What is a commercial vehicle? When most of us read the words “commercial vehicle,” we think of eighteen-wheeler trucks that weigh tens of thousands of pounds and cause catastrophic damages in a collision.
But these so-called big rigs are just one kind of commercial vehicle on the road, and they’re not the only type you may encounter in the event of an accident. Small vans and buses can be commercial vehicles, as could a tiny sedan in certain circumstances.
Because these vehicles are owned and insured by companies rather than individuals, they fall under a different set of standards when it comes to accidents. Knowing you’re dealing with a commercial vehicle can affect the steps you take in the immediate aftermath of the crash, as well as how you and your attorney will handle the claim.
What is a commercial vehicle?
A commercial vehicle is used for commercial or business purposes. Commercial motor vehicles (CMV) may transport goods or paying passengers. A commercial vehicle is often designated “commercial” when it is titled or registered to a company. This may include company cars, fleet vehicles, or other vehicles used for business purposes.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), which oversees and regulates commercial vehicles, has a narrower definition. The agency defines a CMV as “any self-propelled or towed motor vehicle used on a highway in interstate commerce to transport passengers or property when the vehicle:
- Has a gross vehicle weight rating or gross combination weight rating of 4,537 kg (10,001 lb) or more, whichever is greater.
- Is designed or used to transport between 9 and 15 passengers (including the driver) for compensation.
- Is designed or used to transport 16 or more passengers.
- Is designed for or used in transporting hazardous materials per the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act.
Do you need a commercial driver’s license to drive a commercial vehicle?
Not everyone who drives a commercial vehicle needs a commercial driver’s license (CDL). If you drive one of the following vehicles, you need to get a CDL:
- Any combination of vehicles with a gross combination weight rating (GCWR) of 26,001 or more pounds, provided the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of the vehicle being towed is in excess of 10,000 pounds.
- Any single vehicle with a GVWR of 26,001 or more pounds, or any such vehicle towing another not in excess of 10,000 pounds.
- Any vehicle designed to transport 16 or more persons, including the driver.
- Any vehicle transporting hazardous materials.
Types of commercial vehicles
When designated for business use, many vehicles qualify as commercial vehicles. Here’s an overview of the most common types of commercial vehicles.
Semi-trucks. Semi-trucks are a combination of a tractor unit attached to a trailer or bed using a fifth-wheel connection. They are also called 18-wheelers, tractor-trailers, and big rigs. Semi-trucks include dry vans, reefers, double or triple trailers, and flatbeds. Semi-trucks are used to haul cargo between distribution and fulfillment hubs.
Box trucks. Box trucks or straight trucks look like semi-trucks, but their tractor is directly attached to the trailer without a fifth-wheel connector. Unlike vans, box trucks have their cargo area separate from the vehicle’s cab. Businesses often use them for moving, local deliveries, and hauling large items like furniture and appliances.
Pickup trucks. Most ordinary pickup trucks aren’t automatically considered commercial vehicles. However, sometimes they’re used for commercial purposes, even requiring a commercial driver’s license (CDL) depending on the business. Pickup trucks can transport goods with a trailer and transport tools and equipment for a business.
Step vans. Also called multi-stop or walk-in delivery, these kinds of trucks are known as “bread trucks” or “bakery trucks” colloquially. These vehicles are taller than full-sized vans, making it easier to access goods and stand up in. Parcel companies (including the United States Postal Service), police and fire departments, and food trucks use delivery trucks.
Cargo vans. Cargo vans — also called sprinters — are one-piece vehicles with their cargo area connected to the driver cab. Some larger cargo vans have roll-up rear doors, similar to box trucks. Cargo vans are typically used for plumbing, electrical, cable repair services, and courier and delivery services.
Passenger vans. Full-sized commercial passenger vans can seat anywhere from nine to 15 passengers. They’re used to transport groups of people as part of a service (transporting guests to a parking lot) or as the service itself (travel or tour operations).
Buses. Transit buses are designed to transport large amounts of both paying and non-paying passengers. They are typically part of a city’s transportation network or used for school bus systems. Due to a bus’s size and passenger-carrying capacity, they are almost always considered commercial vehicles, requiring special licensing.
Motor coaches. A motor coach is a more luxurious bus designed to travel long distances. Modern motor coaches are high-floor buses, with luggage storage below the passenger compartment. These passenger vehicles are designed for comfort, with more amenities than regular buses, such as air conditioning, onboard restroom, and reclining seats. Coaches are used for touring and hired as private charters.
Minibus. Also known as shuttle buses, these vehicles have lower passenger capacities than regular buses but more than passenger vans. Due to their smaller, more flexible nature, minibuses are used for both fixed-route transit and on-demand transportation.
Small chartered groups, airport and rental car services, and campus shuttles for corporations and universities use minibuses.
Heavy equipment. Some types of construction, farming, mining equipment and similar heavy vehicles are considered commercial vehicles.
Specialty vehicles. These vehicles have specific functions or designs. For example, government agencies and communities rely on refuse collection, street sweepers, fire trucks, and septic trucks. Tow trucks, passenger trolleys, and RV-style mobile services (bookmobiles, health services) can all be considered commercial vehicles.
