The Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 (“STAA”) contains protections for employees in the transportation industry who file complaints about safety-related issues, hours-of-service violations, and other federal commercial motor vehicle violations. More specifically, STAA gives employees a private right of action when their employer retaliates to such whistleblowing with an adverse action.
This brief overview provides some examples of what does and does not count as a “refusal” under STAA. STAA’s broad protections for refusals to drive are codified at 49 U.S.C. § 31105(a)(1)(B), which prohibits employers from taking an adverse action against the employee if:
(B) the employee refuses to operate a vehicle because—(i) the operation violates a regulation, standard, or order of the United States related to commercial motor vehicle safety, health, or security; or (ii) the employee has a reasonable apprehension of serious injury to the employee or the public because of the vehicle’s hazardous safety or security condition;
The first portion, 49 U.S.C. §31105(a)(1)(B)(i), focuses on refusals to operate a commercial motor vehicle because doing so would violate an applicable regulation or standard. This applies to any applicable state and federal regulations. For example, your pre-trip inspection might reveal that a tire had been worn down and no longer had sufficient tread depth, or a brake light missing on your assigned trailer, or a check-engine warning light illuminated on the dashboard. These and numerous other maintenance issues are detailed in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations of the Department of Transportation, located in Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations. You can access these regulations online at the FMSCA’s website here, or you can purchase a hard copy of the regulations here. If you determine that any such maintenance issues exist, you should inform the appropriate managerial personnel that you refuse to operate the vehicle until the maintenance issues are addressed and fixed.
49 U.S.C. §31105(a)(1)(B)(i) protects refusals to operate one’s vehicle when doing so would require one to violate hours-of-service violations. For example, you might be given an assignment after you’ve already been on-duty for 14 hours, and agreeing to perform the assignment might mean that you would violate the federal regulation requiring drivers to take a 10-hour break. You might be in such a situation because your employer is trying to run drivers thin and maximize profits, or it might be just the result of a clerical or dispatching mistake made by your employer. In both cases, you can offer to complete the route as soon as it would be possible for you do so without violating hours-of-service regulations. However, you should also make clear to your employer that you refuse to drive in violation of hours-of-service regulations.
Additionally, the second portion, 49 U.S.C. §31105(a)(1)(B)(ii), protects an employee’s refusal to drive when the employee has a “reasonable apprehension” that serious injury could befall the employee or the public if the vehicle were operated. For example, it might be the case the you detect alarming issues (for example, hearing unexpected grinding or screeching) while driving a vehicle, but mechanics are unable to locate a problem when you bring it in for maintenance. Even if no underlying maintenance issues or defects end up being discovered, your prior refusal to operate your vehicle could plausibly be considered a protected refusal based on reasonable apprehension. For another example, you might become ill and remain uncertain whether you should drive your assigned route or refuse to do so. Federal regulations (49 C.F.R. 392.3) explicitly protect your right to refuse to drive when you are ill or fatigued. This right of refusal is also protected by 49 U.S.C. §31105(a)(1)(B)(ii)’s assurance that one can refuse based on reasonable apprehension of injury.
In sum, you should readily refuse to operate a vehicle if doing so would require you to violate federal regulations. Of course, a variety of situations can make things more complex--for example, you might conduct a thorough pre-trip inspection but a serious maintenance issue nevertheless arises when you are over the road, far from the home terminal out of which you are based. Refusing to operate the vehicle could thus come at significant expense and hassle to your employer. Even in this situation, you should still refuse to drive your vehicle until the maintenance issues have been resolved. Depending on the situation, the most appropriate option may be to pull over to the side of the road and drive no farther. If feasible, it may be acceptable to drive the vehicle immediately to the nearest facility for it to be repaired. Importantly, in such a scenario you should never abandon the vehicle. Even if one’s assigned truck has broken down, one should promptly contact one’s supervisors to determine the next course of action. If it becomes absolutely necessary in such a situation for you to leave the vehicle, then you should first contact your supervisor and save documentation (whether via Qualcomm, text message, or some other format) of your supervisor affirming that your action will not be considered an “abandonment.” Having such a notation on your record can make it exceedingly difficult to find subsequent employment.