The DOT (Department of Transportation) and Small Business Commercial Transportation
Federal and State laws require any commercially used motor vehicle to be registered when traveling on any public highway or road in the United States. This requires a company to obtain a DOT number assigned to any motor vehicle used to transport items for commercial reasons. Large tractor and trailer (semi trucks) have had to deal with the DOT for decades, but in recent years, these regulations have been applied to any size commercially used motor vehicle.
There are exceptions, such as, when an Avon sales representative is transporting make up and other small items across town in a privately owned Toyota Camry to sell in a business transaction. This actually falls under a commercial classification, but authorities usually never pursue the legalities for this small type of commercial transportation. There are weight and cargo content regulations that the DOT takes into consideration when enforcing the federal and local laws. However, the small businesses that are susceptible to these newer laws can include :
Commercially used motor vehicle transport vans, SUV‘s, pick up trucks and other medium sized vehicles. Such as the ones commonly seen for Plumbing, Heating & Cooling, Locksmith, etc. These vehicles usually have boldly printed company advertisements across the sides and back of the vehicle. Other vehicles include various sized dump trucks, box cargo trucks and any vehicle pulling a trailer used for commercially transporting cargo. As a matter of fact, even a rented U-Haul or other rental trucks are actually considered to be commercially classified when used for business purposes. These rentals are not considered commercial when used for private use, such as moving your household items from place to place. But once these vehicles are used to transport items for business purposes - they become classified commercial and are required to comply with DOT regulations.
The DOT has recognized that many small businesses are using their own, or rented, vehicles to transport their goods instead of hiring a transportation company, or a trucking company for business transportation needs. This is what prompted the DOT to require these smaller vehicles to comply with the regulations applied to the larger and obvious commercial vehicles.
Before I go any further, I need to clarify a couple of things. First of all, few people know that our National Interstate Road system was actually designed and constructed for Emergency Military purposes. I can give references for information about this for those who wish to know more, all you have to do is ask - but for this particular article I am simply stating some facts that dominate our highway and road system laws. And why the laws have been written to stipulate certain uses for our roads and highways. As with many of our laws, these Interstate laws were first written back in earlier years (1960’s) and haven’t changed much since. Even in those days the lawmakers knew that the Military would rarely, if ever, need to use these roads, so they were wide open for civilian taxpayer use. At this time there were probably almost as many private vehicles as there were commercial vehicles using these roads. Even today these early laws are in effect and enforced to give private citizens dominant legal use of our roads, but over the years amendments have been implicated to adjust for changing traffic conditions. During these last fifty years has been the appearance and growth of the DOT to regulate the commercial factor of our highways. Keep in mind that the laws protecting the average traveling non-commercial civilian are kept in effect so that large commercial transportation companies can not do as they wish on our roads. So, as the number of commercial vehicles, and private citizen travelers, grew and grew, so did the number of accidents and situations. Since the commercial vehicles were, and currently are, using the roads for business purposes, the DOT made it mandatory for them to follow regulations to insure the highest possible safety for everyone on the highway, especially since private traveling citizens actually have more legal right to use these highways.
Statistics are a fairly accurate way to determine when there is a need for legal intervention. I can give references for anyone that desires to see the exact statistical numbers - but we all know that a higher number of vehicles on the road - means a higher number of accidents and problems. With this in mind, we must realize that commercial vehicles are on the road for one reason - and that is to transport goods and items involved with business transactions. So, when more and more commercially oriented vehicles are involved in accidents and situations - it makes sense to mandate that they use some of the financial proceeds made with these business oriented vehicles to insure these same vehicles are operating within safety regulations.
This is why the Federal DOT claims that safety is the main reason for including these small commercially used vehicles to be restricted and controlled within the guidelines of the DOT regulations when traveling on public roads. The fact that the numbers of these smaller, privately owned, vehicles being used for commercial purposes were becoming increasingly involved in the accident and situation statistics.
We all want to feel safe when traveling on our highways along side other vehicles, especially at today’s accepted higher rates of speed. So, these newer laws which have been introduced to include these smaller commercially used vehicles are the means by which the DOT can insure the safe operation of any and all commercially used vehicle for the safety of everyone on our roads.
Besides the more costly revenue the Bureau of Motor Vehicles receives for a commercially registered vehicle as opposed to privately owned and operated vehicles, there are several other permits and financial obligations a small business must satisfy to legally transport their goods by using their own vehicle(s) for commercial transportation. These regulations may vary slightly from state to state and there are specific Federal guidelines concerning cargo content, overall vehicle weight (GVWR - Gross Vehicle Weight Restrictions), and other specifications. There are many other variables taken into consideration for each individual vehicle, driver, cargo and particular situation and location. As I explained earlier, these regulations vary from state to state and from individual to individual - depending on the specific situation. The owner(s) of any commercially classified individual vehicle are responsible for insuring their vehicles are complying with the applicable DOT laws and regulations.
