Do Truckers Obey a Different Set of Laws?
Drivers in every state need a valid license to drive legally on public roads. The law that governs the licensing of most drivers is determined by each state, although most states adhere to the Uniform Vehicle Code.
Uniformity of licensing laws assures that a driver who is duly licensed in one state will be able to drive safely in other states. Since each state has similar licensing requirements, states have an agreement (called an interstate compact) that assures a driver who is licensed in one state can legally drive in every state.
Commercial truck drivers, however, must comply with additional laws. Their state-issued driver’s license is valid when they drive non-commercial vehicles. When they drive most commercial trucks, however, they must obtain a state-issued license that complies with federal laws regulating the licensing of commercial drivers.
Federal law generally requires drivers to have a commercial driver’s license (CDL) to drive:
- A vehicle with a maximum loaded weight that exceeds 26,000 pounds
- A vehicle that, in combination with a towed vehicle (such as a tractor-trailer), has a maximum loaded weight that exceeds 26,000 pounds
- A vehicle that is transporting hazardous materials (as defined by federal law)
- A vehicle that is designed to transport the driver plus 15 or more passengers
Truck drivers must also obtain an endorsement on their CDL before they can lawfully drive certain kinds of vehicles, including school busses and double- or triple-trailers. Drivers obtain endorsements by passing required tests.
A few vehicles that might exceed 26,000 pounds, including recreational vehicles and certain farm vehicles, are exempt from the CDL requirements. Tractor-trailers and heavy trucks, however, usually cannot be driven by someone who does not have a CDL.
States issue CDLs but they must follow federal regulations when they do so. States can impose additional restrictions on drivers when they issue a CDL, but they cannot be less restrictive than what federal law requires.
An applicant for a CDL will need to pass a written examination that is tailored to the specific class of vehicle for which the driver wants to be licensed, as well as the specific endorsements the driver seeks. Drivers usually need to pass a tailored driving test as well. For example, to be licensed to drive a vehicle with air brakes, the driver will need to take a driving test while operating a vehicle that uses air brakes.
Most drivers who need a CDL must also obtain a medical card. A medical card assures that drivers do not have medical conditions, such as sleep apnea, that would make it dangerous for the driver to operate a commercial vehicle.
While most trucking companies confirm that their drivers have a current, valid CDL, a shocking number of accidents are caused by drivers who had their CDL revoked or never obtained one. Even when a driver is an independent operator rather than an employee, the trucking company that hires the driver might be held negligent for failing to verify that the driver held a valid CDL license before hauling cargo for the company.
Driving Laws that Apply to Commercial Drivers
Drivers can be disqualified (that is, they can lose their CDL driving privileges) if they commit certain traffic offenses. Leaving the scene of an accident and driving a vehicle that has been placed “out of service” by inspectors are examples of disqualifying offenses.
While most offenses result in a disqualification of thirty days to one year, a second violation of DUI laws, whether driving commercially or privately, will result in a lifetime disqualification. While it is unlawful to drive a private vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 or higher, the “legal limit” for a commercial driver is 0.04.
The hours that a commercial driver may lawfully drive are limited. Hours-of-service rules generally apply to commercial drivers who drive vehicles with a maximum loaded weight of more than 10,000 pounds, even if they are not required to have a CDL.
Current rules limit a driver to driving no longer than 11 hours, and to being on duty no longer than 14 hours, after being off-duty for consecutive 10 hours. Drivers who carry passengers, however, may drive no longer than 10 hours after 8 consecutive hours off duty.
Drivers are required to keep logs showing that they have complied with hours-of-service rules. A personal injury lawyer who represents the victim of a collision with a commercial truck will want to review that log. In some cases, an investigation will prove that the log was falsified and that the driver likely became fatigued after driving more hours than the law allows.