What are the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations?

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR) are federal regulations that set safety and operation standards for companies and individuals operating trucks, vans, buses, and other commercial motor vehicles involved in interstate commerce. Interstate commerce (as opposed to intrastate commerce) occurs when a driver travels from state to state. Therefore, a driver involved in intrastate commerce (stays within one state) is not subject to the FMCSRs. However, most states adopt regulations similar to the FMCSRs.

For example, a commercial motor vehicle driver going from Missouri to Kansas would be subject to the federal regulations but a driver only staying within Kansas would not be subject to the federal regulations. Nonetheless, the driver staying within Kansas would be subject to Kansas commercial motor vehicle regulations. Rules found within the FMCSRs cover a wide variety of topics including qualification and licensing of drivers, vehicle specifications, inspections, maintenance, insurance, vehicle marking, cargo securement, and other topics.

You can find the FMCSRs in the Code of Federal Regulation and the rules are written and enforced by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) (an agency within the US Department of Transportation) and its state partners.

What are the penalties for violating an FMCSR?

The FMCSA is allowed to impose civil penalties against motor carriers, drivers, and other entities who violate the FMCSRs. A civil penalty is a monetary fine imposed by a government agency as compensation for violation (this is not to be confused with a criminal punishment which generally results in jail time).

With this in mind, the monetary amount of each penalty is determined by Congress in the statutes, who in turn gives enforcement powers to the FMCSA. The FMCSRs generally list the maximum civil penalties that may be imposed for various violations. However, they do set some minimum amounts.

In determining the actual penalty, the FMCSA considers the maximum/minimum amounts identified in the statutes, as well as a number of different considerations that include:

  • The nature of the violations
  • The gravity of the violations
  • The violator’s degree of culpability
  • The violator’s history of prior offenses
  • The effect on the violator’s ability to continue to do business
  • Other facts “as justice and public safety may require”

When the FMSCA assesses penalties for violations of notices and orders, consideration is given to good faith efforts to achieve compliance with the terms of the notices and orders. If a CMV owner or operator fails to pay a civil penalty in full within 90 days after the deadline, he or she is prohibited from operating in interstate commerce starting on the 91st day. A few examples of civil penalties include:

  • Commercial driver’s license (CDL) violation = $3,750 fine
  • Knowingly violating rules related to hazardous materials = $450 fine and up to $50,000 per violation
  • Operating a CMV in interstate commerce after receiving a final unsatisfactory safety rating = $25,000 fine per day.

How are new rules adopted by the FMCSA?

A rather long and tedious process goes into adopting a new FMCSA regulation. They don’t simply appear overnight. The process to get a regulation adopted is best described in 5 main steps:

  1. The FMCSA must first have the authority to write a new rule. The way they get this authority is from statutes (laws)
  2. Just because the FMCSA has the authority to write a new rule does not mean they will do so. The rulemaking process generally begins with some type of specific need or mandate for a new rule. This generally comes in the form of the agency identifying a problem that needs fixing but Congress, the public, or other government agencies could indicate to the FMCSA that a new rule should be proposed for a particular need
  3. Once a need is identified, the next step is usually a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) published in the Federal Register, which is a legal newspaper for the federal government. Generally, the public gets 30 to 60 days to comment
  4. The NPRM is placed in the public docket
  5. After the comment period closes, the FMCSA decides whether to publish a Final Rule (if that occurs, it will take around 30-60 days after publication to go into effect), issue a new or modified proposal or withdraw the proposal entirely. Therefore, at a minimum, it would take a couple of months for a new rule to go into effect.