Complex Rules, Open To Interpretation, Apply to Drivers of Horse Trailers
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Complex Rules, Open To Interpretation,
Apply to Drivers of Horse Trailers
by Suzanne Bush - December 2010

An ancient warning tells the buyer to beware. This is a story that might be called “Permissum coegi caveo,” or “let the driver beware.” Most horse owners don’t think twice about loading their horses onto trailers and hauling them to shows, trail rides, etc. Everyone assumes they’ve got all the right safety gear, and that they know the rules of the road. But they would probably be wrong. Not knowing Pennsylvania’s rules regarding horse trailers can be very expensive.

“I was getting off the turnpike, and they were doing random safety inspections for brakes,” Neil Parker says. “The safety part was fine, but then the trooper asked me if he could see my safety kit.” Parker asked why. “He said ‘I need to see your safety kit so I can see your flares.’” Parker had tried to do everything right. “I went to AutoZone and got the best kit I could buy, but it only had two flares,” he explained. The law requires six flares.

Parker, who lives in Lancaster County, was confused, but he realized that there were parts of the law—or interpretations of the law—about which he was unaware. After the officer explained the regulations for safety flares, Parker thought he was finished with the safety inspection. Wrong. “He wanted to see my fire extinguisher, but I didn’t have one.” Parker said that he has been hauling horses for 10 years, and had never been stopped for these kinds of violations. While the state trooper was courteous and trying to be helpful, Parker was mystified by this intense focus on his trailer’s safety gear.

When the officer asked to see his travel logs, Parker said he thought only commercial haulers were required to keep travel logs. He didn’t recognize that under the law, he qualified as a commercial hauler. He now says that he believes the law may have been changed, but there’s not an easy way to find out what the changes are. He said that when he got home, he contacted his attorney to find out what the law actually says. “If the law is changed, it wasn’t updated on the statute I read,” he says, noting that his attorney faxed him a copy of what he thought was the relevant statute.

The Law is Clear... Sort of
There was a lot of internet chatter recently about new guidelines from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Association (FMCSA) regarding farm vehicles. FMCSA released the guidelines early this year in response to a 2007 audit which unearthed some deficiencies in Pennsylvania’s motor carrier safety programs. The guidelines, enforcement of which were tied to Federal highway funds, compelled all farm vehicles with actual weight or a weight rating of 17,000 pounds to comply with the same rules that apply to the interstate commercial trucking industry. The assumption was that horse trailers were included as farm vehicles and would therefore fall under the new regulations.

According to Kevin Stewart, Program Administrator for the Commercial Vehicle Safety Division of Pennsylvania State Police, nothing has changed, and the law applying to horse transport is the same as it was before FMCSA’s guidelines. He says that people don’t realize everything the law requires. Stewart says individuals hauling their own horses to shows or trail rides are exempt from these safety regulations, as are drivers of vehicles with a gross weight of less than 10,000 pounds.

But an individual who is hauling even one or two horses is considered a commercial hauler if they are being compensated. And the law requires commercial haulers to maintain travel logs which detail service hours and break times that conform to Federal regulations. They must also carry up-to-date medical certification (a current physical examination attesting to the driver’s fitness for the job), along with vehicle safety equipment such as road flares, reflective triangles and fire extinguishers.

According to James Lombardo, Motor Carrier Enforcement Officer at the Greensburg State Police Troop, a truck and trailer weighing 10,001 pounds and traveling inter-state is considered a commercial vehicle. If that same vehicle were traveling intra-state, it would not be considered commercial unless the driver received compensation. Parker says that his trailer is an aluminum gooseneck three-horse weighing 9,000 pounds, so the combined weight of his trailer and truck would be over 10,000 pounds, and the commercial hauler regulations would apply to him, once he hauled his horses across a state line. The driver would not require a commercial driver’s license (CDL), though. These are required for trucks weighing 26,000 pounds or more.

Size Matters. So Does Purpose.
Stewart of the State Police Commercial Vehicle Safety Division says that the size of the trailer is not always the only issue. An officer can decide that a driver is, in fact, a commercial hauler. Vehicles under 10,000 pounds are exempt from the commercial designation, unless the driver is being compensated for hauling. “The exemption would apply provided the underlying activities are not conducted for profit. Or if they’re deducting the cost of that activity as a deduction for tax purposes, they lose that exemption.” So someone who agrees to take a friend’s horses to a show in exchange for gas money can be considered a commercial hauler. A police officer interviewing a driver may conclude from the information he receives that the driver should be considered a commercial hauler. “Interpretations,” Stewart says “have the same weights as the law.”

“Every given officer is going to have a different discretion. What I might tell you, someone else might tell you something different,” explains Lombardo. He says that the State Police are eager to help people understand the law. “We are more than willing to come in to do a demonstration or speech to a group of people who are involved in this. A lot of people are not familiar with these laws even though they are applicable to them.”

What’s a Driver to Do?
Even though the law seems to be full of ambiguities, there are several clear guidelines. Carrying the safety gear that is required for a commercial hauler makes sense anyway. The rules are clear: safety equipment should include a fire extinguisher and at least six flares or three reflective triangles. Drivers can contact their local State Police unit for clarification and an inspection, but should bear in mind the range of interpretations that might come into play as the vehicle travels across the Commonwealth. The latitude in interpretation is reasonable, albeit sometimes confusing. Consider what happens when a driver exceeds local posted speed limits and is stopped by police. The officer can decide to issue a warning, or issue a ticket for the full violation.