Safety for Exempt Operators of Trucks

John C. Glennon, Jr. BSAT
July 2011 (copyright)

Medium and heavy trucks that are operated by state, local, and federal governmental agencies are commonly involved in collisions caused by a failure of the agency to follow national standards for the safe operation of medium and heavy trucks. These standards were established to control the hazards unique to operating large trucks and buses, such as longer stopping distances, reduced visibility, greater difficulty in turning, increased maintenance demands, etc. These standards were also established because of the dramatically increased risk of injury and death to the occupants of any passenger vehicle impacted by these much larger vehicles.

Most governments that have adopted these national standards require compliance by operators of privately-owned medium and heavy trucks in their jurisdiction, but exempt themselves from compliance. As a result, trucks operated by the government such as fire trucks and road maintenance trucks are commonly found in an unsafe condition and/or operated by unqualified drivers.

The national standards are given in two primary sources. One important document that establishes the minimum standard of care for the safe operation of trucks and buses is the part of the Code of Federal Regulations 49 (CFR49) commonly known as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations or FMCSR. The FMCSR is made up of many topics covering areas such as the knowledge requirements of a CDL driver, equipment requirements of medium and heavy trucks, maintenance requirements of medium and heavy trucks, etc.

In addition to the FMCSR, another important document that establishes the minimum standard of care for the safe operation of trucks and buses is the Commercial Driver's License (CDL) Manual. The model CDL Manual is produced by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA). According to the AAMVA, every state has adopted the AAMVA CDL Manual. The CDL Manual was created in order to teach truck and bus drivers the knowledge required by the FMCSR. Therefore, the CDL Manual content is effectively required knowledge for anyone driving a truck or bus that is required to have a CDL.

Although trucks operated by the government are provided an exemption from these standards, anyone that operates a truck has an obligation to exercise due regard for the safety of the motoring public. Unless a reasonable alternative standard is followed, these standards should be applicable to any heavy truck. Stated differently, an exempt operator of heavy trucks must still either follow these standards, or follow equally effective standards from an alternative source, or implement their own equally effective standards through policy. Much effort has gone into developing the time-tested standards created by the FMCSR and the CDL program. So, unless the operational characteristics of an exempt operator of heavy trucks make it impossible to comply, there is no need to find an alterative and the FMCSR and CDL should be followed. For example, it would be impossible for a fire department to follow the hours-of-service standards from the FMCSR. So, a fire department would need to find or develop a standard to ensure their trucks are not being operated by fatigued drivers. Alternatively, there is no reason for the drivers of fire trucks to not be required to take and pass the CDL tests.

One common area of these standards ignored by these exempt operators are the minimum standard of care for truck maintenance. These truck maintenance standards are established by Section 396 of the FMCSR. Section 396.3 is a performance standard that requires operators of medium and heavy trucks to have a maintenance system by stating "Every motor carrier shall systematically inspect, repair, and maintain all motor vehicles subject to its control." The goal for this required maintenance system is that all parts and accessories shall be in safe and proper operating conditions at all times.

At a minimum, Section 396 requires a truck to have a Periodic Maintenance Inspection (PMI) done once every 12 months and a Driver Vehicle Inspection (DVI) done once every day. However, since different trucking operations place varying mechanical demands on equipment, the PMI interval required to meet the goal of keeping a truck safe at all times is operationally specific and most equipment will have to be inspected more frequently than the minimum. For example, a trucking operation hauling heavy construction equipment that commonly operates trucks in off-road construction sites will likely require more frequent PMIs than a trucking operation using trucks in long-haul interstate operations.

We have found that medium and heavy trucks operated by governmental agencies commonly receive random inspections and reactive repairs. They rarely receive any type of driver inspection, but when they are inspected, long lists of problems result. Although these long lists indicate a maintenance system failure needing attention, the vehicles often don't receive the attention they need.

Another common part of these standards ignored by these exempt operators is the minimum standard of care for the qualification of drivers. We have found that medium and heavy trucks operated by governmental agencies commonly are operated by drivers that do not hold the proper licensing for the vehicle they are operating. These unqualified drivers lack the training and knowledge required to safely operate these trucks. They do not know how to inspect a truck to determine if it is safe to operate. They do not understand the stopping distance requirements of these trucks. They do not understand how to operate these trucks under extreme conditions such as on steep grades and in bad weather conditions.

Regardless of any exemptions that exist, all operators of trucks should do so with due regard for safety. Due regard for safety is the minimum standard of care for the safe operation of trucks as defined by the standards either set forth in the FMCSR and CDL manuals or by equally effective standards.

About the Author

John C. Glennon, Jr., is a forensic automotive technologist who performs crash reconstruction and detailed vehicle testing for trucking companies, insurance companies and lawyers involved in investigating and litigating motor vehicle collisions. He has a B.S.A.T. degree in Automotive Technology, he is a triple-certified Master Automotive Technician, and he holds a Class A CDL in the state of Kansas.


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