Los Angeles City Councilman Michael Woo and California Highway Patrol officials announced a new program Friday to improve the driving habits of Asian immigrant motorists forced to contend with unfamiliar laws, signs and traffic conditions on Los Angeles County roadways.
"As our population grows, it's important to reach out to our many drivers, among them immigrants from Asia who don't fully understand our driving system," Woo said during a City Hall press conference.
CHP Southern Division Chief Ed Gomez said that starting Feb. 1, the patrol's program will use seminars throughout the Asian community to teach recently arrived immigrants about the state's driving laws. Under the program, the CHP will also try to boost its recruitment of Asian-language-speaking officers in the county, where now only four of 1,000 CHP officers are bilingual Asians.
Both Woo and Gomez stressed that the need for the program did not arise from any "lack of inherent driving skills" on the part of Asians. Woo said that he hopes that if the program is successful, it will be helpful in dispelling a stubbornly pervasive stereotype among some Southern Californians that Asians are poor drivers.
"We are in part admitting that there's a problem--not that Asians are inherently bad drivers, but that there is a lack of education about our laws among some of the immigrants," Woo said. Noting that "stereotypes are difficult to change," Woo said he hoped that the program's success would change the minds of "people who think that there is a problem."
But Jay Fong, a lawyer with the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California, criticized the program for being directed only at Asian immigrants and not including other immigrant groups. He said that Asian community leaders have been vexed "for some time" by the image among California residents that Asians are "problem drivers"--despite the lack of any empirical evidence to suggest any such problems.
"I think it feeds an already existing feeling among some people that Asians are bad drivers," Fong said. "I would have thought that they would have made this kind of program available to all immigrants."
Driving statistics compiled by the CHP do not show any "disproportionately high" rate of accidents or infractions involving Asian immigrant drivers, Gomez said.
Gomez also noted that the CHP already has a similar program directed at Latino drivers, and it claims success in reaching that immigrant community. "We find that immigrants in general are not used to the complex environment that they meet on our highways," he said.
The seminars will involve student groups and community organizations and will be led by Asian-speaking officers or other officials, accompanied by interpreters. The CHP also plans brochures in several Asian languages and an advertising campaign in Asian-language publications. CHP officials say they have a potential audience of more than 1 million recent immigrants in Los Angeles County.
"This kind of outreach is the best way to break down the cultural barriers between the CHP and the Asian community they are trying to serve," Woo said.