In a nutshell, a police officer is supposed to have “probable cause” to legally pull over a private citizen in a privately owned and operated motor vehicle. Probable cause may simply be a seatbelt violation or a burned out brake light. But, if a vehicle is displaying a DOT number, an officer can legally pull that vehicle over and do a “spot” inspection to insure the vehicle and driver are within the DOT guidelines - without probable cause. This gives the officers the power to inspect any commercial vehicle at any time, in any public place, to insure the vehicle is not a danger to it’s driver or any other motorist on the road.
As with most laws in our country, there are those who oppose these new commercial motor vehicle laws. I personally use my personal vehicles to transport my cargo and goods and have had to comply with these new regulations, (within the past ten years). I understand the “Safety” issues for which the DOT claims to be the main reason for these new laws. I have personally seen vehicles that were indeed not safe to be on the road and I was concerned for my own safety when near these vehicles while traveling at a high rate of speed down the Interstate.
On the other hand, I also have seen, and encountered myself, a DOT officer issuing a violation ticket for the most unbelievable violation, such as not having windshield wiper washer fluid! But, the law is the law and the DOT safety book is about an inch and a half thick and filled with rules and regulations, which is nearly impossible for any driver to know and insure each and every regulation is being completely complied with. Plus, with the additions of new devices and contraptions on vehicles, the laws change accordingly and subsequently causing changes for what it takes to comply with the new laws.
Besides the owner / driver meeting mechanical safety obligations for a commercial vehicle, having the proper current paperwork is also mandatory. The paperwork is usually the first thing a DOT officer inspects before moving on to mechanical inspections. This includes insurance, DOT numbers, vehicle registration, vehicle identification and DOT restrictions for that particular vehicle. Then there is the drivers license and medical information paperwork for any commercially authorized driver. Any incorrect, outdated or incomplete applicable paperwork can cause a violation citation, not to mention any accompanying mechanical violation.
Prior to allowing any commercial vehicle to travel on public roads, it is mandatory that it be fully inspected, according to the DOT regulations. However, to know that each and every mechanical part is in perfect working condition is almost impossible until it fails. I’m not talking about the parts that are obvious and easily inspected, rather, I’m talking about the parts that can’t be seen or inspected and are only noticed when there is a problem. Usually, if it is obviously an un-preventable problem, a ticket will most likely NOT be given, but that is for the officer to decide.
Many businesses transport their cargo in un-registered vehicles for years without being caught or forced to comply with the DOT regulations. It’s a gamble to transport in this illegal way - even if the owners of the business, or vehicle, are not aware that they are breaking the law. In most cases, when an un-registered vehicle is discovered while in a working situation, the officer involved will inform the driver of the violation and note the proper information for the company or person responsible for the vehicle. Once this happens, the DOT will formally contact the business or responsible person about the known violation and inform them of the proper measures needed to make the business, and / or vehicle, legal within the DOT regulations. The officer can impound the vehicle in this situation and / or give the driver and / or the business / vehicle owner a citation. Once again, this is up to the discretion of the officer involved and the situation.
For anyone not sure of their particular situation and anyone that can not afford to have a truck load of cargo sitting in an impound lot - my advice is to contact the DOT and make sure any and all of the vehicles used in transporting in a commercial use are in compliance with the DOT regulations in your state and local area before incurring a potentially costly situation.
For those of you already in compliance with the DOT regulations - I have a few suggestions that may prevent you from losing time and money due to DOT violations.
1. Regularly inspect all of your commercial vehicles to insure they are in proper working condition and in compliance with all applicable DOT regulations.
2. Never allow a vehicle to operate on public highways or roads if there is ANY mechanical malfunctions or legal (paperwork) not within the DOT regulations.
3. Hire or use qualified drivers.
4. Make sure even the cosmetic appearance of all vehicles are in good condition. (A dented, damaged or extremely dirty commercial vehicle raises visual red flags to DOT officers when spotted on public highways or roads and can instigate a spot inspection.)
The bottom line is simple, it’s the responsibility of each business owner and/or commercially classified vehicle owner to comply with Federal and applicable State DOT regulations when transporting or operating commercially classified motor vehicles on public roads. I could get very opinionated about the DOT regulations in this article, but my thoughts will not change the current safety laws or what it takes for you or I to be commercially legal. The only opinion statement that I do feel comfortable giving is:
I like to think of motor vehicle DOT Safety regulations in the same respect that I give the laws for driving under the influence. I would hate for a drunk driver to hit and possibly kill a loved one somewhere on a lonesome highway in the middle of a sunny afternoon. I would also hate for any, but especially an illegal, commercially used pick-up truck to have failed brakes due to owner negligence and then have it hit and possibly kill a loved one on a lonesome highway in the middle of a sunny afternoon.
Drive safe and good luck.
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