Are DOT Regulations applicable to light trucks and trailers? Could You be Subject to DOT Laws?

When working with clients, I periodically encounter situations where a client is unknowingly out of compliance with Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations. Many times, these issues relate to light trucks or vans that are occasionally used to tow trailers. There are passenger carrier rules and hazardous material rules, which I will address in another insight blog.

For this post, I will make two assumptions. First, I will assume that we are discussing vehicles being used in commerce. If they are driven for business in any way, they are in commerce. The second assumption I will make is that these vehicles are being driven on public roadways. If you operate only on private property or are not operating in commerce, the DOT does not have jurisdictional authority over your operations.

Here, I will discuss only DOT weight regulations and the weight threshold that will trigger DOT regulations applicable to light trucks and trailers.

The topic of DOT weight regulations tends to get confusing for three reasons:

1. There are two types of fleet operations. One is called intrastate (For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that means never crossing state lines; more on that in a later post), and one is called interstate (crossing state lines). Depending on which type of fleet you operate and which state you operate in, the weight threshold that triggers a need for compliance can be different. For example, for intrastate fleets, the state of Colorado threshold is 16,000 pounds GVWR (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating) / GCWR Gross Combined Weight Rating); the state of Arizona threshold is 18,000 pounds GVWR / GCWR; other states have different thresholds; and some states stick with 10,001 pounds GVWR / GCWR, which matches the federal government standard for interstate CMV definitions. In other words, depending on which state you’re in and whether or not you cross state lines, the threshold is different.

2. The way these weights are measured is not intuitive to those who have not dealt with DOT regulations before. These weights are not the actual weights of a vehicle or trailer but instead include the vehicle's weight plus the weight it can carry. These two weights add up to the GVWR. This information is usually posted on the inside of the driver’s door and trailers.

It does not matter whether the weight rating is of a single-vehicle (GVWR) or a combination of vehicles (GVWR + GVWR = GCWR). If it exceeds the threshold, then DOT regulations start to kick in.

To help explain why this is often missed, it may be helpful to look at an example. It is not uncommon for a three-quarter-ton truck to have a GVWR as high as 10,000 pounds, especially with diesel, which is just one pound shy of the federal GVWR limit that would require DOT compliance at some level. Let’s look at what happens if such a truck is used for either interstate or intrastate purposes:

  • Interstate: If a trailer is added to a truck of this type, the combination would be a CMV because the combined weight (GCWR) exceeds 10,001 pounds.

  • Intrastate: In some states, the combination would qualify as a CMV once it hit 10,001 pounds, and in some states with higher weight thresholds, it would only become a CMV once it hit that state’s threshold. Using Colorado as an example, if the trailer GVWR is 6,000 pounds (not uncommon for a dual-axle trailer), the combined weight of 16,001 pounds would now require compliance with DOT regulations specific to Colorado.

Even if you have quarter-ton trucks or vans, their GVWR can be 7,000 pounds or higher. A trailer with a GVWR of 3,001 pounds or higher would push the GCWR to 10,001 pounds.

Another somewhat confusing factor is that none of these thresholds mean a driver must have a commercial driver’s license (CDL) to drive the vehicle. That is a different threshold set at a higher weight level. Many employers assume that if their drivers don’t need a CDL, they are not subject to any DOT regulations. In fact, they may be required to keep driver qualification files; pull and check motor vehicle records; maintain medical cards; carry out road evaluations; ensure their drivers are not disqualified, keep hours of service records, and more.

Our team can be sent to be addressed to learn more about federal regulations or questions about state-specific regulations.

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