NATM headquarters receives frequent questions from trailer dealers and end-users about state troopers and local law enforcement officers pulling over towed trailers the drivers thought did not require a commercial driver's license (CDL). Is this a result of overly-aggressive law enforcement at work? Or a lack of awareness regarding CDL laws? Perhaps 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. Congress has charged the U.S. Department of Transportation’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.
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 left. 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 this two-part requirement 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 the word “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 certification label. With respect 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 gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) exceeds 10,000 lbs. If there is no assigned GCWR, the FMCSA regulations require the driver to have 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 scenario that satisfies the definition of “commercial motor vehicle,” the driver will need a Class A CDL, assuming the trailer’s use also satisfies the second component of the CDL requirement, “used in commerce,” as discussed below.
With respect to a single vehicle, the FMCSA requires the driver to have a Class B CDL to operate that truck, bus, van, or automobile in commerce if that vehicle has a GVWR of more than 26,000 lbs. It is required even if that vehicle is a power unit (truck, automobile, or van) and is towing a trailer with a GVWR of 10,000 lbs. or less. If the trailer’s GVWR exceeds 10,0000 lbs., a Class A CDL is needed if its use also satisfies the second prong of the CDL requirement.
The second prong 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 in fact, upon close examination, 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 categorized as a commercial undertaking or commercial purpose from the vantage point of the diligent state trooper who pulls over the driver 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 is likely to need a Class A CDL if that trailer’s GVWR exceeds 10,000 lbs. Remember, this is in intrastate commerce – see below for discussion of further complication.
Complicating the question of whether a CDL is necessary are a hodge-podge of state CDL laws, many of which are at variance with the federal law that FMCSA has issued. 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. In the third “tricky example” above, even if the student does not need a CDL under federal law to haul his lawn mower (because the trailer’s GVWR is less than 10,000 lbs.), he may need one anyway because the state law of the state where he resides requires one even to pull a light-duty trailer.
State A must, however, honor the out-of-state driver’s 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 a State B resident 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, medium-duty trailers (between 10,000 lbs. and 26,000 lbs. GVWR) and the debate over personal use 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 (1) that truck’s GVWR and the trailer’s GVWR, added together, exceed 26,000 lbs. and (2) the trailer’s GVWR exceeds 10,000 lbs.
Dealers should be prepared to provide that objective guidance about what tow vehicle-trailer configurations may need a CDL when asked by their customers, but they would be well advised to stay away from declaring, when asked, that the customer’s intended end-use of the trailer meets or does not meet the FMCSA definition of “used in commerce.” This precaution is especially warranted if the trailer’s intended use, as described by the owner, falls within the murky, gray area of personal vs. commercial use or the dealer is unsure about the niceties of the state CDL laws that might apply. It is also important for the dealer to keep in mind that a trailer’s use might be “personal” on one or more trips but “in commerce” on others. Better that the driver have that CDL and not need it than not to have one when stopped and forced try to explain to the officer that this “trip” is really only a “one-off,” a rare exception to his usual personal use.
The National Association of Trailer Manufacturers (NATM), known as the resource for safety and compliance for the light- and medium-duty trailer industry, has published the 2020 edition of the Guidelines. This massive document takes the guesswork out of meeting federal requirements governing the manufacturing of trailers under 26,000 lbs. GVWR and is a benefit of NATM membership.
Building trailers to meet the federal regulations outlined in the NATM Guidelines is not optional. It is required by law and enforced by law enforcement every day on the nation’s roadways. But it can be very time-intensive for trailer manufacturers to research the numerous federal rules, regulations, standards, and accepted industry practices that govern trailer construction.
NATM addresses this by compiling the Guidelines for Recommended Manufacturing Practices for Light- and Medium-Duty Trailers. The document consists of over 400 pages of laws, regulations, rules, standards, and industry best practices. This information is gathered from resources such as the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Society of Automotive Engineers, Inc., the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, the Traffic Safety Administration, the Maintenance Council, and the National Electrical Manufacturers Association amongst others. The Guidelines is updated annually by industry experts that stay abreast of changing regulations and who vet the addition of recommendations and best practices.
Members report substantial time savings by utilizing the Guidelines, particularly on the topics of lighting and reflectors, VIN and data plates, gross vehicle weight ratings, and state brake requirements. While the Guidelines focus on U.S. regulations, many may have an interest in Canadian compliance. For more information, visit Transport Canada’s website at www.TV.GC.ca/en/transport-canada.html.
