Transportation law is the body of law that governs transportation infrastructure and its use. It regulates the way that people travel using any method of transportation including railways, air travel, vehicular travel and even waterways. Much of transportation law comes from the government agencies that make regulations and oversee compliance with the regulations that they create. Transportation law also involves companies and individuals that must understand and follow the regulations. Many legal issues arise on land, air, and water, such as workers’ compensation, criminal offenses, personal injury, or employment issues. However, when they occur on the water or in the air, admiralty or aviation law often applies special legal rules. Let’s look at these two common areas of the law: admiralty and aviation law.
Admiralty law, also called maritime law, is a combination of U.S. and international law that covers all contracts, torts, injuries, or offenses that take place on navigable waters. Admiralty law traditionally focused on oceanic issues, but it has expanded to cover any public body of water, including lakes and rivers. These laws largely cover interactions between two or more ships, the ship captain’s obligations to the crew and passengers, and the rights of crew members, as well as other legal issues. Federal district courts usually hear all admiralty cases, but states may also hear them on occasion. Courts apply special rules and legal principles to admiralty cases.
Air travel is expected to double over the next 20 years, according to the FAA. As air traffic increases, so does the risk that passengers will be involved in an aviation accident. Generally, air traffic is considered to be a safe means of transportation, but when accidents do occur they often result in fatalities. Smaller, less serious accidents involving private aircraft are more frequent than people realize, because many of these incidents go unreported in the media. Aviation accident law covers both major air carrier and general aviation accidents. General aviation includes all non-commercial aircraft including small planes, large business jets, charter flights, pleasure crafts, helicopters, and hang gliders.
Where does transportation law come from?
Most transportation law in the United States is federal. Because transportation impacts interstate commerce, the federal government can regulate transportation under the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. Federal transportation law regulates a number of things including any of the following:
• Requirements for building vessels for transportation including airplanes, trains, planes and motor vehicles
• Rules to decide who gets to use limited resources like airspace and train tracks
• How private corporations and individuals may own public transportation networks and under what conditions
• Prohibitions of discrimination in public transportation
• Oversight for inspections of companies involved in transportation
• Licensing of pilots, train conductors and maritime captains and helmsmen
• Penalties for violations of transportation laws
Federal Transportation Agencies
A lot of federal transportation law comes from Chapter 49 of the United States Code. Chapter 49 establishes several federal agencies that create transportation regulations and oversee transportation in the United States at a federal level. These organizations include:
• U.S. Department of Transportation: The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) lists its purpose as making transportation safe and convenient for everyone. Founded in 1967, USDOT creates regulations, brings enforcement actions and makes recommendations to the states. USDOT also makes public service announcements and gives warnings and recommendations to the public.
• Federal Aviation Administration: The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversees all aspects of air travel. Their oversight includes airplanes, airports and the logistics of air travel. Their rules and restrictions might be permanent or temporary.
• Federal Highway Administration: The Federal Highway Administration ensures safe construction of maintenance of roads, tunnels and bridges in the United States. They focus on safety as well as design that are easy and convenient for users. Their work includes planning for funding as well as innovation in road construction and design.
• Federal Railroad Administration: The Federal Railroad Administration has provided oversight for rail travel in the United States since 1966. The agency includes an Office of Civil Rights, Chief Counsel and Administration. Part of the agency focuses on policy and research.
• Maritime Administration: The Maritime Administration (MARAD) provides recommendations about commercial maritime travel in the United States. The agency handles international communication and negotiation regarding maritime travel. The organization also supports the Department of Defense.
• National Transportation Safety Board: The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigates transportation accidents. The NTSB is an independent agency. The purpose of the independence of the agency is to allow them to conduct unbiased and neutral investigations into the causes of transportation accidents.
State Transportation Law
Most states have a Department of Motor Vehicles. That’s where most people interact with transportation law. A state’s Department of Motor Vehicles is usually a part of a state’s executive branch. States also make laws that regulate traffic and travel on highways. States require drivers to have a license to drive a vehicle for private use. Most states have a different license for commercial driving and another license for operating a motorcycle. Most states also have laws that prohibit boating while intoxicated. Penalties for a violation of state traffic law might range from a civil fine to points on a driver’s license to criminal penalties.
One emerging area of transportation law is regulations that address the use of drones. Also called unmanned aircraft, drone operators and various units of government are still working on how to regulate drone use in order to promote safety and fair operation of drones. With the use of drones, concerns about privacy have developed. There are questions about when drone operators should need a license, whether they need a license under existing law and how they should be permitted to operate their aircraft. Regulators continue to debate rules regarding restricted airspace as well as privacy issues when drone operators want to operate above private property. Transportation lawyers are part of the rule-making process, and they also help clients comply with existing laws.
