DOT regulations contractors need to know to avoid violations

by Ken Alderden, Sentry Insurance

I’ve seen many Wisconsin contractors incorrectly interpret Department of Transportation (DOT) or Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) regulations and receive significant citations as a result. Here’s a quick snapshot of violations these contractors have been penalized for:

  • Not maintaining annual vehicle inspection certificates
  • Not placing visible DOT number on their vehicles
  • Failing to provide medical certificates or tracking hours of service when they cross state lines
  • Cell phone usage in commercial motor vehicles

The more familiar you are with DOT rules, the more effectively you’ll be able to proactively identify risks and avoid violations.

Here’s a quick snapshot of violations these contractors have been penalized for:

  • Not maintaining annual vehicle inspection certificates
  • Not placing visible DOT number on their vehicles
  • Failing to provide medical certificates or tracking hours of service when they cross state lines
  • Cell phone usage in commercial motor vehicles

Understanding vehicle weights and requirements

Many DOT rules covering commercial motor vehicles (CMVs) apply once a vehicle exceeds 10,000 pounds gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) while engaged in commerce. The same weight requirement applies to truck and trailer combinations, in which case the measurement is gross combined vehicle weight rating (GCVWR). Note that WI Transportation order 327 covers exemptions for CMVs that don’t leave the state.

While a half-ton pickup or van generally has a GVWR of around 7,000 pounds and can stay safely under the 10,000 pound limit with the expected maximum of a half-ton of internal cargo, that equation changes if you add a trailer. Three-quarter-ton trucks usually have GVWRs more than 10,000 pounds all by themselves, but some models and engine combinations have been derated to 10,000 pounds. Note the important distinction there; a vehicle derated to 10,000 pounds isn’t greater than 10,000 pounds unless you overload it or hook a trailer onto it.

Commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs)

Anyone driving a vehicle that exceeds 26,000 pounds GVWR — or GCVWR with a trailer that also weighs more than 10,000 pounds — needs to have a valid CDL. For example, an 11,350-pound pickup with a 14,000-pound equipment trailer almost reaches that figure (25,250 pounds), but not quite. This means you wouldn’t need a CDL unless you overload the vehicle or trailer, which obviously creates its own set of issues. Other CDL requirements affect vehicles that carry hazardous materials; those with more than 16 passengers, and other scenarios. But for the purposes of our discussion here, vehicle weight — combined or otherwise — is the most relevant variable.

Commerce

Think of commerce as an action used in the furtherance of a business. Delivering a skid steer to a jobsite would be considered commerce, as would driving your 11,350-pound pickup truck to a meeting at a job site. Now, let’s say you use that same vehicle to pull your car-hauler and a UTV up north for the weekend. If the trip isn’t related to work, it wouldn’t be considered commerce, even though it’s the same vehicle — and potentially the same trailer and equipment — you use for work functions.

Impact on contractors

What do all these weight limits, definitions, and acronyms mean to contractors like you? Simply put, they impact your ability to operate your work vehicles legally in Wisconsin, which obviously, affects your viability as a business. Common reasons trucks are stopped include easily visible issues, such as:

  • Burnt-out signal lights
  • Occupants not wearing seat belts
  • Loose/unsecured items in the back of the truck or on a trailer

It’s also not uncommon for less obvious maintenance violations to be identified on the same date — often during the same inspection — such as the scenarios I listed above, but potentially extending to a wide variety of other, less obvious issues. In other words, let’s say one of your drivers is stopped for speeding or another unsafe driving action. The law enforcement officer may notice something like tire wear or unsecured fire extinguishers, which they wouldn’t have been able to spot when the vehicle was in motion. Let’s review some steps you can take to help stay compliant out on the road.

DOT numbers

You’re required to obtain a DOT number and display it on your vehicles. If your company has a DOT number, you also need to update your MCS-150 form every two years. Did you know that the last two digits of your DOT number tell you when you need to update the form? The last digit indicates the month, and the second-to-last digit indicates whether you update your form in even or odd years. For example, if your DOT number ends in 53, the 3 means you need to submit the form by the last day of March, the third month of the year. The 5, being an odd number, means you need to update your form during odd-numbered years (2021, 2023, etc.). Failing to update your MCS-150 form can deactivate your DOT number and result in fines of up to $1,000 per day.

