1. The Basics of Interstate Motor Carriers

Below is the first chapter, “The Basics of Interstate Motor Carriers,” of Understanding Motor Carrier Claims, Sixth Edition, a book from Fried Goldberg LLC, about the complexities of truck accident litigation. Plaintiff’s attorneys can request a complimentary copy. If you have any questions and would like to speak with an Atlanta, Georgia trucking accident attorney, contact us today.

Next Chapter: II. Theories of Liability

I. Information on Motor Carriers

A. Basics of Interstate Versus Intrastate Motor Carriers

There are two kinds of motor carriers: (1) interstate carriers and (2) intrastate carriers. An interstate carrier provides transportation services across state borders and is required to register with the Secretary of Transportation while an intrastate carrier has its operations entirely within one state and does not affect interstate commerce. Because the federal government is limited to regulating only “interstate commerce,” federal regulations governing motor carriers are only applicable to interstate carriers, and intrastate carriers only have to comply with state laws governing commercial motor vehicles. Many states, through their legislature or Public Service Commission, have adopted the federal regulations governing motor carriers as applicable to intrastate carriers and as a practical matter, removed the distinction between the two kinds of carriers. The importance of federal regulations on the motor carrier industry is discussed throughout this handbook, and it is critical to an analysis of a trucking claim to determine the applicability of these regulations to the carrier’s operations.

Practice Pointer

If a motor carrier operates as an intrastate carrier, review state laws to determine the applicability of federal regulations to the carrier’s operations.

B. Federal Registration

 Before a motor carrier can begin interstate operations, the carrier must register with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (“FMCSA”), obtain a USDOT number, and obtain operating authority from the FMCSA. The motor carrier must mark each commercial motor vehicle with the name of the motor carrier and the USDOT number. The process of registering with the FMCSA through the Unified Registration System (URS) system and online MCSA-1 form.

The online MCSA-1 form also has a safety certification section and an oath that must be taken by the motor carrier’s owner or designated agent.

A person may obtain a copy of the application for a motor carrier through the FMCSA.

Under the Uniform Carrier Registration System (UCRS), the motor carrier designates as its “Base State” the State where it maintains its principal place of business. The motor carrier registers with the UCRS through its Base State and must pay a standard fee to the UCRS as set out by the UCR agreement rather than being subject to the fees and registration outlined by individual states. If the motor carrier is registered as an interstate carrier, a State cannot require the motor carrier to obtain intrastate authority or require the motor carrier to make any insurance filings.
As part of the federal registration scheme, each motor carrier must designate a registered agent for service of process in each state that the carrier operates. A registered agent may be canceled only by designating a substitute agent. A form for the designation of a registered agent must be filed with the FMCSA.

In 2004, a safety permit program was instituted for the registration of all carriers of hazardous materials. The safety permit program applies to both intrastate and interstate carriers. The FMCSA will not issue a safety permit to any carrier that is in the top 30% of the national crash average as indicated in the Motor Carrier Management Information System (MCMIS). As required by the program, intrastate carriers of hazardous materials must apply for a USDOT number and be subject to a compliance review but are not subject to additional federal safety regulations. Intrastate carriers of hazardous materials, like interstate carriers, must also file a motor carrier identification report and mark their vehicles with the motor carrier’s name and USDOT number.

Practice Pointer

The application forms can be used to show that the motor carrier violated its oath to understand and follow federal regulations.

C. Safety Fitness Ratings

An interstate carrier is required to meet minimum safety fitness standards. In order to meet these standards, a carrier must have adequate safety management controls in place to reduce the risks associated with (1) commercial driver’s license standard violations, (2) inadequate levels of financial responsibility, (3) the use of unqualified drivers, (4) improper use and driving of motor vehicles, (5) unsafe vehicles operating on the highways, (6) failure to maintain accident registers and copies of accident reports, (7) the use of fatigued drivers, (8) inadequate inspection, repair and maintenance of vehicles, (9) improper transportation of hazardous materials, and (10) motor vehicle accidents and hazardous materials incidents. The Federal Highway Administration (“FHWA”) performs an annual compliance review on each carrier and assigns it a safety rating. A carrier’s safety rating is based on the adequacy of safety management controls, frequency and severity of regulatory violations, frequency and severity of regulatory violations identified in roadside inspections, the number and frequency of out-of-service driver/vehicle violations, frequency of accidents, and the number and severity of violations of state safety rules.

The FMCSA provides notice to the carrier of its safety rating and reports a list of compliance deficiencies which the motor carrier must correct. A “satisfactory” rating means that the motor carrier has in place adequate safety management controls to meet the safety fitness standards. A “conditional” or “unsatisfactory” rating means a motor carrier does not have adequate safety management controls in place. A carrier rated “unsatisfactory” is prohibited from operating commercial vehicles. A carrier may petition the FMCSA for a review of its rating after taking corrective actions to remedy any problems and defects in its operations. Motor carriers domiciled in Mexico are subject to intensified monitoring by frequent safety audits and inspections.

D. Safety and Fitness Electronic Records (SAFER)

The Safety and Fitness Electronic Records (SAFER) System was designed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to provide the public and trucking industry service providers with information on motor carriers. To access information on a motor carrier, first proceed to www.safer.fmcsa.dot.gov. Under the heading FMCSA searches, click on the section “Company Snapshot.” After clicking on this section, a search can be conducted on a motor carrier based on the motor carrier’s name, US DOT Number or MC/MX Number.

Practice Pointer

Lookup information on the trucking company, its insurance history and its safety record at www.safer.fmcsa.dot.gov.

E. Safety Management System (SMS)

In December of 2010, the FMCSA rolled out the Compliance, Safety & Accountability (CSA) System. As part of CSA, the FMCSA designed the Safety Management System (SMS) to collect data from truck drivers and motor carriers in order to assess the overall safety of the motor carrier. SMS focuses on seven Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories (BASIC). These categories include (1) Unsafe Driving- operating a commercial vehicle by drivers in a careless or dangerous manner; (2) Fatigued Driving – operating a commercial vehicle while ill, fatigued or in non-compliance with hours of service regulations; (3) Driver Fitness – operation of commercial vehicle by drivers who are unfit due to lack of training, experience or medical qualifications; (4) Controlled Substances/Alcohol – operation of commercial vehicle by impaired drivers; (5) Vehicle Maintenance – failure to properly maintain a vehicle; (6) Cargo-Related – failure to properly load a vehicle, dropped or spilled cargo, overloading and unsafe hazardous material handling; and (7) Crash indicator – history of high crash involvement based on frequency and severity of crashes. The SMS System collects this data over a 24-month period, and some of this information is available to the public. Although information is collected on individual drivers, the public cannot access information on an individual driver and only has limited access to information on the motor carrier. The SMS System identifies the scores of the motor carrier in that category and how high the score must go to warrant intervention.

The SMS System allows the FMCSA to identify carriers with poor safety performance. If a motor carrier has any deficiencies with its safety performance, the carrier will be subject to CSA intervention ranging from a warning letter to an out-of-service order. The motor carrier has access to its SMS results and is encouraged by the FMCSA to dispute the validity of any reported information. The SMS and related CSA intervention results can establish a pattern of poor safety and a failure to address problems with safety in a timely manner. However, the website specifically states: “Readers should not draw conclusions about a carrier’s overall safety condition simply based on the data displayed in this system.” As such, expert testimony will be necessary to establish that the motor carrier’s SMS results indicate a problem with its safety program.

Practice Pointer

Download data from the SMS System on all inspections and citations given to a trucking company in the last 24 months.

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