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What is a Commercial Motor Vehicle?

Knowing which kinds of vehicles fall under the umbrella of "commercial motor vehicle" is more important than some may realize, since the rules governing them and the expected behavior of their drivers are different from those of personal vehicles. So what exactly is a commercial motor vehicle?

Answer: A commercial motor vehicle (CMV) is a self-propelled or towed vehicle used to transport passengers or property for the purposes of interstate commerce.

The Rule

Commercial Motor Vehicle (Definition)

Commercial motor vehicle (CMV) means a motor vehicle or combination of motor vehicles used in commerce to transport passengers or property if the vehicle:

  1. Has a gross vehicle weight rating or gross combination weight rating, or gross vehicle weight or gross combination weight, of 4,536 kg (10,001 pounds) or more, whichever is greater;
  2. Is designed or used to transport more than 8 passengers (including the driver) for compensation;
  3. Is designed or used to transport more than 15 passengers (including the driver) and is not used to transport passengers for compensation; or
  4. Is used in transporting material deemed hazardous under 49 USC 5103 and in a quantity requiring placarding.
49 CFR § 390.5

Here are some examples of what is and is not a commercial vehicle based on the rules above:

Example 1: An 18-wheeler, tractor-trailer, big rig, etc. Such a vehicle is typically used in interstate commerce and has a gross combination weight of significantly more than 10,001 pounds, often clocking in closer to 35,000 pounds if the trailer is unloaded and 80,000 if it's fully loaded. In some situations a semi-tractor may be hitched to a trailer loaded with hazardous materials, meaning it may also qualify as a CMV under item 4 of the definitions. In either scenario, tractor-trailers would be classified as commercial vehicles and are probably what come to mind when someone mentions the term.

Example 2: A ride-hailing vehicle such as a taxicab or an Uber. These may seem like something of a gray area because the service they provide is commercial, and in recent years Uber has insisted its drivers carry commercial insurance, but according to the guidelines above the government doesn't currently treat them as commercial vehicles. Their use is almost exclusively intrastate, not interstate, and most cabs and Ubers/Lyfts can't carry more than 8 people at a time. Moreover, they don't haul hazardous materials and short of the largest-class pickups and vans they rarely weigh 10,000+ pounds.

Why Does it Matter Which Vehicles Are Commercial?

There's a few reasons why it's helpful to know if a vehicle is commercial. Of the pair that quickly come to mind, one is legal and one is practical.

As far as legal concerns go, knowing which vehicles have commercial classification is important because their owners and operators must comply with many specific laws, both at federal and state levels, that don't apply to personal vehicles. CMV drivers get special testing, training, and licensure to maximize public safety, and their driving behaviors are heavily regulated. When they break the rules and someone gets hurt, they should be held responsible under the relevant laws.

In more practical terms, knowing whether a vehicle is commercial or not is important because CMVs tend to be covered by substantially greater insurance policies than personal vehicles. Why? Because they're owned by businesses that doesn't want to go broke making amends if their employees cause serious crashes. Understandably that's an important consideration for personal injury lawsuits: If someone in a Honda Civic hits your car and causes $50,000 in damages but only has $30,000 worth of personal liability coverage, there may not be many ways to make up the difference. If the same person was in a dump truck and caused you $100,000 in losses, though, the truck's policy likely has a million dollars or so in commercial liability coverage. In those circumstances you're far more likely to recoup your losses, but knowing the vehicle was commercial AND what that means are helpful in achieving that goal.

As I mentioned previously, sometimes the definition of a commercial vehicle gets a little hazy. There are many vehicles used to make money that don't specifically fit FMCSA requirements, like Ubers. They're used commercially and Uber requires its drivers to carry commercial policies, but at this point ride share vehicles aren't federally regulated as commercial. Nevertheless, when Uber drivers cause serious crashes it's likely that injury attorneys will treat them as commercial drivers if possible.

Cutting through confusion about whether or not a vehicle is commercial and what that means is something an experienced commercial accident attorney can help with. The attorneys at Grossman Law Offices have decades of combined experience helping people hurt in crashes with commercial vehicles and would be glad to speak with you about your situation. Call Grossman Law any time for a free consultation.

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