Understanding Why the DOT Matters for Truck Accidents

  • The primary mission of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is to create and enforce safety regulations, ensure compliance, and maintain records for all truckers and carriers operating in the country.
  • Any carrier or driver that fails to comply with federal regulations may lose their licensing and operating authority.
  • The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration may investigate a reported accident and can impose penalties if the trucking company violated regulations or was negligent in some way, such as hiring or retaining an unsafe driver, failing to inspect and maintain vehicles, or violating regulations that require drivers to take breaks after a certain number of hours.
  • If you are injured in a truck accident, your attorney may be able to use federal records to build a legal claim that holds the carrier liable for violating safety regulations. Vehicles traveling on the interstate highway system account for approximately 26 percent of all motor vehicle transportation in the United States. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is responsible for managing this federal system, which includes maintaining infrastructure and making roadways safe and efficient for people and businesses.

The DOT operates through multiple offices and authorities, including one branch specifically formed in January 2000 to govern trucking businesses—the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). The primary mission of the FMCSA is to create and enforce safety requirements, ensure compliance, and maintain records for all truckers and carriers operating in the country.

As the lead federal agency responsible for regulating and providing oversight of commercial motor vehicles (CMVs), the FMCSA partners with industry leaders, safety advocates, and state and local governments to reduce injuries and accidents caused by large trucks and buses. More than 500,000 commercial trucking companies, 4,000 interstate bus companies, and 4 million commercial driver’s license holders are regulated by the FMCSA. The FMCSA has field operations, service centers, and state-level motor carrier divisions in every state—including Georgia.

If you are injured in a truck accident, your attorney may be able to use FMCSA records to build a legal claim that holds the carrier liable for violating safety regulations.

How the FMSCA Protects Drivers

The main purpose of the FMSCA is to protect drivers on U.S. roadways, which includes regulating and providing safety oversight of CMVs. The following programs are designed to help accomplish that mission:

  • Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA). The CSA program identifies motor carriers, owner-operators, and truck drivers with safety problems and prioritizes them for interventions such as warning letters and investigations.
  • Safety Measurement System (SMS). The SMS provides monthly updates to motor carrier’s safety data, including driver and vehicle violations, recent crash reports, and investigation results.
  • Pre-Employment Screening Program (PSP). The PSP provides secure electronic access to commercial drivers’ five-year crash and three-year inspection history from the FMCSA Motor Carrier Management Information System.
  • New Entrant Safety Assurance Program (NESAP). The NESAP monitors carriers that apply for USDOT numbers for 18 months to make sure they operate safely, update their records, conduct inspections, perform regular vehicle maintenance, and pass a safety audit.

The FMSCA also has programs designed to regulate and monitor the safety of companies that transport hazardous materials and use cargo tanks. In addition, the FMSCA has a number of grant programs that provide federal funding to state and local governments agencies to enhance safety programs and driver training, implement the national Commercial License Program, and maintain activities and technology that have a positive impact on vehicle safety. Finally, the FMCSA’s National Consumer Complaint Database allows consumers and drivers to file online complaints against unsafe and unscrupulous motor carriers and truckers.

Through its regulations, the FMCSA sets minimum standards for the safe operation of commercial vehicles, which cover all related personnel and business entities (e.g., drivers, owners, dispatchers, trainers, supervisors, and fleet managers). FMCSA regulations cover a wide range of requirements, including registration, permits, driver qualifications, hours of service, vehicle maintenance, financial responsibility, and safety.

Any carrier or driver that fails to comply with FMCSA regulations may lose their licensing and operating authority. The FMCSA ensures compliance through regular audits on trucking companies and their drivers.

FMCSA regulations require companies and owner-operators to carry a certain amount of insurance coverage to be granted operating authority. If the commercial vehicle carries freight, the liability insurance policy must provide $750,000 to $5,000,000 in coverage depending on the type of commodities transported. Commercial passenger vehicles must carry $5,000,000 in coverage (though vehicles with seating capacity of 15 or fewer passengers must only carry $1,500,000).