Commercial cars. Rental cars, taxis, and delivery vehicles are all considered commercial vehicles. While ride-hailing vehicles (Uber, Lyft) are still considered personal use vehicles, many believe they should be considered commercial vehicles with commercial plates.
The most important regulations that apply to commercial vehicles
In this section, we’ll cover the federal regulations that apply to vehicles that the FMCSA consider commercial, their drivers, and the companies that hire them.
Commercial driving license (CDL)
If you’re driving a vehicle that’s classified as a commercial vehicle (even if it’s not a heavy truck or bus), you’re required to have a commercial driving license.
This could, for example, be a vehicle lighter than 10,001 pounds used to transport more than eight passengers or hazardous materials.
Any aspiring truck or bus driver can get a CDL in their home state, starting with a commercial learner’s permit. After passing the CDL theory test and learning from a certified CDL holder for 14 days minimum, you can move on to take the skills tests and get your license.
As a company and fleet owner, you’re responsible for checking that all drivers driving trucks, buses, or other commercial vehicles have the appropriate license.
Note that drivers of especially challenging vehicles, like a semi-truck with two or more trailers, a tank truck, or a truck transporting hazardous materials, may need special endorsements beyond a standard CDL.
Hours Of Service
Any US company with commercial vehicles must comply with Hours Of Service (HOS) regulations.
To break HOS down simply:
- Commercial drivers should not drive for more than 8 hours consecutively — there’s a mandatory 30-minute break after 8 hours driven.
- Drivers should have no more than 11 hours total of driving during a 14-hour shift after 10 hours minimum off-duty.
- Or, drivers should have no more than 10 hours of total driving after 8 hours minimum off-duty.
The driver and company must also document their compliance with the HOS regulations so that federal inspectors can ensure they follow them.
There are other rules and exceptions in the official HOS, so make sure you familiarize yourself with them through FMCSA’s official website.
Electronic Logging Device (ELD)
In addition to self-reporting the Hours Of Service, many (but not all) commercial vehicles are also required to install an ELD — a device that connects to a vehicle’s diagnostic port and tracks driving hours along with other data points to corroborate the self-reporting.
One major exception is short-haul trucks (trucks that operate in a radius smaller than 150 miles). But most long-haul trucks and buses need to install this device. Read our dedicated ELD guide for more information.
Non-compliance can lead to hefty fines ranging from $1,496 to $14,960 per vehicle.
Driver-Vehicle Inspection Report (DVIR)
As a commercial vehicle operator, you must also regularly get your vehicle inspected. Previously, all commercial vehicle drivers needed to keep a Driver-Vehicle Inspection Report (DVIR) with them, even if they had no issues.
But since 2011, only passenger-carrying CMV drivers must carry the latest DVIR report if the driver has not found or been made aware of any deficiencies or defects.
Again, violations can lead to hefty fines and negatively impact your Compliance, Safety, and Accountability (CSA) score, and increase the risk of incidents, so it’s crucial to comply. And of course, a strong procedure for keeping well-maintained vehicles is also crucial for maintaining fleet safety and getting the most out of your vehicles and drivers.
Drug and alcohol testing
The US Department of Transport also requires employers of CMV drivers to maintain a regular drug and alcohol testing program to ensure that their drivers are clean.
The official FMCSA minimum requirement for employers of commercial drivers is a drug testing rate of 50% and an alcohol testing rate of 10% per year. (For a fleet of 100 drivers, that’s 50 random drug tests and 10 random alcohol tests per year.)
If your head is starting to spin from all the regulations you need to deal with, don’t worry — the solution isn’t as complicated as you might think.
FMCSA regulations for commercial vehicles
While all of the above may be considered commercial motor vehicles, not all are subject to federal motor carrier safety regulations. For example, based on the FMCSA’s definition of a CMV, taxicabs are not subject to federal regulations.
Similarly, if a vehicle and operator only engage in intrastate commerce, they most likely will be subject to state and local mandates instead of federal laws. (However, many state requirements are identical to FMCSA regulations.)
If a vehicle meets the FMCSA CMV requirements, business owners need to comply with Department of Transportation (DOT) safety regulations regarding:
- Alcohol and controlled substance testing for all persons required to have a commercial driver’s license (CDL)
- Driver qualifications including medical exams
- Driving and operations commercial motor vehicles
- Parts and accessories necessary for safe operations
- Hours of service rules
- All inspection, repair, and maintenance of vehicles
Besides these regulations, business owners should be aware of the FMCSA’s requirements for vehicle insurance, commercial driver’s license holders, driving records, and accessibility.
What is defined as a commercial vehicle?
Commercial Vehicle (CVC §260)—A commercial vehicle is a vehicle required to be registered which is used or maintained for the transportation of persons for hire, compensation, or profit or designed, used, or maintained primarily for the transportation of property.
What is an example of a commercial vehicle?
Commercial motor vehicles can include trucks, buses, trailers, taxis, heavy equipment, trailers, and travel trailers.
What qualifies as a commercial vehicle in PA?
If either is operating a vehicle or combination of vehicles with a weight rating over 17,001 lbs, they are considered a commercial motor vehicle in Pennsylvania and are subject to Title 49 of the Federal Regulations as well as Title 75 of the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle code.
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