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What Defines a Commercial Motor Vehicle?

Published on Oct 28, 2021 by Thomas Law Offices.

Person driving vehicle behind truck

Whether or not a vehicle is considered a commercial motor vehicle (CMV) is an important factor in truck accident law, or car accident law when a passenger vehicle is involved. There is an extensive set of federal and state-level rules that govern the owning and operating of commercial vehicles. In this article, we will cover only a portion of the relevant information drivers and owners of CMVs need to know. If you have further questions about commercial vehicle laws, reach out to our office to speak with a Chicago truck or car accident lawyer.

What Is Classified as a Commercial Motor Vehicle (CMV)?

Some commercial vehicles, like tractor trailers, are easy to identify. But the definition of a CMV is much broader than many people realize. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is the government agency responsible for trucking regulations at the national level. Generally, the federal definition of a commercial vehicle as one which is registered to a company or corporation (even a sole proprietor), and is designed or used for transporting goods or paying customers.

Under the federal definition, a commercial vehicle is usually one which is operated on public highways for interstate commerce. A vehicle exceeding certain weight maximums, a vehicle transport hazardous materials, or a vehicle with a certain number of passenger seats can qualify as a commercial vehicle, even if it does not meet other requirements. The FMCSA publishes weight and size requirements for commercial vehicles, so owners of CMVs must make sure they are in compliance.

Federal Commercial Vehicle Regulations

You are subject to FMCSA regulations if you operate any of the following types of commercial motor vehicles for interstate commerce:

  • A vehicle with a gross vehicle weight rating or gross combination weight rating (whichever is greater) of 10,001 lbs. or more
  • A vehicle designed or used to transport between 9 and 15 passengers (including the driver) for compensation
  • A vehicle designed or used to transport 15 or more passengers including the driver, and not used for compensation
  • Any size vehicle used in the transportation of hazardous materials (based on the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act)

If your vehicle meets the above criteria for a commercial motor vehicle, you must comply with all applicable U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) safety regulations. The FMCSA categorizes these regulations as ones concerning:

  • Controlled substances and alcohol testing
  • Driver qualifications (including medical exams)
  • CMV parts and accessories necessary for safe operations
  • Hours during which you can operate your vehicle
  • Inspection, repair, and maintenance requirements

Owning and operating a commercial motor vehicle requires you to know and follow all federal guidelines under the FMCSA, but also all state guidelines in your state. The specific standards by which a CMV is defined and the rules for vehicle operation vary from state to state. Depending on where your vehicle is registered, you may have to follow different guidelines for driving, owning, registering, insuring, maintaining, and parking your vehicle.

What Is Considered a Commercial Vehicle in Illinois?

If you own a vehicle in the state of Illinois, how do you know if your truck or van is considered a commercial vehicle? Knowing the difference between commercial and noncommercial vehicles is important—you will need to learn the commercial driver’s license requirements in your state depending on the type of vehicle you operate.

The Illinois state government provides guidelines dictating how to identify a commercial vehicle. Under state regulations, the term “commercial motor vehicle” applies to a self-propelled or towed vehicle used on public highways for interstate and intrastate commerce to transport passengers or property. A commercial motor vehicle meets at least one of the following definitions:

  • Has a gross vehicle or combination weight rating of 10,001 or more pounds
  • Is used or designed to transport more than 15 passengers, including the driver
  • Is designed to carry 15 or fewer passengers and is operated by a contract carrier transporting employees on the job on a state highway
  • Is used or designed to transport between 9 and 15 passengers, including the driver, for direct compensation
  • Is used to transport hazardous materials at or above the amount specified under the Illinois Hazardous Materials Transportation Act

Under the state’s definition, the term “commercial motor vehicle” does not apply to:

  • Farm machinery
  • Fertilizer spreaders
  • Any other special agricultural movement equipment

Commercial Truck Classification

Commercial trucks are classified into eight classes based on gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR). These eight classes can be divided into three categories of “duty:” Light Duty, Medium Duty, and Heavy Duty. Here are the three categories broken down by class, with a few examples of trucks that typically classify as light, medium, or heavy duty:

  • Light Duty – Class 1, Class 2a, Class 2b, Class3 (0 – 14,000 pounds)
    • Ford F-150, Ford Ranger, Toyota Tundra, Chevy Silverado 1500, Dodge RAM 1500
  • Medium Duty – Class 4, Class 5, Class 6 (14,001 – 26,000 pounds)
    • Ram 4500, Ford F-550, delivery vans, beverage trucks, moving vans, mini buses
  • Heavy Duty – Class 7, Class 8 (26,001 and above)
    • Ford F-750, tractor-trailers, cement trucks, dump trucks, firetrucks, transit buses

Driving a heavy duty truck will usually require a commercial driver’s license (CDL) or other type of specialized driver’s license. Illinois state commercial driver’s licensing will be discussed below.