For nonhazardous freight moved in vehicles weighing less than 10,001 pounds, the minimum policy limit is $300,000. The FMCSA also requires carriers to provide $5,000 per vehicle and $10,000 per occurrence in cargo insurance.

What is a USDOT Number?

If a trucking company wants to do business nationally, it must acquire the necessary operating authority. A USDOT number is the number the FMCSA assigns to registered CMVs, and companies must have a USDOT number to receive operating authority.

The USDOT number is unique to each company and serves as an identifier when collecting and monitoring safety information acquired during audits, inspections, compliance reviews, and

crash investigations. Essentially, the FMCSA uses USDOT numbers to track the quality of trucking companies and their drivers and ensure compliance with federal regulations.

You must have a USDOT number if your vehicle is involved in interstate commerce and 1) weighs more than 10,000 pounds, 2) is used to transport more than 8 passengers (including driver) for compensation, or 3) is used to transport more than 15 passengers (including driver) without compensation. You are also required by federal law to have a USDOT number for a vehicle involved in intrastate commerce that transports the types and quantities of hazardous materials that require a safety permit.

Apart from federal regulations, many states—including Georgia—require intrastate commercial motor vehicle registrants to obtain a USDOT number. That means you must operate under a USDOT number—even if your business is confined to the state of Georgia—if your vehicle meets the above criteria for commercial vehicles.

Failure to obtain a USDOT number and/or complete biennial updates of your registration can result in civil fines of up to $1,000 per day with a maximum penalty of $10,000. Certain types of carriers may be subject to additional civil penalties as authorized by 49 U.S.C. 14901(a). The FMCSA may also deactivate a company’s USDOT number if it fails to comply with updating requirements.

Where Else Do Trucking Companies Need to Register?

Close up photograph of department of transportation sign on building.
Close up photograph of department of transportation sign on building.

In addition to obtaining a USDOT number and operating authority, trucking companies must also register, file, and pay fuel taxes as well as have proper licensing and other permits. If a carrier is based in Georgia but operates on interstates, it must comply with the International Fuel Tax Agreement by obtaining a Georgia fuel license.

It must also obtain an International Registration Plan license plate by registering with the company’s home state, which allows the carrier’s trucks to operate in all states and most Canadian provinces. Companies must verify that they have active insurance coverage in each state of operation by registering with the Unified Carrier Registration system.

For commercial vehicles that only travel in Georgia, companies must register with the Tax Commissioner’s tag office in the county where your business is located and obtain any applicable permits. How FMSCA Records and Investigations Can Impact Truck Accident Claims

If you’ve been injured in an accident involving a commercial vehicle, your attorney should collect all FMSCA records relating to the accident or any previous safety violations by the carrier or driver. Depending on the cause of the accident, different FMSCA records can be valuable in building a strong injury claim against the trucking company.

The FMSCA maintains a Motor Carrier Management Information System (MCMIS) crash file, which contains data on commercial vehicles that have been involved in crashes that meet the SAFETYNET threshold. Crashes are reported to the MCMIS by each state and must involve at least one fatality, at least one injury that requires immediate medical attention, or at least one vehicle disabled and transported from the crash scene to meet the threshold.

The FMSCA may investigate the reported accident and can impose penalties if the company violated regulations or was negligent in some way, such as hiring or retaining an unsafe driver, failing to inspect and maintain vehicles, or violating regulations that require drivers to take breaks after a certain number of hours.

An accident report that documents a FMSCA investigation can be used as evidence in your legal claim against the company. For example, if the accident was caused by the negligence of a driver who had been driving too long without a break, the trucking company may be liable for your injuries. Keep in mind that even if the FMSCA does not investigate the accident, your attorney may still use other FMSCA records and/or obtain logs directly from the trucking company that prove the facts of your claim through discovery.

Call The Millar Law Firm for a Free Consultation

If you were injured in an accident caused by a commercial vehicle driver, you should talk to an experienced attorney to determine who is responsible for paying your damages. Our lawyers go to work immediately to investigate the accident and help you recover the full value of your claim. Call The Millar Law Firm today at (770) 400-0000 or contact us online to set up a free consultation with one of our attorneys.

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