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Motor Carrier Safety Rules Apply Even To Many Smaller Commercial Vehicles

Most attorneys who are familiar with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs) and state trucking safety regulations think they apply only to tractor trailers, tour buses and other very large vehicles for which the driver must have a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL).

What most lawyers do not know is that the regulations may also apply to many commercial vehicles, including many work vehicles such as large pickups towing utility trailers.

A CDL isn’t required to drive smaller utility vehicles and trailers, but they may still be governed by federal or state trucking safety regulations. There are two definitions with which a lawyer handling these cases should be familiar in order to understand how to apply trucking safety regulations to non-CDL drivers
First is Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) and it is what a vehicle manufacturer defines as the vehicles loaded weight. This weight is usually printed on a plate that can be found on the inside of the driver’s door. Most passenger cars have a GVWR of 5000 or less and full-sized pick up trucks will have a GVWR of 6000 to 8000 pounds.

Second is Gross Combination Weight Rating (GCWR). This is the GVWR of the power unit (the towing vehicle) plus the weight of the unit being towed with any load that it is carrying.

The FMCSR contain two definitions of what constitutes a property-carrying commercial motor vehicle. The first definition, found at 49 CFR § 390.5, defines it as “any self-propelled or towed motor vehicle used on a highway or interstate commerce… (that) has a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating or Gross Combination Weight Rating of 10,001 pounds or more.”

The second definition, found at 49 C.F.R. § § 383.5, defines a commercial motor vehicle as a vehicle used in interstate or intrastate commerce that has a gross combination weight rating of 26,001 or more pounds inclusive of a towed unit with a gross vehicle rating of more than 10,000 pounds.

When both the definitions and regulations are put together, a business vehicle that weighs over 10,001 pounds (alone or in combination with a trailer) can be considered a commercial motor vehicle.

This means that a 7000 pound pickup truck pulling 3001 pound trailer can meet the definition of a commercial motor vehicle, even though a commercial drivers license isn’t required for CMVs that are under 26,001 pounds.

Whenever we evaluate a case that involves any size truck or van towing a trailer, we must determine the GCWR because it could be a commercial vehicle required to comply with either federal or state trucking regulations.

If the vehicle qualifies as a commercial motor vehicle, the next step is to determine what safety regulations apply. That will depend initially on whether the commercial vehicle operates in interstate commerce
With some minor variations, most of the FMCSRs apply to the operation of non-CDL commercial motor vehicles. The only extra regulations that govern over 26,001 pound CMVs are those that specifically address CDL licensing ( 49 CFR §383) and drug and alcohol testing (49 CFR §382.)

Here are some of the most important regulations and how they apply.

• Most of the FMCSR and the state equivalent thereof are applicable to all commercial motor vehicles regardless of whether a commercial driver’s license is required to operate the vehicle or not.
• Businesses that operate commercial motor vehicles must register and obtain authority from state and federal trucking authorities. This means everyone from landscape companies to plumbing companies that own and operate vehicles alone or together with a towed trailer weigh over 10,001 pounds must register and follow the regulations that are not just for “trucking companies.”
• Employers of non-CDL CMV drivers are required to “qualify” each driver in the same way as employers of CDL drivers and must maintain an up-to-date Driver Qualification File on each driver (49 CFR §391.) This includes ensuring that drivers meet minimum requirements of being over the age of 21, having the ability to read and speak English, and have both the physical and medical qualifications as CDL drivers. This also requires the employer to obtain a detailed application for employment, perform a detailed background check, obtain annual review of driving records, and perform annual re-qualification of the driver. The only significant difference for CDL drivers is that they are required to give 10 years of employment history instead of the 3 years for non-CDL drivers.
• Most regulations pertaining to the safe operation of commercial motor vehicles apply to the operation of both CDL and non-CDL motor vehicles. This includes prohibitions against drugs, alcohol, radar detectors, unauthorized passengers, texting, handheld devices while operating the vehicle, and operating while ill or fatigued. It also includes requirements for seat belts, emergency equipment, inspections, stopping at railroad crossing, use of extreme caution when operating in poor conditions including rain and fog. See 49 CFR §392 for detailed information on these items.
• For the most part, the same hours of service rules apply to both CDL and non-CDL drivers. The biggest exception has to do with driver daily logs. Except when operating only in a 150 air-mile short haul radius zone drivers that operate CMVs that require a CDL are typically required to keep a detailed 24 hour driver log that shows all changes in duty status although there are some exceptions to this. Most drivers of CMVs that don’t require a CDL are under the qualification of short-haul drivers. As long as they operate within a 150 air-mile radius and return to their base at the end of each trip, they typically aren’t required to keep such a log. However, the employer is required to keep accurate time records showing the time the driver reported for work, when they were released, and total work time for the day as well as the previous seven days. The employer is also required to keep these records for six months.
• Many employers fail to maintain accurate time records for non-CDL drivers. Failure to keep these records raises a presumption of violation. You should also be on the lookout for drivers who hold more than one job. Hours of service regulations apply to all work performed regardless of how many jobs a driver has during the reporting period.

But mere applicability of the regulations to smaller commercial vehicles does not make either the physics of a collision or the dynamics in the courtroom or jury room the same as when an 80,000 pound runs over a family vehicle. The advocate for individuals and families hurt in these collisions must evaluate the whole situation, taking into account the facts, the law and the psychological factors in play.

Ken Shigley is past president of the State Bar of Georgia (2011-12). His law practice focuses on representation of plaintiffs in cases of serious personal injury and wrongful death, including those occurring in commercial truck and bus accidents.