Your Right to Refuse to Operate Unsafe Equipment: Do's and Don'ts

The Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA) protects drivers' rights to enforce truck safety by making it illegal for a company to discipline, discharge or discriminate against an employee for making a vehicle safety complaint or refusing to operate an unsafe vehicle.

With any law, we need to know the extents and limits of our rights and the Do's and Don'ts of enforcement.

Many activities can trigger protection under the STAA, including, complaining to management about truck safety, filing a grievance about vehicle safety, advising other drivers about DOT regulations, discipline or retaliation over running times, refusing to drive or delays because of bad weather, or refusing to drive in violation of posted speed limits. 

Refusing to Drive Unsafe Equipment

Many cases have upheld drivers' right to refuse to drive unsafe equipment. However, two very important conditions must be met:

  1. The refusal has to be based on a "reasonable apprehension" that operation of the vehicle would present a genuine safety hazard to the driver and/or members of the public.
  2. The driver has to have asked the employer to correct the problem.

"Reasonable apprehension," as interpreted by the DOL and the courts, means that a reasonable person in the same situation would reach the same conclusion—namely, that the unsafe condition establishes a real danger of accident, injury or serious impairment to health. 

If it later turns out that the vehicle was not actually unsafe, you are still protected if your belief is deemed to have been reasonable based on the objective facts and evidence available to you at the time you formed your belief.

You must also give the company a chance to correct the problem. For example, if there is a bad tire say, "I will drive that truck when you replace the tire."

Violations of Federal Motor Carrier Regulations

STAA protection is also triggered if operating the vehicle would result in an actual violation of a DOT regulation (a cracked brake pad, for example).  Again, you must make the company aware of the hazard and give them a chance to fix the problem before refusing to drive. 

This is an important protection, but it should not be used lightly. If you refuse to drive based only on a technical violation of a federal regulation (such as a faulty marker light) you are only protected if operating the truck would actually violate a motor carrier safety standard, regulation or statute.

A good faith mistake about federal regulations does not win you protection from discipline unless you also had a "reasonable fear" of a genuine hazard. That may or may not apply to technical violations. 

You can and should report violations for repairs—and insist that repairs be made. But refusing to drive is a serious matter and should not be taken lightly.

If you have doubts about the severity of a safety problem, you may want to take the truck out for a very short drive (unless the hazard presents an imminent danger) to gather more evidence and demonstrate a good faith effort to operate the vehicle.    

Important Contract Language

Article 16 of the National Master Freight Agreement addresses safety issues:

"Employer shall not require employees to take out on the streets or highways any vehicle that is not in safe operating condition, including but not limited to equipment that is acknowledged to be overweight or not equipped with the safety appliances prescribed by law."

The National Master UPS Agreement contains language giving drivers important safety and health protection. Article 18 states:

"In no event shall an employee be required to operate a vehicle/equipment that is unsafe or in violation of any federal, state or local rules, regulations, standards or orders applicable to equipment or commercial motor vehicles."

Do's and Dont's

  • Report the safety problem. You must bring up the problem and ask the company to fix it. If the company refuses to fix it, talk to a steward or union representative. 
  • Be specific: You are more likely to get protection under the STAA if you are clear, specific and up front about the nature of the truck safety concern.  State that the problem is a violation of DOT regulations (if relevant) and why you feel it represents a genuine safety hazard. 
  • Have a witness. Have a witness present when you tell the company that the problem is a genuine safety hazard and that you will operate the truck when it is corrected.
  • Document the problem: Take a picture of the problem with a camera or cell phone if you can. Show the problem to a witness. 
  • Keep a paper trail. Write notes on exactly what happened while the incident is fresh in your memory. 

Other Resources

Attorney Paul Taylor of the Truckers' Justice Center has provided many Teamster drivers with expert legal advice and assistance on truck safety rights and violations. Contact him at paul.taylor [at] or call 651-454-5800. 

Taylor was one of the authors of the STAA Handbook: How to use the Surface Transportation Assistance Act to Enforce Truck Safety and Protect Your Job. 

Click here to purchase the STAA Handbook.

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