What Safety Regulations Apply to Me?

    This is a common question asked by many types of motor carriers. Who is a motor carrier? Basically, it is anyone that uses a “commercial vehicle” to conduct business on the roadways. This, in most cases, includes tow operators.


    For the purposes of the federal Department of Transportation and its agency that oversees interstate motor carrier safety (the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, or FMCSA), a commercial vehicle is a vehicle used in interstate commerce that:

    • Has an actual or rated weight (single or combination) of 10,001
      pounds or more,
    • Is designed to seat either more than 8 or more than 15 people,
      depending on how compensation is handled, or
    • Is carrying a placardable amount of a hazardous material.

    “Interstate commerce” is business that crosses state lines. In the case of carriers, it means either the vehicle or the cargo is destined to, or has, crossed a state line as part of the carrier’s movements. In the case of a tow operation, the “cargo” is the vehicle being towed. If the commercial vehicle is used in intrastate commerce, then the state’s definition of a commercial vehicle applies. Many states have adopted the FMCSA’s definition, but other states use their own definition.


    If you operate vehicles that meet the FMCSA or state definition of a commercial vehicle, the FMCSA or state’s safety regulations will apply to your operation. If you are an intrastate carrier, you need to be aware that most states have adopted the majority of the FMCSA safety regulations for their intrastate carriers. Therefore, the FMCSA regulations or a slight variation of them may very likely apply to you. The key areas that these regulations cover are carrier credentialing, driver licensing and qualifications (and possibly drug testing), vehicle parts and accessories, hours of service, and vehicle inspection and maintenance. In this article we will discuss these requirements, and following each requirement will be the FMCSA regulation number involved if you want to look up the details.


    Carriers that operate in interstate commerce must file an MCS-150 and be issued a USDOT number (see §390.19). If the carrier is charging the public for the service they provide (not just hauling cargo the company owns), the carrier must also have “for-hire authority.” Most states have a similar structure when it comes to their intrastate carriers. In addition, some states and municipalities have additional requirements on tow operators under their jurisdiction. In the case of a for-hire carrier, the company may also be subject to specific insurance minimums (see Part 387).

    Once the company becomes a registered carrier, the vehicles must be marked in accordance with the regulations (see §390.21) and the company must maintain an “accident register” where all accidents the company is involved in are recorded. The FMCSA considers an accident to be an occurrence involving a company vehicle that resulted in a death, an injury requiring immediate treatment away from the scene, or a vehicle having to be towed away from the scene due to disabling damage (see §390.15).


    Drivers must have the correct license for the vehicle being operated. If the vehicle qualifies as a CDL Class A vehicle (a vehicle weighing or rated at 26,001 pounds or more pulling a towed unit weighing or rated for 10,001 pounds or more) the driver must have a Class A CDL. If the unit being towed is a combination vehicle that has multiple units, the driver would also need to have the “double/triple” endorsement as well as a Class A CDL. If the towing unit weighs more than 26,001 pounds and the towed unit is under the 10,001 pound threshold, then a Class B CDL is required. If the combination is 26,000 pounds or less, and the towed unit is 10,000 pounds or less (and is carrying no placarded hazardous materials), a regular driver’s license is all that is required in most states (see §383.91).

    If the vehicle being towed would require the driver of the vehicle to have a special endorsement to his/her CDL (hazardous materials, tanker, etc.) then the tow truck driver would need to have that endorsement as well (see §383.93).

    The driver must also have passed a physical and have a valid medical card (see §391.43). The company must have a driver qualification file showing that the driver meets the driver qualification requirements. This file would need to include the driver’s application (§391.21), the background checks done when the driver was hired (§391.23), annual MVR checks (§391.25), annual reviews of driver’s performance (§391.27), road test certificate or equivalent (§391.31 and §391.33), and a copy of the driver’s medical card (§391.43).

    Some jurisdictions have additional driver qualification requirements for drivers of tow truck drivers (such as a tow operator certification). If the driver operates a vehicle requiring a CDL to operate, the driver must have been provided a copy of the company’s drug and alcohol policy (see §382.601), and the company must have gotten a verified negative test result and have it on file before using the driver (see §382.301). The company must also have the driver on the random drug and alcohol testing selection list (see §382.305).

    Last, the driver is covered by the hours-ofservice regulations. These regulations limit how many hours a driver can drive, how many hours the driver can be on duty, and how many hours of break time the driver must take. The basic rules include not driving after the driver has reached (see §395.3):

    • 11 hours of driving since the last break of 10 hours or more
    • 14 consecutive hours since the last break of 10 hours or more
    • 60 hours on duty in the last 7 days (70 hours in the last eight days if the company operates vehicle 7 days a week and the company chooses to use this option)

    To record their hours-of-service compliance, drivers must maintain a “record of duty status,” better known as a “log” (see §395.8). There are exceptions for drivers that operate in “short haul” operations that can allow the company to use time records in place of the driver having to complete a log. The details of these exceptions are in the FMCSA regulations at §395.1(e). The key is that the driver cannot drive once one of these limits is reached, whether the driver is keeping a log or operating under one of the exceptions that allow time records to be kept in place of logs. The driver can still work, just not drive.


    Just like the drivers, once a vehicle is a commercial vehicle, certain regulations apply. To begin with, the vehicle needs to be equipped in accordance with Part 393 of the regulations. These regulations mandate what parts and accessories are required and what condition they must be in. The vehicle then must be inspected and maintained by the company in accordance with Part 396, and maintenance records must be kept showing that the vehicle has been systematically inspected, maintained, lubricated, and repaired when necessary (see §396.3). The vehicle and cargo also must be inspected by the driver at the beginning of the workday and the driver must submit a report stating the condition of the vehicle at the end of the day (this is referred to as a driver vehicle inspection report or DVIR). These requirements are covered in the regulations at §392.7, §392.9, §396.11, and §396.13.

    Finally, the vehicle must pass a very specific inspection called a “periodic inspection” (commonly called an “annual inspection”) as required by §396.17. If the state has an equivalent inspection that the commercial vehicle must undergo, this can take the place of this required inspection.


    One point about these regulations: If the driver is operating in support of an emergency, then some or all of the regulations do not apply. An emergency in the case of towing includes:

    • A request from law enforcement to assist in clearing an accident or disabled vehicle from traffic.
    • Operating in support of a declared disaster.

    When responding to a request from law enforcement or in the case of a declared disaster, the driver and vehicle are only exempted from the regulations when he/she is responding to, operating in direct support of, and returning from the event. In both cases, the regulations in Parts 390 to 399 are the regulations the driver and vehicle are exempted from, meaning that, if the vehicle requires a CDL driver to operate it, the drug and alcohol regulations in Part 382 and CDL regulations in Part 383 still apply. What it comes down to is, if the driver is doing “every day towing” (such as customer called- in tows, dealer tows, or auction tows) and not operating in one of the two emergency situations discussed above, all of the rules that normally apply to a commercial vehicle and its driver apply. The driver is only exempt from the rules in Parts 390 to 399 when the driver is involved in emergency or disaster relief operations.