What Are Examples of Types of Commercial Vehicles?

The size and weight of the vehicle are taken into consideration when classifying the vehicle. But whether or not a vehicle is considered a commercial motor vehicle also depends on its purpose and usage. Even a smaller vehicle can be considered a commercial vehicle when its purpose is related to business.

After looking at the state and federal requirements for commercial vehicles, the following list—although not exhaustive—can give a better picture of the most common commercial vehicles we see on our roads every day.

  • Tractor-trailers
  • Cement mixers
  • Firetrucks
  • Limousines
  • Box trucks
  • Delivery vans
  • Passenger buses
  • Refrigerator trucks
  • Flat-bed trailers
  • Garbage trucks
  • Snow plows
  • Dump trucks
  • Tanker trucks
  • Cargo vans
  • Tow trucks
  • Passenger vans
  • Coaches and tour buses
  • Fuel trucks
  • Moving vans
  • Construction vehicles
  • Ambulances and emergency vehicles
  • Work vehicles like trucks, vans, and SUVs

Commercial Driver’s License Requirements in Illinois

As mentioned earlier, you will need to learn the commercial driver’s license requirements in your state to know what kind of driver’s license your vehicle requires. The website lists the specifics of how to apply for a driver’s license and what type you will need to operate your vehicle.

The Office of the Illinois Secretary of States lists the following vehicles requiring a commercial driver’s license (CDL):

  • Any combination of vehicles with a Gross Combination Weight Rating (GCWR) of 26,001 pounds or more, providing the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of the vehicle being towed is over 10,000 pounds.
  • Any vehicle with a GVWR of 26,001 pounds or more, or any such vehicle towing another vehicle not above 10,000 pounds.
  • Any vehicle, regardless of size, designed to transport 16 or more people, including the driver
  • Any vehicle, regardless of size, required by federal regulations to be placarded while transporting hazardous materials

Certain upgrades, permits, and endorsements are needed to legally drive specific types of commercial vehicles. For example, you may need to secure a hazardous material endorsement, school bus permit, tank endorsement, or permit for transporting 16 or more passengers in your CMV.

Why Does Vehicle Classification Matter?

Commercial motor vehicles are subject to much stricter regulations than noncommercial vehicles. If you own or operate a commercial motor vehicle, it is essential to know how your vehicle is classified. Without this knowledge, there is no way to ensure that you are following all state and federal guidelines. A person who operates a commercial vehicle unlawfully is a danger to themselves and those who share the road with them. If a CMV driver causes an accident and it is found that they were not compliant with federal and state laws, the repercussions will be severe.

Undoubtedly, commercial vehicle laws are complicated. It’s not always easy to make sure that you are fully compliant with all state and federal regulations. As we have seen, the standards for CMV drivers are much more stringent than those for people who drive standard noncommercial vehicles. But a mistake, oversight, or laziness on the part of a CMV driver can have devastating consequences to another driver or pedestrian on the road.

Whether you are a commercial vehicle driver, or someone who has been involved in an accident with a CMV, our truck and car accident lawyers are ready to help. With decades of experience in the complicated field of commercial vehicle laws, we have the knowledge and expertise to help you with your case. Contact Thomas Law Offices with questions.

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Tad Thomas has dedicated his practice to representing plaintiffs in various types of civil litigation, including personal injury, business litigation, class actions, and multi-district litigation.

After graduating with his law degree in 2000 from Salmon P. Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University, Mr. Thomas immediately opened his own private practice and began representing injury victims.

In 2011, Thomas Law Offices was established in Louisville, Kentucky. Over the past decade, Mr. Thomas has expanded his firm and now has offices in three additional locations: Cincinnati, Ohio, Columbia, Missouri, and Chicago, Illinois. He is also a frequent lecturer on topics like trial skills and ethics and technology.

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