What is Transportation Law?

Transportation law is the body of law that governs transportation infrastructure and its use. It regulates the way that people travel using any method of transportation including railways, air travel, vehicular travel and even waterways. Much of transportation law comes from the government agencies that make regulations and oversee compliance with the regulations that they create. Transportation law also involves companies and individuals that must understand and follow the regulations.

Where does transportation law come from?

Most transportation law in the United States is federal. Because transportation impacts interstate commerce, the federal government can regulate transportation under the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. Federal transportation law regulates a number of things including any of the following:

  • Requirements for building vessels for transportation including airplanes, trains, planes and motor vehicles
  • Rules to decide who gets to use limited resources like airspace and train tracks
  • How private corporations and individuals may own public transportation networks and under what conditions
  • Prohibitions of discrimination in public transportation
  • Oversight for inspections of companies involved in transportation
  • Licensing of pilots, train conductors and maritime captains and helmsmen
  • Penalties for violations of transportation laws

The federal government also encourages states to pass transportation law

The federal government can also use the promise of government funding in order to compel the states to enact certain transportation laws. In one famous example, the federal government threatened to withhold funding from states that refused to pass laws lowering their drunk driving per se limit to .08 grams per 210 liters of breath. In 1984, federal highway funding also pressured the states to raise the drinking age to 21.

Federal transportation agencies

A lot of federal transportation law comes from Chapter 49 of the United States Code. Chapter 49 establishes several federal agencies that create transportation regulations and oversee transportation in the United States at a federal level. These organizations include:

U.S. Department of Transportation

The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) lists its purpose as making transportation safe and convenient for everyone. Founded in 1967, USDOT creates regulations, brings enforcement actions and makes recommendations to the states. USDOT also makes public service announcements and gives warnings and recommendations to the public.

Federal Aviation Administration

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversees all aspects of air travel. Their oversight includes airplanes, airports and the logistics of air travel. Their rules and restrictions might be permanent or temporary.

Federal Highway Administration

The Federal Highway Administration ensures safe construction of maintenance of roads, tunnels and bridges in the United States. They focus on safety as well as design that’s easy and convenient for users. Their work includes planning for funding as well as innovation in road construction and design.

Federal Railroad Administration

The Federal Railroad Administration has provided oversight for rail travel in the United States since 1966. The agency includes an Office of Civil Rights, Chief Counsel and Administration. Part of the agency focuses on policy and research.

Maritime Administration

The Maritime Administration (MARAD) provides recommendations about commercial maritime travel in the United States. The agency handles international communication and negotiation regarding maritime travel. The organization also supports the Department of Defense.

National Transportation Safety Board

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigates transportation accidents. The NTSB is an independent agency. The purpose of the independence of the agency is to allow them to conduct unbiased and neutral investigations into the causes of transportation accidents.

State transportation law

Most states have a Department of Motor Vehicles. That’s where most people interact with transportation law. A state’s Department of Motor Vehicles is usually a part of a state’s executive branch. States also make laws that regulate traffic and travel on highways. States require drivers to have a license to drive a vehicle for private use. Most states have a different license for commercial driving and another license for operating a motorcycle. Most states also have laws that prohibit boating while intoxicated. Penalties for a violation of state traffic law might range from a civil fine to points on a driver’s license to criminal penalties.

Emerging law

One emerging area of transportation law is regulations that address the use of drones. Also called unmanned aircraft, drone operators and various units of government are still working on how to regulate drone use in order to promote safety and fair operation of drones. With the use of drones, concerns about privacy have developed. There are questions about when drone operators should need a license, whether they need a license under existing law and how they should be permitted to operate their aircraft. Regulators continue to debate rules regarding restricted airspace as well as privacy issues when drone operators want to operate above private property. Transportation lawyers are part of the rule-making process, and they also help clients comply with existing laws.

Non-compliance with transportation law

Failing to comply with transportation law may be a civil or criminal offense. In some cases, the offender pays a fine. In other cases, they might face criminal charges. For example, a Valujet employee failed to follow regulations when he loaded flammable oxygen onto a plane. When the plane crashed because of the failure, the employee faced charges of manslaughter and improperly transporting hazardous material.

Contesting criminal or civil penalties

Along with civil penalties and criminal charges comes the opportunity to contest those penalties. Companies and individuals who are the subject of allegations of failing to follow federal or state transportation law have the right to notice and the opportunity to be heard about the allegation. Transportation lawyers represent their clients at these hearings.

A hearing might be in front of an administrative agency law judge such as the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Hearings, or it might be in a criminal courtroom. Even administrative hearings are formal affairs. When a company has an administrative hearing, their future may be on the line as well as their reputation. Transportation lawyers help their clients carefully prepare for these hearings. If the case is in a federal criminal court, there are other important rules to know and follow.

Who practices transportation law?

Transportation law is challenging. Often, agency recommendations and compliance with regulations comes down to very detailed science and engineering. If you enjoy learning about technical details and how those details impact transportation, the area of practice might be for you. Transportation lawyers who develop policy have to not only be able to understand the science behind aviation, maritime, rail and highway travel, but they also have to be able to reduce that information into concrete, understandable and enforceable laws.

Becoming a Transportation Lawyer

As a transportation lawyer, you might work for the government. You might create regulations. You might work on enforcement. Even administrative law judges have an important role to play in the enforcement of transportation law.

Transportation lawyers also work in the private sector. Transportation companies might range from small businesses who operate a ferry service with a few vessels to large-scale operations for large corporations that move people and products on a national scale. They have the important work to do making sure their businesses know and comply with the requirements that apply to them.

A lawyer might specialize in transportation law, or they might handle it as part of a broader practice. On a micro level, a criminal lawyer might infrequently touch transportation law as they help their clients with administrative hearings regarding the suspension of a client’s driver’s license. A lawyer who practices transportation law as part of a diversified practice might help a client manage transportation compliance as part of handling their general business operations.

Why become a transportation lawyer?

When transportation law is done right, it saves lives. When it’s wrong, it can put many people at risk. Millions of people depend on transportation in the United States each day in order to go about their business. Transportation law is an area of law for individuals who enjoy technical information and who also want to make a difference.

Transportation lawyers have stable and promising career prospects. They have careers with public agencies and in the private sector. There are opportunities for advancement. For attorneys who enjoy complex, technical information, policy making, policy implementation and enforcement, transportation law is a career option to explore.