Non-Compliance With Transportation Law
Failing to comply with transportation law may be a civil or criminal offense. In some cases, the offender pays a fine. In other cases, they might face criminal charges. For example, a Valujet employee failed to follow regulations when he loaded flammable oxygen onto a plane. When the plane crashed because of the failure, the employee faced charges of manslaughter and improperly transporting hazardous material.
Contesting Criminal Or Civil Penalties
Along with civil penalties and criminal charges comes the opportunity to contest those penalties. Companies and individuals who are the subject of allegations of failing to follow federal or state transportation law have the right to notice and the opportunity to be heard about the allegation. Transportation lawyers represent their clients at these hearings. A hearing might be in front of an administrative agency law judge such as the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Hearings, or it might be in a criminal courtroom. Even administrative hearings are formal affairs. When a company has an administrative hearing, their future may be on the line as well as their reputation. Transportation lawyers help their clients carefully prepare for these hearings. If the case is in a federal criminal court, there are other important rules to know and follow.
A Definition Of A USDOT Number
A USDOT number is a unique identifier that is given to companies that engage in interstate, and in some cases, intrastate, commerce. It aids in monitoring to streamline safety compliance and is used when conducting official audits, reviews, and accident investigations. The number itself is granted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).
What Does DOT Certified Mean?
DOT certification is a seal of quality that shows a driver has the skills and competence to drive commercial vehicles on America’s roads and highways. Most states require DOT certification to drive commercial motor vehicles — a category that includes semi-trucks, delivery vehicles and public transportation. To have a commercial driver’s license, as opposed to a personal driver’s license, you must become DOT certified. Most fleet drivers require a commercial driver’s license because it serves as proof a job applicant has received DOT certification.To become DOT certified, a driver must undergo a physical exam and a series of safe-driving tests. The U.S. Department of Transportation administers DOT certification. Commercial motor vehicle operators must reapply for DOT certification every two years.
How Much Does a DOT Number Cost?
While the registration process is free, the FMCSA website will ask you to submit your credit card number to verify your identity. The site will not, however, charge your credit card for filing the form or for the issuance of your USDOT number, so there is no need to worry about using the FMCSA website for FMCSA registration. The FMCSA website uses an applicant’s credit card as his or her digital signature. As such, there is no alternative to the credit-card requirement for online applications. If you do not have a credit card or are uncomfortable with sharing that data online, you will need to fill out a paper application and send the form in the mail to the FMCSA offices.
Do I Need a DOT Number?
If you plan to operate any type of commercial vehicle in the United States, the first thing to determine is whether you will need a DOT number. While most states do require a DOT number for a vast range of commercial-vehicle operation, some states do not have this requirement, and other exemptions apply. You will need to file a USDOT registration if you intend to perform any of the following activities as the driver of a commercial vehicle:
• Drive a commercial vehicle on interstate routes
• Use vehicles that weigh more than 10,000 pounds
• Transport nine to 15 passengers for compensation
• Transport 16 or more passengers without compensation
• Transport hazardous materials
USDOT Number Best Practices to Follow
To ensure that your fleet is operating legally, you must first determine whether or not you need to register with the FMCSA to obtain a USDOT number. It is the responsibility of the motor carrier operator or driver to know their USDOT numbers, so make sure that you equip your employees/contractors with the right registration information before you send them on the road.
Screenshot via FMCSA
There are a few ways to determine if you need a USDOT number, but the simplest is to visit the FMCSA’s website. There, you will find an interactive quiz that asks a series of questions about your vehicle(s) and your business. Once completed, the administration will give you an answer as to whether or not you will need to register. If you’d prefer, you can also read the FMCSA’s official guidelines to confirm that you are compliant. You must register your vehicle with the agency and obtain a USDOT number if:
• The vehicle transports hazardous materials that require an intrastate commerce safety permit OR
• Has a GVWR, gross combination weight, or gross vehicle weight of 10,001 pounds or more
• Is designed to transport more than 8 passengers for compensation (driver included)
• Is designed to transport more than 15 passengers, not for paid purposes (driver included)
AND is involved in interstate commerce (in this case, interstate commerce is defined as “trade, traffic, or transportation in the United States”):
• When commerce is conducted between a location in and out of a state (including outside of the United States)
• Between two locations in a state through another state or a location outside of the United States
• Between two locations within a state, as part of trade, traffic, or commerce that originated outside of the given state or outside of the United States.
Another quick way to determine USDOT number compliance is to take a quick look at the list of states that require the special registration code. Here are the current states that demand that the specified vehicles obtain the number for intrastate commerce:
• New Jersey
• New York
• North Carolina
• Puerto Rico
• South Carolina
• West Virginia
If the state(s) in which you operate is not listed above, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t necessarily off-the-hook when it comes to complying to similar regulations. Always be sure to check with your state’s intrastate commerce regulations before you activate your fleet.
