OOIDA calls car hauler definitions, requirements 'mindboggling'

By Tyson Fisher, Land Line staff writer | 9/19/2017

There has been much confusion and disagreement about what qualifies a tractor-trailer to be considered an automobile transporter according to federal regulations. To erase all doubts, the Federal Highway Administration is considering explicitly including “noncargo-carrying tractor-high mount automobile semi-trailer combinations” in the definition.

According to current regulations 49 U.S.C. 31111(a)(1) and 23 CFR 658.5, “automobile transporter” is defined as any vehicle combination designed and used for the transport of assembled highway vehicles. Regulations identify three possible car haulers: traditional, low boys and stinger-steered.

As provided in Sec. 658.5, “automobile transporters may carry vehicles on the power unit behind the cab and on an over-cab rack.” However, FHWA has interpreted this provision to mean that in order to qualify as an automobile transporter, “combinations must be capable of carrying cargo on the power unit/tractor,” rather than simply being able to do so. This requirement applies to both traditional and stinger-steered combinations.

Based on FHWA’s interpretation of the regulations, a truck-tractor in high-mount, truck-tractor-semitrailer combination cannot satisfy the requirement of carrying cargo on the trailer, such vehicles are not car haulers. Therefore, these vehicles also are not allowed the length allowances afforded to qualified automobile transporters.

Federal law allows automobile transporters an overall length of at least 65 feet on traditional and low boy configurations and at least 80 feet on stinger-steered transporters. Traditional and low boy haulers are given 3 feet for front overhang and 4 feet for rear overhang. Stinger-steered trucks are allowed a front overhang of at least 4 feet and rear overhang of at least 6 feet. All other transporters of cargo other than automobiles are subject to standard length regulations.


Attached to OOIDA’s comments, this photo is a high mount trailer that belongs to an OOIDA member. If the rear and front overhang is not permitted, it effectively requires the removal of the rear and front vehicles on the top and bottom of the trailer. In another words, FHWA’s current interpretation equates to a 25-50% reduction in efficiency and revenue.

In light of recent disputes with FHWA’s loose interpretation of the regulations, the agency is considering changing the definition to include combinations that are not capable of carrying vehicles on the power unit. Changing the definition would allow high-mount, truck-tractor-semitrailer combos to take advantage of automobile transporter lengths when hauling vehicles.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association has filed comments with FHWA regarding this issue. OOIDA believes that FHWA’s interpretation of the regulations is wrong.

OOIDA referred to the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 as the first time automobile transporters were addressed.

“Section 411(f) also defined truck tractor’ as a noncargo-carrying power unit that operates in combination with a semitrailer or trailer, except that a truck tractor and semitrailer engaged in the transportation of automobiles may transport motor vehicles on part of the power unit (emphasis added),” OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer mentioned in the comments. “In our opinion, Congress authorized automobile transporters to carry automobiles on the power unit but did not require it.”

Comments submitted by OOIDA point out that several subsequent, relevant final rules published in 1984 and 1988 fail to support FHWA’s interpretation requiring car haulers to carry vehicles on the power unit. Updated regulatory guidance in 1996 and 2004 continued to use language that reasonably suggests carrying vehicles on the power unit as permissible rather than required. OOIDA pointed out the difference between using the word “may” as opposed more restricting language as “shall.”

OOIDA has attempted to remedy this issue with FHWA since April in 2015. In 2016, OOIDA sent a letter to FHWA’s administrator requesting the agency to provide a legal interpretation regarding their position as to what is considered an automobile transporter.

“Rather than addressing the lengthy legislative and regulatory history outlined herein, FHWA merely deferred to the definition of automobile transporter in §49 USC 3111(a)(1) as requiring the power unit of a traditional automobile transporter combination to be capable of carrying cargo (emphasis added)” Spencer wrote in comments. “We would simply refer to our comments in this filing to dispute that notion. It is also worth noting that, according to FHWA, the power unit of a traditional automobile transporter only has to be capable of carrying cargo to be considered an automobile transporter but it does not actually have to carry cargo. The rationale behind this is mindboggling.”

FHWA is still accepting comments on the definition of “automobile transporter” until Oct. 16 under Docket No. FHWA-2017-0030. Comments can be submitted three ways:

  1. Federal eRulemaking Portal: Go to regulations.gov and follow the online instructions for submitting comments.
  2. Mail: Docket Management Facility, U.S. Department of Transportation, 1200 New Jersey Ave. SE., W12-140, Washington, DC 20590-0001.
  3. Hand Delivery: West Building Ground Floor, Room W12-140, 1200 New Jersey Ave. SE., between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, except federal holidays. The telephone number is 202-366-9329.

Be sure to include the agency name and docket number at the beginning of comments. For more information, visit the Federal Register’s Proposed Rule here.

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