An Overview of Transportation Law
Transportation law is a broad legal field encompassing federal and state transportation statutes. These laws involve transportation infrastructure and all forms of road, railway, water and air transport.
Transportation law may apply to:
- Surface vehicles, including cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses and bicycles
- Aircraft, including planes, helicopters and drones
- Watercraft, including boats, ships and freighters
- Railroad systems, including trains and subways
- Infrastructure, including roads, bridges, railways, airports, shipping ports and trails
Federal Transportation Law
Congress is authorized to regulate interstate commerce under the U.S. Constitution. This means that travel between the states is subject to several federal laws and regulations.
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is the umbrella agency for all federal transportation policies and regulations. The DOT's stated goals are to keep the traveling public safe, increase national mobility, and support the national economy through the transportation system. The DOT oversees several agencies that administer federal statutes for various branches of transportation, including:
- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is responsible for motor vehicle and highway transportation safety standards and regulations
- The Federal Aviation Administration, which is responsible for airport, air traffic and aircraft regulation
- The Federal Highway Administration, which is responsible for laws pertaining to commercial freight and the maintenance and preservation of interstate highways, tunnels and bridges
- The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which is responsible for safety regulation laws for large commercial vehicles
- The Federal Railroad Administration, which is responsible for regulating the safety and development of the U.S. railroad system
- The Federal Transit Administration, which provides financial and technical assistance to local public transportation systems
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is an independent federal agency that provides certain safety guidelines and investigates mass transit accidents, such as plane and train crashes. The agency works on major investigations throughout the U.S. and abroad. The NTSB wants information from board investigations to improve transportation safety. That’s why NTSB findings of an accident (like fault or probable cause) generally cannot be used as evidence in court.
State Transportation Law
States have the authority to regulate transportation within their boundaries. They use their respective departments of motor vehicles to regulate everyday driving rules. While all states share basic driving rules, such as driving on the right side of the road, there are other differences like:
- speed limits,
- certain safety equipment requirements,
- insurance minimums,
- private and commercial vehicle registration regulations.
How Federal and State Transportation Law Impacts Americans
Federal transportation laws keep American travelers safe and the transportation system moving. Federal standards in seat belts and air bags help protect drivers and occupants in passenger vehicles. When someone flies from New York to Los Angeles, federal regulations ensure that the plane was properly maintained and that air traffic is safely managed. Federal laws also regulate the safety features of passenger trains. They also dictate the amount of rest time commercial truck drivers are required to take each day. Meanwhile, state laws regulate things like the speeds of private and commercial road traffic, private and commercial vehicle registration and the insurance minimums required for various vehicles.
Transportation Law Attorneys
Transportation law is a wide-ranging field, and there are many types of transportation attorneys. The owner of a commercial interstate trucking fleet may need legal advice from an attorney who has experience in federal regulatory compliance. An automaker may need legal counsel on the handling of a federally mandated vehicle recall. Many attorneys also appear before state departments of motor vehicles in administrative hearings.
The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.