What Are the Requirements for a USDOT Number?
The process for filing and submitting a USDOT application is relatively easy, but it does require some knowledge about the legal classification of your business. Beyond the basic information, you will also need to gather the following information:
• Company operation
• Operation classification
• Cargo classification
Additional required details will include the number of vehicles you plan to operate, the type of vehicles in question, the status of your ownership of said vehicles — whether you own or lease — and the extent of your operation, such as whether you intend to operate on an intrastate or interstate basis. If you intend to transport hazardous chemicals, you will also need to know your hazmat classification.
USDOT Number Application
The USDOT processes registrations as soon as they receive them. When you fill out the form online, the process takes a matter of days. If you send the application form in the mail, you will generally need to wait between four and six weeks to have the application processed. Unless the USDOT refuses your application, the agency will immediately issue your DOT number once they have completed processing. Note that the department sometimes rejects handwritten applications due to illegibility, incomplete information or the lack of a signature. For the sake of expediency, it is best to use the online form.
Third-Party DOT Registration Assistance
A third-party DOT registration service is an entity that offers FMCSA-compliance assistance to trucking businesses. For fleet operations large and small, it can be difficult to stay on top of matters that pertain to registration and legal DOT compliance as required by the FMCSA. A lot of this confusion is because the rules and regulations are complicated and sometimes vaguely worded. The state-to-state differences in DOT requirements can also make matters confusing for trucking operations that do business along interstate routes. A third-party registration service can handle such issues externally so drivers and fleet operators can focus on what they do best. A third-party registration service will know all the nuances of local and federal regulatory laws regarding the FMCSA registration of commercial motor vehicles for all types of uses. With client registration files on hand, a third-party service will also be on top of re-registration deadlines. That allows trucking companies to focus on the management of fleets and the dispatch of drivers.
Why You Should Hire a Third-Party Compliance Service
When a trucking business hires a third-party DOT registration service, it spares the carrier the burden of researching FMCSA requirements and marking dates on the calendar for re-registration filings. It also prevents the costly mistake of paying the generally steep fines that face trucking companies and drivers who violate DOT requirements. For B2B fleet operators, the tasks involved with DOT and FMCSA compliance can be confusing, as well as time-consuming. When you hire a third-party registration service to handle DOT compliance filings for your business, the benefits are as follows:
• Focus on your business — a third-party service will let you focus on day-to-day operations without the need to question whether your DOT papers are up-to-date.
• Avoid penalties — with all requirements fulfilled and all registrations accurate and comprehensive, you won’t risk accidentally violating a DOT or FMCSA policy.
Third-party DOT help companies are highly competitive due to popular demand for such services. Consequently, the prices for such services vary from company to company. To ensure that the costs involved with registration compliance do not cut into your bottom line, it is crucial to have a registration company that knows the ins and outs of how the requirements work in your field and jurisdiction. A USDOT number is required for a commercial motor vehicle (49 CFR Part 390.5), which is defined as any self-propelled or towed motor vehicle used on a highway in interstate and/or intrastate commerce:
• to transport passengers or property when the vehicle has a gross vehicle weight rating or gross combination weight rating, gross vehicle weight or gross combination weight, of 10,001 pounds or more, whichever is greater; or
• to transport more than eight passengers, including the driver, for compensation; or
• to transport more than 15 passengers, including the driver, without compensation; or
• to transport material found by the Secretary of Transportation to be hazardous under 49 USC 5103 and transported in a quantity requiring placarding under regulations prescribed by the Secretary under 49 CFR, subtitle B, chapter I, subchapter C.
The USDOT number serves as a unique identifier when collecting and monitoring a company’s safety information acquired during audits, compliance reviews, crash investigations, and inspections. The following 31 states have laws agreeing to the enforcement of the federal USDOT regulations: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. The other states have state-based USDOT regulations (similar to federal OSHA vs. state OSHA regulations). Many think that the USDOT number does not apply here, but lack of enforcement does not equal “not applicable.” It is a federal regulation, and it applies to all subject commercial motor vehicles.
Vehicles that require USDOT numbers must have a name and USDOT number on both sides of the vehicle’s power unit, in a contrasting color, and visible from 50 feet away when parked. You can visit www.safer.fmcsa.dot.gov and select the “FMCSA Registration and Updates” link to register for your USDOT number.
Free Initial Consultation with USDOT Lawyer
When you need legal help with transportation law in Utah, please call Ascent Law for your free consultation (801) 676-5506. We want to help you.
8833 S. Redwood Road, Suite C
West Jordan, Utah
84088 United States
Telephone: (801) 676-5506