**In our Compliance Myths series, we aim to dispel some of the most widespread trucking myths and hopefully bring some clarity to these often complex topics.**
Driving down the highway and surrounded by commercial motor vehicles, I'm regularly struck by the diversity of the markings on the sides of those vehicles. Some keep it simple with their company name or logo and USDOT number, while others appear to be competing to see just how much detail they can cram on to their doors. Name, address, USDOT #, MC #, VIN, GVWR--it's like the most boring episode of Sesame Street ever, trying to teach us our letters and numbers!
With as much variability in truck markings as there is, you'd be inclined to think there isn't some standard or regulation on the topic. But you'd be wrong. In fact, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs) make very clear--and simple--what information must appear on the sides of all regulated vehicles. What's more, federal law explicitly preempts states from imposing additional marking requirements except in very narrow circumstances. In this article, we'll work to answer the questions "how exactly are commercial vehicles supposed to be marked" and "what information must be displayed on the sides of trucks?"
Generally speaking, under the federal rules, all regulated commercial motor vehicles must be marked with the motor carrier's legal or trade name (as listed on its USDOT registration) followed by its USDOT number.
Why the confusion?
You may be asking if the regulations are so clear on how commercial vehicles are to be marked, why do we see so many variations out on the roads? In my view, this stems in large part from a misunderstanding of the impact of the federal marking standards and their interplay with divergent state marking requirements. Many states in the U.S. have laws that purport to require commercial vehicle operators to mark their vehicles with certain state-specific information (e.g., weight distance account numbers). What many fail to realize, including many state regulators, is that federal law prohibits the states from enforcing most of those marking requirements against fleets who have at least some interstate operations. This is to prevent a patchwork of state marking laws that would require interstate carriers to take stock of every state's individual requirements.
In another article, we detailed the fundamental distinction between interstate and intrastate commerce. If you haven't read that article, I recommend you do since that distinction plays a big role in this analysis. Sufficed to say, carriers who are engaged in interstate commerce are, generally speaking, subject to the jurisdiction of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). Of course, that's not to say they aren't also subject to certain state rules, particularly if they occasionally operate vehicles in intrastate commerce in certain states.
If that's you, you may be thinking your trucks are subject to BOTH the federal and any divergent state marking requirements. But that's rarely true. You see, in its 2005 SAFTEA-LU legislation, the U.S. Congress included the following provision, now codified at 49 U.S.C. 14506:
(a) RESTRICTION ON REQUIREMENTS.—No State, political subdivision of a State, interstate agency, or other political agency of two or more States may enact or enforce any law, rule, regulation standard, or other provision having the force and effect of law that requires a motor carrier, motor private carrier, freight forwarder, or leasing company to display any form of identification on or in a commercial motor vehicle (as defined in section 14504a), other than forms of identification required by the Secretary of Transportation under section 390.21 of title 49, Code of Federal Regulations.
The key words here: No state may enforce any law that requires a motor carrier to display any identification on a commercial motor vehicle other than the identification required under the federal rules.
With that said, the statute goes on to carve out some exemptions. Namely:
(b) EXCEPTION.—Notwithstanding subsection (a), a State may continue to require display of credentials that are required— (1) under the International Registration Plan under section 31704; (2) under the International Fuel Tax Agreement under section 31705 or under an applicable State law if, on October 1, 2006, the State has a form of highway use taxation not subject to collection through the International Fuel Tax Agreement; (3) under a State law regarding motor vehicle license plates or other displays that the Secretary determines are appropriate; (4) in connection with Federal requirements for hazardous materials transportation under section 5103; or (5) in connection with the Federal vehicle inspection standards under section 31136.
Thus, for federally-regulated carriers, states can require commercial vehicles to be marked with state-specific information only in these very narrow circumstances. Of course, that's not to say they don't repeatedly push the boundaries. Indeed, the FMCSA has on many occasions had to step in and specifically direct certain states to cease enforcing their state-specific marking requirements that run afoul of this federal law.
Take, for example, an Oregon law that required motor carriers operating in the state to display on their vehicles an Oregon weight mile tax credential (WMTC). In 2007, the FMCSA weighed in on this requirement and held that "[we] could find no evidence to support a determination that the display of the WMTCs is appropriate. Therefore, the State of Oregon may no longer require interstate motor carriers to display WMTCs."
Unfortunately, despite the FMCSA's ruling in this case and a handful of others just like it, some states continue to try and enforce marking requirements that are expressly preempted by the SAFTEA-LU legislation. And this is a significant contributing factor to the confusion that exists on this topic. So where does this leave us?
The bottom line
Unless you're a carrier that's engaged exclusively in intrastate commerce (meaning none of your vehicles operate interstate), you're entitled to the benefit of the simplified federal marking requirements across your entire fleet. To that end, 49 CFR 390.21(b) provides that your vehicles must be marked with your legal or trade name (as listed on your MCS-150) followed by your USDOT number, as shown below.
That's it! No address, no GVWR, no VIN, no "not for hire" designation...just your name and USDOT number. The regulation goes on to say that if any other markings or logos appear on your trucks, then your legal or trade name should be preceded by the words "operated by." So, for example, if you're an owner-operator fleet and your owner-operators wish to include their own names or businesses on the sides of their trucks, that's fine so long as their vehicles are also marked with the phrase "operated by" YOUR NAME and YOUR USDOT NUMBER (see the following example).
Aside from these specific marking requirements, no others are required or enforceable against interstate fleets, except those that fall under one of SAFETEA-LU's enumerated exceptions: IRP markings, IFTA markings (or state highway use tax markings not collected under IFTA and in effect in 2006), vehicle registration markings, hazmat markings, and vehicle inspection markings. Fortunately, these are few and far between.
For fleets with at least some interstate operations, the vehicle marking requirements are fairly simple and straightforward due to the federal government's deliberate efforts to do away with divergent state marking requirements. That said, some states continue to dig in their heels and try to enforce their state-specific marking requirements against federally-regulated fleets. Except in very narrow circumstances, that's impermissible.
If you have any questions on this topic or need assistance challenging these types of state violations, feel free to contact us. For even more in-depth analysis on federal and state safety regulations, be sure to check out our industry-leading compliance courses for safety managers and drivers at www.trucksafeacademy.com.