What are Commercial Motor Vehicles to minimize fines and ligation

Most people have a common understanding of what a "commercial vehicle" is. We first think of semi-trucks, large box trucks, motor coaches, and buses. Nevertheless, many motor carriers who handle trucking accident cases are making a mistake when applying this common understanding – or, as it often turns out, misunderstanding – to what is a commercial motor vehicle.


That is because a commercial vehicle or commercial motor vehicle (CMV) is not always what it may appear to be.


Would you ever believe something like a pickup truck can sometimes be a commercial vehicle?

A pickup truck can be considered a commercial vehicle even though it is not a traditional semi-truck or big-rig truck under certain circumstances. Suppose a motor carrier has a severe injury, accident, or wrongful death case that involves a pickup truck under the below circumstances and does not know this, and therefore treats the pickup truck like an ordinary motor vehicle. In that case, a lawyer has many avenues available for settlements. It can turn a minimum insurance policy limit of $20,000 into one with minimum insurance policy limits of $750,000.


Trucks are ranked according to their gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR). The gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR), or gross vehicle mass (GVM), is the maximum operating weight/mass of a vehicle as specified by the manufacturer, including the vehicle's chassis, body, engine, engine fluids, fuel, accessories, driver, passengers, and cargo but excluding that of any trailers.


A vehicle's weight is influenced by passengers, cargo, and even fuel level, so several terms are used to express a vehicle's weight in a designated state. Gross combined weight rating (GCWR) refers to the total mass, including all trailers. GVWR and GCWR are used to specify weight limitations and restrictions. The gross trailer weight rating specifies the maximum weight of a trailer, and the gross axle weight rating specifies the maximum weight on any particular axle.


What Exactly is a Commercial Motor Vehicle?

As you will see, there are many avenues available to move an ordinary vehicle into a commercial motor vehicle (CMV) territory. Nevertheless, the rules do not even stop there.

Motor Carriers should know both definitions in the regulations.


  1. 49 CFR 390.5 defines a commercial motor vehicle as any self-propelled or towed vehicle used on the highways in interstate commerce to transport passengers or property if the vehicle—

  2. Has a gross vehicle weight rating or gross vehicle weight of at least 10,001 pounds, whichever is greater; This point can get confusing quickly because there are two ways to determine that weight. There is the gross vehicle weight, which is how much the vehicle physically weighs. The gross vehicle weight rating, on the other hand, is the maximum operating weight as determined by the vehicle manufacturer. Typically, this information can be found on the sticker inside the vehicle door. Whichever of those is more significant — the actual weight or the manufacturer rating — will determine if the vehicle is commercial. For example, a vehicle might weigh only 9,000 pounds, but if the manufacturer's sticker sets the gross vehicle weight rating at 11,001 pounds, you are dealing with a commercial vehicle.

  3. Is designed or used to transport more than eight passengers (including the driver) for compensation;

  4. Is designed or used to transport more than 15 passengers, including the driver, and is not used to transport passengers for compensation; or

  5. It is used in transporting material found by the Secretary of Transportation to be hazardous.

  6. 49 CFR § 383.5(2) defines a motor vehicle, or combination of motor vehicles used passengers or property if the motor vehicle:

  7. has a gross vehicle weight of more than 26,001 pounds;

  8. has a towed unit with a gross vehicle weight of more than 10,001 pounds, and the combination of vehicles has a combined gross vehicle weight of more than 26,001 pounds;

  9. is a bus;

  10. of any size and is used in the transportation of hazardous materials requiring the vehicle to be placarded; or

  11. is outwardly equipped and identified as a school bus.

Based on this, the driver and vehicle are subject to driver qualifications, vehicle inspection and maintenance, equipment, USDOT numbers/markings, insurance, hours of service, and the like.


If a vehicle with a manufacturer's GVWR of fewer than 10,001 pounds has been structurally modified to carry a heavier load, may an enforcement officer use the vehicle's higher actual gross weight, instead of the GVWR, to determine the applicability of the FMCSRs?


Yes. The structural modifications show the motor carrier's intent to increase the weight rating. When the vehicle is used to perform functions usually performed by a higher GVWR, §390.33 allows an enforcement officer to treat the actual gross weight as the GVWR of the modified vehicle.


Additional gross vehicle weight rating factors to consider

Commercial driver licenses (CDL A, B, C, D) are required to operate vehicles that:

  • Weigh over 26,001 pounds, determined by the highest of the following weights:

  • manufacturer's gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR)

  • manufacturer's gross combination weight rating (GCWR) when the towed unit has a GVWR, registered weight, or actual gross weight over 10,001 pounds

  • actual weight

  • registered weight

  • Carry hazardous materials that require placarding under federal law.

  • Are designed or used to carry 16 or more persons, including the driver (buses and some school buses).


License classes

Class A

For a commercial motor vehicle operation, any combination of vehicles with a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR), actual weight, or registered weight over 26,001 pounds provided the GVWR, actual weight, or registered weight of the towed vehicle(s) is more than 10,001 pounds.


Class B

For the operation of a commercial motor vehicle. Any single vehicle with a GVWR, actual weight, or registered weight over 26,001 pounds, or such vehicle towing a vehicle with a GVWR, actual weight, or registered weight of 10,001 pounds or less.


Class C

For the operation of a commercial motor vehicle. Any single vehicle with a GVWR, actual weight, or registered weight of 26,001 pounds or less (or such vehicle towing a vehicle less than 10,001 pounds), valid for operating Class D vehicle. With a hazardous materials endorsement, the holder of a Class C license may transport hazardous materials in Class D vehicles; and with a school bus endorsement, may operate school buses designed to transport 15 or fewer passengers, including the driver.


