Statutory background of federal trucking safety laws

An attorney handling a catastrophic personal injury or wrongful death case in Georgia resulting from a commercial truck crash should understand the history of federal motor carrier regulation is helpful for comprehension of the current regulatory structure.

  • Motor Carrier Act of 1935.

Arising from the combination of increasing motor transport of freight and the trauma of the Great Depression, the Motor Carrier Act of 1935 focused primarily on financial stability of motor carriers, but Section 204(a) authorized the Interstate Commerce Commission regulate hours of service of employees and safety of operation and equipment. Carriers were required to make an initial showing of ability to operate safely, and the ICC was authorized to revoke or suspend a carrier's license for repeated or flagrant safety violation.

  • Department of Transportation Act of 1966.

When the US DOT was established, the ICC powers to regulate motor carriers were shifted to the Federal Highway Administration. This included regulation of qualifications and maximum hours of service of employees and safety of operation and equipment of both motor carriers and private carriers.

Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982. This legislation expanded the definition of "employer" to be coextensive with the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, expanded the definition of "commercial vehicle" to all trucks weighing 10,000 pounds or more, expanded the definition of "employee" to include mechanics and freight handlers, and specifically included owner-operators in the definition of "employer" in order to subject them to penalties for unsafe vehicle maintenance and operation. It included provisions encouraging states to develop rules compatible with the federal commercial vehicle standards, and protections for "whistleblowers."

  • National Driver Register Act of 1982.

This statute requires states to report to a national register any person whose license was canceled, revoked for suspended for cause, and any conviction for DUI, a violation connected to a fatal accident, reckless driving, racing, failure to render aid or provide identification in an accident involving injury or death, or perjury or false affidavit connected with motor vehicle operation. Current and prospective employers could require a written authorization to obtain the record.

  • Tandem Truck Act and Motor Carrier Safety Act of 1984.

States were authorized to apply for exemptions in order to ban oversized trailers from designated routes. The Secretary of Transportation was authorized to issue safety regulations related to truck equipment, loading, maintenance, operation, physical condition of drivers, and work conditions to prevent impairment of ability of drivers to operate vehicles safely and to prevent adverse effects on physical condition of drivers. Federal financial assistance to states was used as a club to make state laws and enforcement more uniform.

  • Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986.

This Act required the DOT to establish uniform national standards for commercial drivers licenses (CDL). It required that commercial drivers have no more than one drivers' license at a time, notify the state that issued their license and their employer within 30 days after any traffic violation. Driver applicants were required to provide a ten year employment history. Corresponding duties were imposed on employers. It required strict standards regarding alcohol use, and required disqualification of drivers for DUI, leaving the scene of an accident, or commission of a felony using an commercial vehicle.

  • Truck and Bus Safety and Regulatory Reform Act of 1986.

The DOT was directed to conduct a study and initiate rule-making regarding hours of service and driver fatigue, including onboard monitoring devices.

  • Motor Carrier Safety Act of 1990.

This Act sought to strengthen enforcement procedures, and directed the DOT to improve conspicuity of trailers at night, leading to rules requiring reflective striping to outline trailers beginning in 1994.

  • Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act of 1999.

This Act created the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration within the DOT, tightened commercial driver standards by toughening driver disqualification rules and procedures, and tightened standards for new entrants into the trucking industry.