Proof of DOT inspections

As I’ll cover later, pre-trip inspections are crucial because they allow your drivers to identify potential violations, along with safety and maintenance issues. But pre-trip inspections aren’t the only inspections your vehicles need. You’re required to have annual DOT inspections performed on your vehicles and your drivers will need to be able to prove to law enforcement that the inspection actually took place. Be sure your drivers know where their proof of inspection is located. I’ve seen several companies cited when there was a certificate right in the glovebox, and the driver just didn’t know it was there. Sure, you can try to contest violations and have them taken off your FMCSA Safety Management System (SMS) score, but it’s a lot easier to just avoid the citation up front. A little communication goes a long way.

Pre-trip inspections

You can help reduce many of these violations by making sure your drivers perform pre-trip inspections. Beyond that, provide the tools they need to improve their overall awareness of the vehicle; even something as simple as a mirror mounted on the driveway can help, as they allow the driver to see the lights on the front and back of their truck or trailer as they leave the yard. That can mean the difference between a smooth, safe trip and being stopped by law enforcement for having a turn signal or other light out. That said, drivers still need to perform full walkaround inspections each morning. Provide routine training on vehicle inspections, and ensure all drivers have access to inspection checklists.

Load securement

Losing something off a truck can cause equipment damage and lead to a serious traffic incident. The simple rule is that everything on or inside a CMV needs to be secured. That includes ladders on the rack, lumber, supplies in the back of the truck, gas cans, and any equipment you’re hauling. Also, make sure to lower any accessories and restrain buckets or other attachments. Everything should be secured for both length and weight. Use one strap or chain for every 10 feet of length and use an additional one if the items aren’t up against a bulkhead. For example, a two-by-four cut to 10 feet 1 inch on a flatbed trailer with no front rail or bulkhead would need three straps:

  • Two because it’s longer than 10 feet
  • One more because it is has nothing to prevent it from sliding forward.

The straps need to be rated to withstand at least 50% of the weight of the load. If you’re hauling 4,000 pounds of supplies, the combined capacity of all the tiedowns should be at least 2,000 pounds. With limited exceptions, never use fewer than two tiedowns unless the object you’re hauling is shorter than 5 feet and weighs less than 1,100 pounds. Securing heavy equipment can depend on the weight, but the same 50% of the weight rule mentioned above applies. If the equipment is less than 10,000 pounds, comply with general freight guidelines. But keep in mind, if you’re hauling something like a skid steer that’s just under 10,000 pounds and only using two chains, be prepared to be stopped and ready to explain why you only used two chains, since most heavy equipment weighing in excess of 10,000 pound requires at least four chains.

Medical cards

If your drivers cross the state line in a CMV, they’ll need to have the same medical cards other CDL drivers are required to have. There’s an exemption for drivers who only drive in the state of Wisconsin, but keep in mind that your business operations could change, and you don’t want to get caught with outdated information or a lack of information altogether. Law enforcement is good at spotting out-of-state tags and recognizing when vehicles look like they might exceed that 10,000 GCVWR.

Hours of service

Your requirements for keeping hours of service (HOS) records vary depending on whether your drivers cross state lines:

  • If your drivers stay in Wisconsin, HOS rules don’t apply until you hit the CDL weight requirement
  • If your drivers cross the state line, HOS rules applies to your CMVs

Note: Your drivers could be exempt from HOS rules if the total trip is less than 150 air radius miles, but if they take a CMV across the state line and more than 150 air miles from the starting point to the final destination, the full HOS rules will apply.

SMS scores

The FMCSA organizes their SMS data into seven Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories (BASICs). In my experience, the scores for maintenance and unsafe driving violations are where contractors tend to have the most issues. Keep an eye on your scores so you’ll know if any are approaching the compliance review thresholds, a labor-intensive process that can have financial ramifications and require corrective actions. I’ve even seen violations appear in states the contractors didn’t work in. In some cases, we’ve found contractors who sold trucks and didn’t remove the DOT numbers from the doors, or they shared a similar company name with a business in a different state. If you notice incorrect violations on your company’s profile, seek corrections through the DataQs process.

Conclusion

I get it. Complying with DOT regulations can sometimes seem overwhelming. But remember, the DOT isn’t out in the field hoping to penalize hardworking, small business owners like you. Many of these regulations were created after serious accidents involving large trucks, which prompted federal regulators to create a change and make our roads safer. It’s a lot better to look at your compliance before your company is involved in a major claim than to wait until there is a big claim or citation. It all comes down to staying organized and informed, and providing your employees and subcontractors with practical safety information and actionable steps. And as always, you can reach out to your business insurance provider or local experts with questions. As I’ve found in my years of experience in this role, fresh eyes can see things familiar eyes overlook.

Ken Alderden is a senior safety consultant for Sentry Insurance. Sentry is the exclusive insurance program of the ABC of Wisconsin

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