Class D

All other single unit vehicles except vehicles with a gross weight of more than 26,001 pounds, vehicles designed to carry more than 15 passengers, including the driver, and vehicles that carry hazardous materials requiring placards.


May also tow vehicles if:

  • the combination of vehicles has a gross weight of 26,001 lbs. regardless of the weight of the trailer, or

  • the combination of vehicles exceeds a gross weight of 26,001 lbs. The trailer does not exceed 10,001 lbs.


Am I subject to drug and alcohol testing?

Generally, a driver who must possess a CDL is subject to the controlled substances and alcohol testing requirements found in the FMCSRs.


What are other driver qualifications may I be subject to?

Drivers of commercial motor vehicles (greater than 10,001 pounds) are subject to specific driver qualifications found in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs). Generally, these drivers have a minimum age requirement of 18 years of age if they are involved in intrastate operations and 21 years of age if the driver is involved in interstate operations. (There are exceptions to the age requirements.)


A commercial motor vehicle driver greater than 10,001 pounds must have a valid medical examiner's certificate (health card). There are some exceptions to this requirement found in the FMCSRs.


Who is subject to the Hours of Service rules?

Drivers of commercial motor vehicles greater than 10,001 pounds are subject to the Hours of Service rules found in the FMCSRs. Drivers of commercial motor vehicles involved in intrastate operations may not be subject to the Hours of Service rules depending upon their operations' nature.


Do I need to do a pre-trip inspection? Do I need to fill out a Daily Vehicle Inspection Report (DVIR)?

A driver of a commercial motor vehicle greater than 10,001 pounds, involved in interstate operations or made subject to the FMCSRs, must comply with the FMCSRs pre-trip and Daily Vehicle Inspection Reporting requirements. These regulations require the driver to perform a pre-trip inspection on a vehicle before driving it. After each day's work, a driver must prepare a report in writing on each vehicle operated. The report shall identify the vehicle and list any defect or deficiency discovered by or reported to the driver, which would affect the vehicle's safety of operation.


FMCSRs and State statutes also require a commercial motor vehicle driver greater than 26,001 pounds to report in writing after each day's work on each commercial motor vehicle the driver has operated.


Does a commercial motor vehicle need to have an annual inspection performed on it? Is the driver responsible for this?

The FMCSRs require commercial motor vehicles greater than 10,001 pounds operating in interstate commerce to carry proof that the vehicle has passed a periodic inspection sometime during the preceding 12 months.


Commercial motor vehicles must display a current Minnesota Annual Inspection decal.

The vehicle's driver and owner are responsible for ensuring the annual inspection is current, and the proof of an annual inspection is carried in or upon the vehicle.


Is the driver responsible for complying with the various weight laws? Federal and State laws prohibit a vehicle or combination of vehicles from being operated upon the highways over legal limits.


The driver of a vehicle may be directed to a scale by an official traffic control device. An officer may require the driver of a vehicle that has been lawfully stopped to submit the vehicle and load to a weighing utilizing portable or stationary scales. The officer may require that the vehicle be driven to the nearest available scale.


The driver and/or the vehicle owner may receive citations when a vehicle is found to be operating over the legal limits. Also, a vehicle found to be over the legal limits may be required to unload a portion of the load until the vehicle's weight is within legal limits.


Are there other regulations a motor carrier or a driver should know?

Commercial motor vehicles greater than 10,001 pounds and involved in interstate operations or those involved in intrastate operations subject to the FMCSRs Laws must also comply with regulations on parts and accessories necessary for safe operation. Found in the FMCSRs Part 393, these regulations address the various parts of a commercial motor vehicle, including but not limited to lights, brakes, tires, steering systems, fuel systems, frames, suspension systems, load securement, and emergency devices.


Safe and proper loading is also the responsibility of the driver. The FMCSRs prohibit a driver from driving a commercial motor vehicle greater than 10,001 pounds unless the vehicle's cargo is properly distributed and adequately secured. Minnesota Traffic Laws prohibits any vehicle from being driven or moved unless it is constructed, loaded, or the load securely covered to prevent any of its load from leaking or escaping.


Commercial motor vehicles greater than 10,001 pounds must display the carrier's name and USDOT number on both sides of the power unit.


Drivers of commercial motor vehicles greater than 26,001 pounds or power units with three or more axles who operate interstate should also be aware of the registration and fuel tax requirements when entering other states.


What is an interstate operation? What determines if I am involved in intrastate operations?

An interstate operation is one that involves trade, traffic, or transportation that crosses a state line. It is determined by the movement's character and the shipper's fixed and persistent intent when the movement started. When the intent of the transportation being performed is interstate, even when the route is within a single state's boundaries, the driver and commercial motor vehicle are considered involved in an interstate movement.


Intrastate transportation involves trade, traffic, or transportation that occurs entirely within the boundaries of one State.


A final practice tip: every motor carrier must always discover the truck weight limits and the gross vehicle weight rating.


If the vehicle is a business vehicle weighing more than 10,001 pounds, or 26,001 pounds, then you must automatically think "semi-truck" or "motorcoach." More importantly, any time a trailer is being hauled, you should instinctively look into whether the trailer and vehicle combination move it into the realm of a CMV.


As DOT Regulatory Consultants, the rules can dramatically change. More importantly, these regulations help ensure that even small, non-traditional, commercial vehicles operate safely. Safety is paramount above all else.


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