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Definition of a commercial motor vehicle

You’ve been living under the illusion that a commercial vehicle is a large 18 wheel (or more) “Big rig”, but not everything is as it seems.

So just what is the definition of a commercial motor vehicle? It encompasses more types of vehicles than you think.

A pickup truck and trailer that’s used across state lines may just get you into trouble because it could fall under the definition of a commercial motor vehicle.

In this article we’ll breakdown what DOT considers a commercial vehicle a couple of rules that go along with it.

I’ve seen it time and again in my time out on the road. A well meaning small business person starts a business within his or her own state and begins to try advantage of opportunities outside their state. Nothing wrong with that.

What they failed to realize (or didn’t know in the first place) is that their vehicle fell into what DOT classifies as a commercial motor vehicle or what the definition of a commercial motor vehicle is before they hit the highway.

Many people that I’ve been in contact with are shocked to find that their pickup truck and trailer or small box van they use to transport their goods and/or services across state lines is regulated as a commercial vehicle under Federal safety rules.

There is then a domino effect; Once the vehicle becomes subject to DOT rules, next comes the driver and then the company itself. If the business owner never addresses the problem, they run the risk of being shut down.

interstate commerce meme

DOT definition Of A Commercial vehicles: two steps To Know

It all sounds daunting, but once you know what you’re facing you can get yourself into compliance and save yourself trouble. Mostly trouble.

To help solve this problem let’s tear a page out of the Alcoholics Anonymous hand book and say that the first step in getting help is knowing there’s a problem.

What’s the main problem? Knowing the definition of a commercial motor vehicle.

The cool thing, is that there is no 12 step program!

Well there are steps, just not as many. I’m trying to keep it simple. Who doesn’t like simplicity? I know I do whenever I’m learning something new.

So, to determine whether or not DOT commercial vehicle rules apply to what you’re doing is actually a simple two step process. Yep, that’s it… two simple steps.

Step 1 – Commercial Motor Vehicle Definition

The first step is understanding the CMV definition per the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (where pretty much all of the federal rules are found).

The regulations give us a specific definition for what a commercial vehicle is in the regulations. We’ll take a look and break that down here in a moment.

green truck on highway

Step 2 – Are You In Interstate Commerce

How many rules and regulations apply to you will be determined by whether or not you are involved in interstate commerce (commerce between two states) or Intrastate commerce (just staying within your own state)

It’s important to understand the definition of interstate commerce in order to determine whether or not federal safety rules and regulations apply to your operation.

Step 2 is all about determining if you’re involved in interstate commerce.

To sum up our two step process:

  1. Does the vehicle meet the definition of a commercial vehicle.
  2. Has the vehicle been engaged in interstate commerce.

Let’s start with step one and figure out what requirements the vehicle itself must meet before it’s defined as a commercial vehicle or “cmv”.

From the Federal Motor Carrier Regulations, 49 CFR 390.5

Definition of a commercial motor vehicle

Commercial motor vehicle

Means any self-propelled or towed motor vehicle used on a highway in interstate commerce to transport passengers or property when the vehicle—

​(1) Has a gross vehicle weight rating or gross combination weight rating, or gross vehicle weight or gross combination weight, of 4,536 kg (10,001 pounds) or more, whichever is greater; or

​(2) Is designed or used to transport more than 8 passengers (including the driver) for compensation; or​

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

​(4) Is used in transporting material found by the Secretary of Transportation to be hazardous under 49 U.S.C. 5103 and transported in a quantity requiring placarding under regulations prescribed by the Secretary under 49 CFR, subtitle B, chapter I, subchapter C.

Notice that the magic number is 10,001lbs. That’s a very low number that can encompass a lot of vehicles.

Here’s a quick break down, starting with the first paragraph. Again I’m not an attorney.

Commercial vehicle definition breakdown

If it’s got an engine or it’s being towed on a highway and you cross state lines transporting people or property, your vehicle will be subject if it –

semi trucks parked at dock

CMV definition, First Paragraph Explained

Physically weighs (meaning you actually put it on a scale) 10,001lbs or more;

The gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of your truck by itself is 10,001lbs more;

If you’re operating a truck and a trailer and you add the GVWR of them both together. This is referred to as the gross combination weight rating or GCWR. (ex. Truck gvwr + trailer gvwr = gross combination weight rating) and the total is over 10,001lbs or more;

Remember: its physical weight or the weight rating, whichever one is GREATER.

Let’s do a quick example

Most drivers or business owners have a basic understanding of roughly how much they are hauling at any given time and roughly how much their truck weighs. It may not be 100% accurate of course, but they have a rough idea.

So here’s a quick scenario based on a single unit rental type two axle truck.

Our driver knows he (or she) is hauling about 1,000lbs. He also knows that the truck itself only weighs about 7,000lbs

So our total is 8,000lbs

However, if we were to open the driver’s door and look at the manufacturer’s rating (or GVWR) we see that it is 12,000lbs. If you’re unfamiliar with what these stickers look like, there are examples later in this post.

The rule says that either the vehicle’s physical weight or what it’s gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) whichever is greater may be used.

So in our example, we had a physical weight of about 8,000lbs and a manufacturer GVWR of 12,000lbs. The inspector or officer would use the 12,000lbs because that amount is greater. See how that works?

trucks on highway

Let’s look at paragraph 2, which is pretty straightforward.

If the vehicle can haul 8 passengers plus the driver for a total of 9 people, it’s a commercial vehicle.

These type of vehicles are typically small passenger vans.

