HONOLULU - Even though Hawaiian is one of the official languages of the state, Hawaii residents won't be able to take driver's license exams in the language until next month.
The state Department of Transportation is preparing to make Hawaiian an exam language starting March 17. It will be one of the few official transactions that can be conducted in Hawaiian.
In 2001, the state began offering the exam in several languages, including Tagalog, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Samoan and Tongan. But those tests were no longer offered when new questions were added. It's not clear when the state stopped offering those translated tests.
Those languages will be reinstated, and others will be offered for the first time, department officials said. The new languages will be Ilocano, Spanish, Chuukese, Marshallese and Hawaiian.
It's not clear how the department's plans to offer the languages will affect an ongoing federal lawsuit claiming that Hawaii discriminates against immigrants by only allowing driver's license tests to be taken in English.
"The DOT is already doing what the plaintiffs have asked the court to order them to do," said Anne Lopez, spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office.
Gavin Thornton, deputy director of Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, one of the organizations that filed the lawsuit in September, said he'll be "thrilled" if officials do what they say.
"But I don't have any confidence that we'll actually see something in March," he said.
Thornton said lawyers defending the state against the lawsuit have suggested in court filings that allowing those who don't speak English to drive is dangerous.
"Issuing driver's licenses to persons unable to read and comprehend traffic control signs would clearly be irresponsible, and would place other motorists and pedestrians at risk from drivers unqualified to use a motor vehicle on public roads," the state attorney general's office argued in court papers.
Making the translations available has been a goal for several years, said Clifton Harty, the department's acting civil rights coordinator. He said the department used census data to help determine which languages to offer.
According to census data, of about 1.2 million people in Hawaii, nearly 300,000 spoke a language other than English at home from 2006-08.
Translations of the written, multiple-choice exams are complete, and the department is finalizing details such as formatting, Harty said.
The process involved making sure the translations are accurate, especially because of some of the technical terms in the exam.
"We want to make sure these exams hold up and people can pass the exams," Harty said.
The translations cost the department about $6,980, not including staff time, said DOT spokeswoman Caroline Sluyter.
Offering the translated exam is "very important for the local community," Harty said. He said including Hawaiian is especially important as a way to honor its status as an official language of the state.