The consequences of a crash caused by a tractor-trailer tend to be far more serious than those caused by a standard motor vehicle. A fully loaded tractor-trailer typically weighs 80,000 pounds or more. Loaded dump trucks often weigh over 60,000 pounds. These vehicles can cause catastrophic damage when they crash into regular cars on the roadway. Truck drivers are behind the wheel for a living and they operate these commercial vehicles for longer hours and more miles than other cars. This means there are far more opportunities for fatigue, inadvertence, mechanical defects, or other problems that could lead to disaster.
As a result, the transportation business is highly regulated by the federal government in an effort to increase safety and avoid the dramatic consequences of commercial motor vehicle collisions. In 1999, the government passed the Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act, which created the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMSCA) as a separate administration within the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). The FMSCA is responsible for regulating and overseeing the commercial motor vehicle industry to increase roadway safety for trucks and buses. With this statutory authority, the FMSCA produced a very extensive set of regulations called the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations to provide guidelines that trucking companies, bus companies, and drivers must follow.
All trucking companies that transport cargo or passengers across state lines must be registered with the FMCSA and must have a U.S. DOT number. All trucking companies that transport certain hazardous materials, regardless of whether they cross state lines, must also register with the FMSCA and have a U.S. DOT number. The U.S. DOT number provides an identification number that allows consumers to look up the company’s safety history through the FMSCA. All motor carriers who register with the FMCSA must certify through a qualified representative that they are familiar with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations and will comply with those Regulations. Additionally, every commercial motor vehicle driver certifies under oath and by threat of penalty of perjury that he or she has read and will comply with the Regulations when he or she applies for a commercial driver’s license (CDL) through the state department of motor vehicles.
According to Va. Code § 52-8.4(A), the Superintendent of State Police is authorized and required to promulgate regulations pertaining to commercial motor vehicle safety. The regulations are required to be “no more restrictive than the applicable provisions of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.” In furtherance of its duty under this statute, the Department of State Police issued Motor Carrier Safety Regulations in which it directed that “every person and commercial motor vehicle subject to the Motor Carrier Safety Regulations operating in interstate or intrastate commerce within or through the Commonwealth of Virginia shall comply with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. . . . which are incorporated in these regulations by reference.” 19 V.A.C. 30-20-80.
The Virginia state trucking company regulations require every operator of a commercial motor vehicle to comply with the Federal Regulations even if they do not cross state lines. Therefore, the standards set forth in the Federal Regulations are applicable to all employers, employees, and commercial motor vehicles that transport property or passengers in Virginia. See 19 V.A.C 30-20-40.
The Federal Regulations cover a wide variety of topics, including new driver training, physical qualification standards for drivers, application requirements to hire new drivers, drug and alcohol use testing, commercial vehicle operation knowledge requirements, record retention requirements, equipment standards, brake system standards, and fatigue avoidance systems.
The statute that authorized the U.S. DOT to issue the Federal Regulations makes clear that those regulations only “establish minimum Federal standards.” See 49 U.S.C. § 31305(a). Therefore, the Federal Regulations set forth only the bare floor for standards that trucking companies must meet in order to operate safely. Unfortunately, many trucking companies and truck drivers do not come close to meeting these standards. Too many of them have never read the regulations and are unprepared to comply with them.
Commercial motor vehicle collisions are often the inevitable result of systemic noncompliance with these very important minimum safety standards. Tractor-trailer accidents are preventable when the trucking companies and truck drivers follow the Federal Regulations just as they commit to doing when they register with the U.S. DOT or obtain a CDL from the state DMV.
If you or a loved one has been seriously injured in a collision involving a commercial motor vehicle, it is important to retain an attorney who is very familiar with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations and understands that these cases must be treated differently from a standard auto accident.