How do you know what the capabilities of the vehicle are? In other words how do you know it can haul 8 passengers?

The simple rule of thumb is to count how many seat belts installed in the vehicle. Not always true 100% of the time but again, a simple rule of thumb.

CMV definition Paragraph Three Explained

The third paragraph again refers to a vehicle carrying 15 passengers including the driver used in operations where there is no compensation. An example here might be a church group or some private organization.

CMV Definition Paragraph Four

If the vehicle you’re operating is required to display dot hazmat placards, it would be considered a commercial vehicle. If you haven’t read it yet, you can check out the article I wrote here that covers placarding.

In some situations, a vehicle (no matter its size) absolutely MUST display hazmat placards for the hazmat it is carrying. When that happens, the gross vehicle weight, its weight rating is all out the window, vehicle size does not matter.

Could a moped be regulated as a commercial vehicle? In some situations with hazmat, yes!

can truck drivers have a passenger

Definition of Interstate Commerce

Now that we know the size of the vehicle, we need to know what we plan on doing with it. In order for federal regulations to apply, we need to determine if the vehicle is engaging in interstate commerce.

From the regulations in 390.5:

Interstate commerce means trade, traffic, or transportation in the United States—

(1) Between a place in a State and a place outside of such State (including a place outside of the United States);

(2) Between two places in a State through another State or a place outside of the United States; or

(3) Between two places in a State as part of trade, traffic, or transportation originating or terminating outside the State or the United States.

Pretty straightforward but we’ll try and break it down just a bit. Pictures help!

If a shipment originates in a state and goes to another state or leaves the country, it’s interstate commerce

interstate commerce paragraph 1

If a shipment starts in a state, travels through another and into the same state it originated from or starts in a state and then leaves the country.

interstate commerce paragraph 2

Last, if the shipment goes between two places within the state, but it originated out of the state or the country, it’s also considered interstate commerce.

interstate commerce definition paragraph 3

Are pickups considered a commercial vehicle?

We went over our two step process for making a determination as to whether or not a pickup truck can be a commercial vehicle as defined.

The answer to the question is – a definite maybe, depends on your pickup truck

I know, not what you were really looking for, so I’ll attempt to answer the question with an example.

Let’s start with the size of the vehicle/gvwr issue.

First, open the vehicle driver’s door and simply look at the manufacturer’s sticker:

chysler gvwr sticker

In this case, the truck by itself (no trailer attached) would NOT be a commercial vehicle, its GVWR is only 8,800lbs, well below the 10,001lbs. If it was used by a business and crossed state lines, it would NOT be subject to any federal safety rules.

That being said, if the business owner hooked a trailer up to this Dodge pickup and the GVWR of that trailer was (for example) 5,000lbs giving us a total of 13,800lbs (gross combination weight rating 8800 + 5000) the business owner would then be subject to federal safety regulations if he crossed state lines.

Don’t get caught in the 5,000lbs gvwr I just gave that as an example. The gvwr amount of a trailer in that scenario can be any amount that causes the combination to exceed the 10,001lb requirement. I just used that the 5,000 number as an example.

Let’s take a look at another pickup:

ford gvwr sticker

In this case, the truck all by itself is way OVER 10,001lbs.

If this this was used to transport property in furtherance of a business across state lines, the federal safety regulations would apply.

So as you can see, is a pickup truck a commercial vehicle? – it all just depends it’s size and what you’re doing with it. Remember – step 1 and step 2.

The key take away here is no matter what you are driving – pickup truck, van or lite truck, take a look at the manufacturers sticker on the inside door and check the vehicle’s gvwr (gross vehicle weight rating).

CDL rules for commercial vehicles

Hurray, you just learned the definition of a commercial vehicle!

Guess what?

When it comes to the definition if a commercial vehicle for the purposes of obtaining a commercial driver’s license (CDL), you can throw out what you just learned. DOT has a different definition for a commercial vehicle for CDL rules.

DOT fines for non compliance

I want to be clear here, I’m only going to speak to my experience. Your situation may be very different. As they say “Your mileage may vary”.

Note: If you’re a carrier that is having specific issues with DOT you need to work directly with them or your attorney. This blog post won’t help you.

My experience has been that if you are a first time violator and get caught, DOT doesn’t throw the book at you. If you’re caught they’ll generally work with you to get you compliant so that you don’t have any more problems.

But that’s no guarantee.

The state that you were caught in may be an entirely different story.

If you’re caught for noncompliance of DOT requirements you are probably going to receive a plethora of tickets by the officer that stops you. Remember that domino effect I mentioned earlier?

These are going to be tickets and fines by local jurisdictions.

If you have received such a plethora, I would encourage you to hire counsel.

plethora meme

Getting the help you need

If you’re in the situation with your business that I’ve described here you’re in luck. First, you found this post and identified the problem. Now we’ll point you in a direction to get some help.

If you’re struggling with understanding how a lot of this works your first and generally best option is to contact the state police or highway patrol in your state. Once you do that, ask for someone that can help you with commercial vehicle enforcement.

Try to have your questions written down and a few thoughts formulated before you jump on the phone.

Another option is to contact office of Federal Motor Carrier (FMCSA) in your state. Every state has one.

In fact, if you did call your state police and pick their brain, ask them if they have the number to your state FMCSA representative. This way you’re getting info that you need from your state as well as input from the feds.

After making those calls you still may need some help. If that’s the case you may need to hire a consultant to help get you on the right path. It sound expensive, but considering the state and federal fines that are on the line a consultant may be a way cheaper option.

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