Shedding Light on Foggy CDL Requirements

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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-diligent 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, 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 perhaps 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 10,000 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 to try to explain to the officer that this “trip” is really only a “one-off,” a rare exception to his usual personal use.