In recent years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has increased its enforcement activity concerning the compliance of motor vehicle manufacturers, including trailer manufacturers. NHTSA has placed particular concern on meeting tire recordkeeping requirements, which includes both manufacturer records as well as the provision of TIN cards to dealers, distributors, and purchasers. This is only one of the many requirements outlined in NATM’s Guidelines.
NATM assists its trailer manufacturing members in avoiding costly fines and decreasing liability related to trailer compliance through the NATM Compliance Verification Program (CVP). The NATM CVP is an unbiased, third-party audit of the trailer manufacturing process and uses the Guidelines as the backbone for the program. The CVP provides biennial on-site consultations to trailer manufacturers and technical assistance throughout the entire process to ensure companies are manufacturing trailers consistent with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and other industry best practices.
Once a trailer manufacturer has successfully passed the Compliance Verification Program, the company is able to purchase NATM Decals and market their company’s dedication to fulfilling their safety requirements by participating in an unbiased, third-party audit of their trailers. While participation in the NATM Compliance Verification Program is an additional, voluntary cost for manufacturers, there are economic benefits of participation.
“The first-year sales saw a 20 percent boost and blew past the forecast over three years for the sales improvements for revenue targets for the existing trailer product. We will continue to use up the [NATM] labels we have in stock, and then order more,” said Pete Dixon, Engineer at Karcher North America, Inc., regarding the benefit of being a member of the National Association of Trailer Manufacturers.
For more information about how the National Association of Trailer Manufacturers can assist your trailer manufacturing company, visit www.NATM.com, email NATMHQ@natm.com, or call (785) 272-4433.
Your 2021 NATM membership renewal notice was mailed to the attention of your accounts payable department in November. For international members, invoices were emailed.
You have the option to renew your membership online at www.NATM.com. Log into the Members Only section to view and pay the invoice. Should you decide to pay online, please advise accounts payable to disregard the notice. Your membership login credentials are below.
Pay Membership Dues Online Instantly:
Troubleshooting Online Payments: No Invoice When Logging In?
Thank you for attempting to renew your membership with NATM online! Did you try logging into the Member’s Only portal to pay, only to find that there are no open invoices attached to your account? Are you seeing your main contact’s first and last name instead of only your company’s name?
Then unfortunately your computer is remembering the wrong credentials! When logging in, you should only see your company’s name.
To ensure that your computer accepts the new credentials sent to main contacts in late November, please try the following:
Correct: When using the correct credentials, your business name will be seen.
INCORRECT: If you are seeing an individual’s name, then your computer is remembering old credentials. Please use a different browser or clear your computer’s cookies.
Membership dues must be paid no later than January 31, 2021. If dues are not received by Jan. 31, the member company will be considered delinquent and all membership benefits will be terminated until paid per the NATM Bylaws.
Thank you for your continued support of the Association. Please don’t hesitate to contact Meghan Ryan, NATM Assistant Director, at Meghan.Ryan@natm.com if you have any questions or concerns.
Join NATM’s leadership, staff, and your fellow members for the 2021 Annual Membership Meeting from the comfort of your own desk! On February 18, 2021 at 1 pm central, NATM members are invited to attend a virtual meeting to learn about what their Association has accomplished in the last year, its plans for 2021, give feedback on programming, and vote on Bylaws amendments.
Members will hear from NATM’s board president, members of the staff, government affairs representatives from K&L Gates, as well as our affinity program partners throughout the meeting. With an agenda to be circulated in January, members can expect to learn about upcoming changes to the compliance program, advocacy efforts in 2020 and areas of focus in 2021, newly released member benefits as well as upcoming programming in the works as part of the NATM Strategic Plan.
The Association will also be polling attendees about potential programming and benefits changes. NATM wants to hear from the industry to guide the work it undertakes – let your voice be heard and register today! The NATM Board will also be recommending changes to Bylaws, including adding a new membership type, that attendees will vote on during the meeting.
There will also be time throughout the meeting to answer members questions, making it easier than ever to interact with your Association.
Please join us February 18, 2021 at 1 pm central, register now!
Once registered, please add @gotowebinar.com to your whitelist or address book to ensure you receive the login credentials for the meeting.
*The NATM membership meeting is only open to Association members per the NATM Bylaws. Registrations from non-members will be denied.