NATM headquarters receives frequent questions from trailer dealers and end-users about state troopers and local 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 below. 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:
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.
Talking about the importance of trailers built to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) can be a daunting task. End-users do not understand the complex regulations governing compliant trailer manufacturing. They recognize that they would not purchase a car without seatbelts, but they do not understand that purchasing a trailer without key safety features can be just as dangerous. With limited face-to-face time with customers, dealers can struggle to sell compliance. But in order to improve safety and reassure your customers that your trailers meet all Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, it is important to sell NATM Compliance as a key feature of a trailer.
To make things easier, NATM has created the "How to Sell Compliance" kit. This kit aims to help close the gap of communication between trailer manufacturers, dealers and end-users by providing trailer dealers with informative marketing pieces that will assist them in selling compliant trailers to their customers.
Jam-packed with informative safety resources, customizable business cards with an emphasis on your dealership’s dedication to safety, talking points for dealers to utilize and more, this kit will assist trailer dealers in becoming fluent in safe trailering.
NATM Dealer Affiliate Window Cling
NATM Dealer Affiliates receive a complimentary NATM Dealer Affiliate Window Cling. This window cling will allow your dealership to show its commitment to safety and compliance. Proudly display it to show customers that your dealership is a resource of information with a focus on safety and compliance.
Customizable Folding Business Card
With an emphasis on buying trailers that have been certified to meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and best practices, these folding business cards are filled with information regarding the importance of buying NATM compliant trailers. Simply add your company logo and contact information to the business card template and pass out your dealership’s information and market your commitment to providing customers with compliant trailers.
Customizable Standard Business Card
Are folding business cards not your style? No worries! NATM also offers standard business cards for Dealer Affiliates. With the NATM Compliance Decal and the Dealer Affiliate Badge included on the card, your company is sure to be viewed as a leader in safety by your customers.
These educational handouts are available for Dealer Affiliates to print and distribute to customers. With topics ranging from selecting the right trailer to the NATM Compliance Verification Program, customers can be assured they are shopping with a trustworthy dealer committed to safety education.
Compliant Trailer Posters
This 18 x 24-inch educational poster will help walk your customers through what it means to purchase an NATM Compliant trailer and can be proudly displayed in your dealership.
Selling Compliance – Talking Points
Talking about the importance of compliant trailers can be an intimidating task. With this list of talking points, communicating the importance of verified compliant trailers to your customers has never been easier. Impress your customers and instill confidence with your knowledge of federal regulations and your passion for safe trailering!
The NATM Dealer Affiliate “How to Sell Compliance” kit takes the stress out of discussing Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards with end-users. Be the dealer your customers deserve and stand out from your competition by taking advantage of all of the benefits of being an NATM Dealer Affiliate.
NATM Dealer Affiliates can contact Membership & Events Director Kelli Maydew at Kelli.Maydew@natm.com, to receive access to this kit.
Not an NATM Dealer Affiliate? Visit www.NATM.com/dealers to learn more about the program.
Questions regarding your affiliation? Contact Membership & Events Director Kelli Maydew.
Are you an NATM Member looking to invite your trailer dealers to become an NATM Dealer Affiliate?
Utilize the Dealer Outreach Kit to help spread the word about this exciting new program aimed at unifying the trailer industry though education & safety resources.
A letter to our members...
NATM has been committed to trailer safety for more than 30 years. While NATM has long worked with trailer manufacturers and industry suppliers and service providers, trailer safety can only be improved through dealer interaction and consumer education. That’s why NATM is excited to announce the launch of the NATM Dealer Affiliation on June 1, 2019.
It is NATM’s mission to “promote trailer safety and the success of the trailer manufacturing industry through education and advocacy” and we are confident that including trailer dealers in our work will strengthen the industry and improve roadway safety. Dealers can aide NATM in its efforts to close the communication gap between trailer dealers and end-users all while generating awareness about the importance of NATM Compliant trailers.
While NATM is excited to launch the Dealer Affiliation program, we recognize that our NATM members might have questions or concerns. That’s why we’re inviting all members to submit their questions and concerns via the button below. In addition to gathering member questions, NATM invites you to participate in the Dealer Affiliation Q&A on Facebook Live. We’ll be going live on NATM's Facebook page Thursday, May 30th at 3pm CST to discuss what the Dealer Affiliation will look like as well as answer any member questions.
NATM members who wish to notify their dealer contacts are encouraged to utilized the Dealer Outreach Marketing Kit by clicking the button below. This kit includes several pre-crafted social media posts, social media graphics, and a Dealer Invitation.
NATM fully believes that the launch of the NATM Dealer Affiliation is an opportunity to unify the trailer industry in an effort to improve trailer safety. While NATM remains committed to trailer manufacturers, the Association has long looked at how to better bring in dealers as key stakeholders for trailer safety and this program offers an exciting opportunity to support dealers and help them educate end-users as well as better raise awareness about the NATM Compliance Verification Program.