Shedding Light on Foggy CDL Requirements

Reprinted with Permission from the May/June 2018 issue of Tracks, the official publication of NATM (National Association of Trailer Manufacturers).
By Kim Mann, General Counsel to NATM, Scopelitis, Garvin, Light, Hanson & Feary
NATM headquarters receives frequent calls from trailer manufacturing members asking why the local police are insisting on commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs) for drivers operating tow vehicles pulling their trailers. They then describe their particular set of circumstances. Prompting these questions are complaints the members have received from their customers and dealers about state troopers and local enforcement officers pulling over drivers towing their trailers they thought did not require CDLs and their customers had purchased with that same understanding. So, what’s going on here? Overly-aggressive law enforcement at work? Dealers and/or customers ill-informed about CDL laws? A combination of both?

What appears to be behind these inquiries is the vagueness of the CDL laws and the general confusion and disagreement this vagueness naturally generates. So, let’s try to clear up some of this confusion. Starting at the beginning, Congress has charged the U.S. DOT’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) with responsibility for implementing the federal CDL laws through federal regulations and has directed the states to issue CDLs in conformity with these regulations. The FMCSA’s CDL regulations appear in the Code of Federal Regulations, 49 C.F.R. Part 383. The FMCSA requires drivers to have a CDL – either a Class A, a Class B, or Class C (for transporting passengers or hazardous materials) – in order to operate defined types of commercial motor vehicles (CMVs) in interstate, intrastate, or foreign commerce.

CDL Requirements

FMCSA’s graphic illustrating the various vehicle configurations constituting the groups of CMVs requiring a Class A or Class B CDL (Click to enlarge)

To clarify its regulations, the FMCSA publishes a graphic illustrating the various vehicle configurations constituting the groups of CMVs requiring a Class A or Class B CDL. That graphic can be found to the right. State and local law enforcement often refer to it for guidance.

The FMCSA requires drivers to have a CDL to operate a motor vehicle if that vehicle meets the FMCSA definition of a “commercial motor vehicle” and is used in “commerce.” The FMCSA defines both terms in 49 C.F.R. § 383.5. The great misunderstanding out there, within the trailer industry and probably within the law enforcement community, about the CDL requirements springs from those two definitions, particularly of “commerce.”
The FMCSA defines a “commercial motor vehicle” as a motor vehicle, or a combination of motor vehicles, in certain GVWR-based configurations, when used in “commerce” to transport “property or passengers.” The physical configuration component of the CMV definition is very mechanical, very objective. When dealing with a tow vehicle-trailer combination, you look at the gross combination weight rating (GCWR) of the tow vehicle if the tow-vehicle manufacturer has assigned it a GCWR and displays it on its cert label. With regard to the familiar combination, a tow vehicle (whether truck, automobile, or tractor) towing a trailer, the driver needs a CDL if the tow-vehicle manufacturer’s assigned GCWR exceeds 26,000 lbs. (as shown on its cert label) and the trailer’s GVWR exceeds 10,000 lbs. If there is no assigned GCWR, the FMCSA requires a CDL only if the sum of the GVWRs of the tow vehicle and the trailer together exceeds 26,000 lbs. and the trailer’s GVWR exceeds 10,000 lbs. In either case, the driver will need a Class A CDL.
With regard to a single vehicle, the FMCSA requires the driver to have a Class B CDL to operate that truck, bus, van, or automobile if that vehicle has a GVWR of more than 26,000 lbs. It is required even if that truck, automobile, or van is towing a trailer and that trailer has a GVWR of 10,000 lbs. or less (If the trailer’s GVWR exceeds 10,0000 lbs., a Class A CDL is needed).

The second component of the CDL requirement, and of the CMV definition, is much more troubling, much more subjective, and the primary source of the confusion. To qualify as a CMV requiring a CDL, that vehicle, even in a qualifying GCWR/GVWR configuration, must be used in “commerce.” “Commerce” has its own separate definition in § 385.3 of the FMCSA’s regulations. The FMCSA defines it broadly as any trade, traffic, or transportation between points in one state and points in another state or any trade, traffic, or transportation that “affects” trade, traffic, or transportation in the U.S. between points in one state and points in another. Not exactly an enlightening definition, to say the least. How this “use” assessment turns out often varies depending upon who is doing the assessing. And that is often the law enforcement officer on the scene.

As a starting point, the proper inquiry, then, is whether this questionable CMV is transporting property (across state lines) for some commercial purpose, as opposed to for the personal use of the owner, driver, or some other person. What the trailer owner considers his or her own “personal use” may, upon close examination, in fact turn out to be for a “commercial purpose” when viewed through the critical eyes of the state or local law enforcement officer. Let’s examine several tricky examples:

  • The trailer owner is towing his own horses to a horse show or his livestock to the state fair where monetary prizes are awarded. That familiar scenario is likely to be seen as a commercial undertaking or commercial purpose from the vantage point of the diligent state trooper who pulls the driver over looking for that CDL.
  • Suppose instead those horses belong to a stable whose owner charges the public by the hour to ride them. Another commercial purpose according to a strict interpretation of the term. It does not matter that no business name or logo is displayed on the side of the truck or trailer towing these horses.
  • Now suppose it is a college student behind the wheel of Dad’s 16,000 lbs. GVWR truck towing his family’s lawn mower around the neighborhood in Dad’s utility trailer to earn a few bucks mowing lawns to off-set that college tuition. He may need a Class A CDL if that trailer’s GVWR exceeds 10,000 lbs.

Complicating the question of whether a CDL is necessary could be a hodge-podge of state CDL laws at variance with the federal law. States are not prohibited from enacting their own state CDL laws, applying them to non-interstate movements (i.e. the trailer does not cross the state line), if those state laws are stricter than the federal law. In theory, the state law of State A might require its residents to have a different class of CDL, perhaps designated as a “Class D,” to tow a 26,000-lbs. GVWR trailer when used for personal use.

State A must, however, honor the out-of-state license issued by State B to its residents: for example, if State B does not require a CDL for its residents to operate a vehicle for personal use, then State A may not require State B residents to have a CDL while operating a vehicle for personal use in State A even if State A requires its own residents to have a “Class D” CDL for this purpose.

The “CDL” complaints that NATM fields typically revolve around the smaller trailers (between 10,000 lbs. and 26,000 lbs. GVWR) and the debate over personal vs. commercial use. In sum, assuming commercial use, when the GVWR of the truck exceeds 26,000 lbs., a CDL is required, regardless of the GVWR of the trailer, and when the GVWR of the truck is less than 26,000 lbs., a CDL is required only if that truck’s GVWR and the trailer’s GVWR, added together, exceed 26,000 lbs. and the trailer’s GVWR exceeds 10,000 lbs.

View the Original article “Shedding Light on Foggy CDL Requirements” in NATM’s Tracks Magazine here.

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  1. I drive a f550 gvwr of 19500 lbs, tow a trailer registered for 10k. Gross of 29500 total. My Employer says I can drive this with a Class D as long as I have a D.O.T Medical card. Stating the wording of the law, the trailer is not MORE than or EXCEEDS 10K.

    • Good morning Steve,
      This would be our best advice, If it’s being used in a commercial setting the driver needs a medical card no matter what, in this case, the driver needs to have a Class A CDL because the combined GVWR of the truck and the trailer exceeds 26,000lbs.

      Hope this helps,
      Felling Trailers

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