missing or otherwise in trouble.
As of July 2017, approximately 90 DMS are permanently mounted throughout the county, according to a FDOT Transportation Systems Management & Operations report. Many are on I-95 and other county highways, though they are often seen on arterial roads — high-capacity urban roads.
Restricting DMS language to English, some residents argue, creates unnecessary danger.
“It’s an issue of safety,” said Tomas Kennedy, deputy director of FLIC Votes, a Florida immigrant rights group. “We live in a multicultural city where English and Spanish are predominantly spoken—and Creole in parts of the city as well. It would be wise to have these signs be read in both English and Spanish.”
In terms of language, a grey area exists when driving in Miami, where both English and Spanish communication options are often the norm.
Motorists that call MDX, the user-funded transportation agency that oversees five toll expressways, will have the option to proceed through the automated menu in English or Spanish. The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles Driver’s Handbook is offered in several languages, including English, Spanish and Haitian-Creole.
It’s not necessary to understand English to pass a driver’s exam.
“There are different offices [that] may have instructors who can accommodate different languages, or you can bring a translator when you’re doing the driver’s skills test,” said Alexis Bakofsky, the deputy communications director for the DMV.
Some Miamians, like Hialeah resident Maricel Gonzalez, favor bilingual accommodations but don’t consider them crucial. The 62-year-old immigrated to Miami 38 years ago and earned her driver’s license in 1981. She has never learned English.
“Sometimes I’ll understand the information being given [on street signs]; sometimes I won’t,” she said in Spanish. “I’ve never had much of an issue, but I think it would help a lot of people—especially in emergency situations.”
More than 1,600 miles northward, a Canadian province is experiencing a comparable situation.
In February, Montreal attorney Harold Staviss and Côte-St-Luc Councillor Ruth Kovac presented a petition to the National Assembly of Quebec asking that all traffic and electronic signs be in French and English when no symbol or pictograph exists.
“Having signage in both languages would make the roads much safer because everybody’s going to understand it,” Staviss said in a phone interview.
Canada has two official languages, French and English. But in Quebec—the country’s second-most populous province —only French is used on roadway and commercial signs. The policy is in accordance with the Charter of French Language, more commonly known as “Bill 101,” which banned the use of all signage language but French.
“The government is worried that by having English, it’s going to diminish the French language,” he said. “And our thing is, it’s not going to harm the French language. If I’m coming from the states or another province in Canada and I don’t know what those signs mean, I may jam on my brakes because I don’t know what to do. Now, you may be behind me and you’re going to hit my car.”
Anglophones in Quebec are at a significant representational disadvantage compared to their Spanish-speaking South Florida counterparts, however; less than 6 percent of the population in Quebec speaks just English, according to Census data released in August.
“In Miami, we always wonder why they don’t put up bilingual signs,” said Kovac, whose family owns a condominium in Hallandale Beach.
It’s bewildering, she said—especially in light of her experience in Quebec, where considerably fewer would benefit from bilingual signs—that transportation officials are unwilling to make what she sees are logical linguistic adjustments.
“The numbers warrant it, so why isn’t your department of transportation seeing this as a safety and security issue?” she said.