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What is a CMV and why does it matter?

Updated: Mar 7, 2021

The term "commercial motor vehicle" carries a special significance in the regulated transportation industry because it dictates who exactly is subject to federal and/or state safety regulations and which regulations apply. In this article, we'll examine that term in detail, but generally speaking:

Under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, a "commercial motor vehicle," or CMV for short, means any self-propelled or towed motor vehicle used on a highway in interstate commerce to transport passengers or property when the vehicle (i) has a GVWR, GCWR, GVW, or GCW of 10,001 pounds or more; (ii) is designed or used to transport more than 8 passengers (including the driver) for compensation; (iii) is designed or used to transport more than 15 passengers (including the driver) not for compensation; or (iv) is used to haul placardable quantities of hazardous materials. Motor carriers and drivers who operate CMVs are generally subject to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.

In the sections that follow, we'll take a closer look at the regulatory definitions of a CMV, whether trailers are considered CMVs, and whether vehicles operated exclusively on private property qualify as CMVs.

Regulatory definitions of a CMV

Section 390.5 of the FMCSRs generally defines a CMV to mean:

Any self-propelled or towed motor vehicle used on a highway in interstate commerce to transport passengers or property when the vehicle—

  1. Has a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) or gross combination weight rating (GCWR), or gross vehicle weight (GVW) or gross combination weight (GCW) of 10,001 lbs. or more, whichever is greater; or

  2. Is designed or used to transport more than 8 passengers (including the driver) for compensation; or

  3. Is designed or used transport more than 15 passengers, including the driver, and is not used to transport passengers for compensation; or

  4. Is used to transport placardable quantities of hazardous materials.

More simply stated, a CMV is a vehicle or combination of vehicles (i.e., truck-trailer) that weighs more than 10,000 lbs., is designed or used to transport 9 passengers for compensation (or 16 passengers not for compensation), or is used to transport placardable amounts of hazmat. If you operate vehicles that fall into these categories in interstate commerce, you are likely subject to the FMCSRs. Conversely, if you only operate vehicles that fall outside these categories, you are probably not. Included within these categories would be vehicles ranging from 80,000 lb. tractor-trailers all the way down to half-ton pickup trucks pulling decent-sized trailers. Many landscape companies, for example, are surprised to learn they are subject to the FMCSRs when simply operating small trucks and trailers in interstate commerce.

While this definition of a CMV dictates the applicability of the vast majority of the FMCSRs (e.g., DOT registration, truck markings, driver qualification, hours of service, vehicle maintenance), a more specific definition governs two of the more onerous subparts of these rules: commercial drivers’ licenses (CDLs) and drug/alcohol testing. More specifically, these subparts only apply to those that operate the following CMVs:

  1. Combination vehicles having a GCWR or GCW of 26,001 lbs. or more, inclusive of a towed unit with a GVWR or GVW of more than 10,000 lbs.; or

  2. Heavy straight vehicles having a GVWR or GVW of 26,001 lbs. or more; or

  3. Smaller vehicles that do not fit in categories (1) or (2) but that either—

    1. Are designed to transport 16 or more passengers, including the driver; or

    2. Are used to transport placardable quantities of hazardous materials.

Said another way, drivers that operate property-carrying vehicles or combinations that weigh between 10,001 and 26,000 lbs. in interstate commerce are generally subject to all provisions of the FMCSRs except the CDL and drug/alcohol testing requirements, which only apply to larger vehicles and combinations that exceed 26,000 lbs., unless they are hauling placardable quantities of hazmat, in which case they would be subject to all provisions, including the latter. Whereas for passenger carriers, the determining factor is the seating capacity. Be sure to download your free copy of Trucksafe's Am I Regulated flowchart, which provides a more intuitive way to determine whether your particular operations are subject to the FMCSRs.

CMV Weight Thresholds for Property Carriers
CMV Weight Thresholds for Property Carriers

Are trailers considered CMVs?

A question you may be asking yourself is whether a trailer, whether it be a box, flatbed, or otherwise, qualifies as a CMV. The answer is "yes," if it is used in a combination that qualifies under the regulatory definitions listed above. For example, if you have a trailer that has a GVWR of 9,000 pounds and you use a truck with a GVWR of 7,000 pounds to pull it, the combined weight of the truck and trailer exceeds the 10,000 pounds threshold, meaning that both the truck and trailer qualify as CMVs under the FMCSRs.

Practically speaking, this means that if you have a trailer that is ever used in a combination that exceeds the applicable weight thresholds (or is used to transport placardable quantities of hazardous materials), you must treat that trailer as a regulated vehicle, meaning that it must have an up-to-date annual inspection, etc. Further, if you operate truck/trailer combinations that exceed the 26,000 lbs. threshold (and if the trailer itself has a GVWR that exceeds 10,000 lbs.), then the driver of that combination would need a CDL and would be subject to the federal drug/alcohol testing rules.

Do vehicles operated solely on private property qualify as CMVs?

Another common question is whether vehicles or combinations that are operated exclusively on private property qualify as CMVs under the FMCSRs. The answer depends on the nature of the private property. In other words, by definition, CMVs only include vehicles that are "operated on a highway." The term "highway" is defined to mean:

Any road, street, or way, whether on public or private property, open to public travel. “Open to public travel” means that the road section is available, except during scheduled periods, extreme weather or emergency conditions, passable by four-wheel standard passenger cars, and open to the general public for use without restrictive gates, prohibitive signs, or regulation other than restrictions based on size, weight, or class of registration. Toll plazas of public toll roads are not considered restrictive gates.

Thus, even vehicles operating on private property can qualify as CMVs if the private property is open to public travel without any restrictive gates or prohibitive signs. An example would be a parking lot at a shipper's or receiver's facility that has no gates or prohibitive signs.


The term CMV is important in commercial transportation because it dictates whether and to what extent the FMCSRs apply. Motor carriers should keep a detailed list of all CMVs operating under their USDOT number and should ensure that any drivers operating those CMVs are properly qualified and licensed to do so.

For more information on CMVs and the FMCSRs in general, check out our eBook DOT Compliance: the Basics. And for in-depth training on topics like driver qualification, hours-of-service, vehicle maintenance, drug/alcohol testing, and much more, be sure to visit our Trucksafe Academy!


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