Rules of the road

Features - Legal Matters

Traveling for work across state lines comes with some hefty regulations.

May 4, 2016

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Given the opportunity as a business owner, would you bid on a job, accept a job and do a job across state lines? If it were a current or new client, it sounds like a great opportunity right? Reasonable profit? Maybe the site is just across town, just down the road or even across the street. “How bad could it be?” you ask. Let’s take a closer look and see what is necessary before you even start the bidding process.

A very close friend and colleague of mine was given this very opportunity and jumped on it. Boy, is he looking back on it now and having second thoughts.

If you are in the landscape industry, chances are you are operating a commercial vehicle and/or vehicles. If you live in a state that requires commercial registrations for such vehicles, you are probably required to have your vehicle registered with commercial license plates or similar. If you are unsure what the requirements are, check with your local motor vehicle office or their website.

Asking your insurance agent, friends in business or the guy next door, may lead you down the wrong path. Go directly to the source. I also suggest joining a trade association whose goal is professionalizing the industry. You might also attend a trade show or 10 to gain some very important industry knowledge.

Getting ready for the road.

If you cross state lines to conduct business and your vehicle is 10,001 pounds or more, you are required to obtain a USDOT (United States Department of Transportation) number.

This is used by the federal government to track your movement, your actions and your fleet between states. Failure to obtain said USDOT number before crossing state lines could result in sizable fines. The states of New Jersey and New York, for example, can and will impose a fine of up to $5,000 for not having a USDOT number.

The DOT can also assess the same penalties found during an inspection or audit. There is no double jeopardy. A recent fine for not having a DOT number was $9,500 by the federal government and $5,000 by the state for a total of $14,500. For starters, my colleague was looking at a potential $97,000-$115,000 in fines for a $1,300 per month maintenance account.

The fun really starts once you acquire your DOT number. When you are issued a DOT number, your entire fleet is registered under that number.

This means all of your vehicles, records such as maintenance, medical cards, driver’s licenses, etc., and staff are now open to inspection.

Anyone operating a commercial vehicle over 10,000 pounds in state or out of state is required to have a medical card in accordance with statue 49 CFR 391.41.

Your records are required to be kept for three years after your employee departs your organization. These records are going to have to be produced when requested by law enforcement.

If you come to them.

If you get lucky enough to be called for inspection while operating your vehicle, you may be directed into a weigh station and receive a Level 1 inspection.

This will be a bumper to bumper, top to bottom, side to side inspection of your vehicle or vehicles, including your truck and trailer, should you be towing one at the time of your inspection. Everything is open to scrutiny. I mean everything!

Getting inspected on a roadside stop could be much better than the inspector coming to your place of business. We will discuss this at a later point in this article.

The officer will likely start with your documents to check for validity. Your DOT number will be checked via computer and officials can see your history, including outstanding violations.

The officer may ask you to open your compartments and cargo doors to inspect your cargo. The officer may want to check for load securement, chemicals, fire extinguishers, gasoline storage, spill containment supplies, a pre-trip inspection sheet, etc.

A Federal Motor Carrier Inspector (FMCI) certified by the Federal Motor Carrier Administration (FMCA) has the authority to demand access. The officer may ask, but you are required to oblige.

Because being a motor carrier is one of the most-regulated businesses in the United States, there is an understanding that expectation of privacy does not exist.

Meaning, when you register for your DOT number, it is spelled out that you can be inspected whenever and wherever a state or federal inspector chooses, with no probable cause or reasonable belief warranted.

The officer will engage in conversation with you or your driver to get answers to his or her questions as well as to determine if the driver speaks English, is knowledgeable about his or her vehicle, his or her cargo and more.

An inspection at your place of business by law enforcement could be very uncomfortable and expensive.

If you drive a commercial vehicle interstate in this country, you must speak English.

The litany of items the officer may or may not inspect is extensive to say the least. The current Federal Motor Carrier Regulations manual hovers around 600 pages. The book can be updated or changed four times per year.

You may ask, “How is anyone expected to keep up with these regulations?” I would ask, “How is anyone supposed to know that robbing a bank is illegal?” There are no signs indicating robbing a bank is a crime. You learned this activity was illegal from someone in your life: parents, teachers, siblings or friends. Ignorance of the law does not make you innocent.

As an active member of the green industry, you need to make yourself aware of the rules and regulations that govern the industry. This is your responsibility and yours alone. I should also point out that FMCA Title 49-CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) information is produced by the federal government.

For any questions regarding the complexities of these regulations, contact the federal government. Let me know how that goes.

IF They come to you.

An inspection at your place of business by law enforcement could be very uncomfortable and expensive. Law enforcement could request you have all of your vehicles available on site for inspection. If an officer encounters out of service violations, your entire fleet could be put out of service and your DOT number could be suspended.

An example of such violations could be: no driver medical cards, no pre-employment drug testing results for your drivers, no driver’s abstract records or no IFTA Sticker (International Fuel Tax Association).

The remedy to many of these and other vehicle and safety issues would be to contact a service that specializes in this field. A professional in this particular field will be able to guide you through the process of acquiring the documentation and licenses necessary for your industry.

The fee paid to a service provider for this work will be minimal in comparison to the fines you could be faced with if you are not in compliance.

I should point out, my colleague hired a firm and passed his inspections with flying colors. However, he did lose many hours sleep in the months and weeks leading up to his appointment with the state police.

Depending on the state or states you operate your business in, the rules and regulations can be extensive. It would be prudent to investigate these issues before you encounter an incident.

My guess is you will sleep much better knowing your fleet and staff are in compliance with the law.