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Farmers and commercial motor vehicle regulations

McAfee & Taft AgLINC - November 2012

By Jared Burden

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) administers a host of regulations covering the registration, operation and maintenance of commercial motor vehicles. Rules can vary by operator and industry, and there is consequently much confusion about what rules apply to what vehicles and drivers. This has been especially true in the agricultural industry. Different exemptions and special rules can make compliance with the FMCSA very different depending on the circumstances of an agricultural operation. Everything from the size of the vehicle used to the distance traveled can affect how the FMCSA will view an operator.

 

What operations does the FMCSA cover?

The FMCSA applies to commercial motor vehicles and their operators involved in interstate commerce. This, however, does not mean that transportation occurring within state lines will not be regulated. According to guidance released by the FMCSA, “[w]hen the intent of the transportation being performed is interstate in nature, even when the route is within the boundaries of a single State, the driver and CMV are subject to the [Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations].” Therefore, if transportation is part of trade originating or terminating outside the state or country, it is covered by the FMCSA regardless of where it occurs. If a commercial motor vehicle (CMV) is used exclusively for trade within a state, it will only be subject to the specific laws and regulations of that state. Many state rules are similar to those of the FMCSA, but this article will only discuss federal regulations.

 

What vehicles are regulated?

Many people associate the FMCSA with commercial trucking. For this reason, they assume the regulations only affect tractor-trailers and other similarly large commercial trucks. The FMCSA, however, regulates a far broader range of vehicles. As a result, many small business owners, including farmers engaged in interstate commerce, are unaware of the FMCSA’s applicability and, consequently, may be open to liability for failure to follow its regulations.

The FMCSA defines its regulatory scope through vehicle classification. Classifications may be made according to (1) the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) or gross vehicle weight, whichever is greater (i.e. truck only); (2) the gross combination weight rating or gross combination weight, whichever is greater (i.e. truck and trailer); and (3) the ability to transport a certain number of passengers. For the agricultural industry, the most important classifications involve vehicle weight.

GVWR is usually assigned by the manufacturer of the truck and/ or trailer. For example, a 1-ton pickup truck (e.g. a Ford F-350) generally has a GVWR of between 10,001 to 14,000 pounds, depending on the make. Trailers will also have a GVWR and/or weight that must be taken into account when determining the full rating or weight. Together, the GVWR or weight of your truck and trailer will determine what kind of licenses you are required to carry, whether a Department of Transportation number is needed, the applicability of hours of service and physical fitness requirements, and many other regulatory standards.

Generally, regulatory burdens fall into two categories. The more restrictive category covers larger vehicles. If a farmer operates a truck that has a GVWR or gross weight over 26,001 pounds, then he or she must obtain a commercial driver’s license (CDL). Affected vehicles include your typical tractor-trailer, but may also include larger trucks such as a dump truck. A class A CDL is required where such a truck is used to pull a trailer with a GVWR or weight of more than 10,0001 pounds; a class B license will be needed for smaller trailers or where the truck is not pulling a trailer. In addition to CDLs, falling into this category of regulated operators will require a farmer to comply with many other regulations, including, but not limited to:

  • Safety regulations;
  • Hours of service regulations;
  • Commercial motor vehicle marking rules;
  • Maintenance of an accident register;
  • Adoption of an alcohol and drug testing policy; and,
  • Compliance with hiring procedures for DOT regulated drivers.

This list is not exclusive and guidance should be sought to ensure compliance with all applicable regulations.

If a farmer operates any vehicle that has a GVWR or gross weight of between 10,001 pounds and 26,001 pounds, then drivers are not required to have CDLs. However, a farmer will be required to obtain a USDOT number and display it on each “self-propelled” commercial motor vehicle in its fleet (i.e. only the truck, not the trailer) with a weight or weight rating over 10,001 pounds. This rule extends to a variety of vehicles, including pickup trucks that are generally available to the public. In addition, the farmer will be required to comply with the following regulations:

  • FMCSA safety regulations;
  • Hours of service regulations;
  • FMCSA commercial motor vehicle marking rules;
  • Maintenance of an accident register; and,
  • Establishment of procedures for preventive maintenance and inspections.

As with the list above, this list is not exclusive and guidance should be sought to ensure compliance with all applicable regulations. As is readily apparent from these categories, many farmers who utilize common equipment in their operations, such as a 1-ton pickup with a gooseneck trailer, may fall under the jurisdiction of the FMCSA. As such, they may unknowingly be open to inspections and/or fines.

 

What farm-related exemptions are available?

Again, as stated above, the FMCSA only has jurisdiction over farmers engaged in interstate commerce. Therefore, farmers who only trade within their state will not be affected. For those farmers who might otherwise fall under the federal regulations, though, several exemptions exist to the various regulations. The most important exemption relates to the obligation of obtaining a CDL. In particular, the operator of a farm vehicle may be exempt if the commercial motor vehicle is

  1. Controlled and operated by the farmer, his or her employees or family members;
  2. Used to transport agricultural products, machinery or supplies to and from a farm;
  3. Are not used in the operations of a common or contract motor carrier; and
  4. Is used within 150 miles of the farmer’s farm.

The existence of this exemption is dependent on the law of the farmer’s home state, but many states honor it, including Oklahoma.

In the past, farmers have raised concerns about this exemption, pointing out that many transport crops or livestock that are not owned by them, technically making them a contract carrier. Of particular concern have been those who farm under sharecropping agreements. However, the FMCSA has ruled that the exemption applies equally to farmers who

  1. Own their own land and haul their crops to market;
  2. Rent land and haul their crops to market; and
  3. Rent their land for a share of the crops and haul their own and the landlord’s crops to market.

Conclusion

There are many transportation regulations, both state and federal, that can affect a farming operation. It takes close attention to a farmer’s operations and vehicles to determine what rules apply.