The importance of DOT documents: Lessons learned from a near-disastrous cross-country haul

In a nutshell

  • Driving for film and TV productions offers valuable opportunities but requires careful adherence to DOT regulations and proper licensing.
  • Stopping at a DOT checkpoint without the necessary legal paperwork can result in significant delays and potential legal troubles.
  • It’s crucial for drivers in the film industry to familiarize themselves with vehicle and documentation requirements to avoid complications during transport.

Ask any industry professional and they are likely to have plenty of horror stories relating to their career working in film and television. Here, I would like to share my own horror story involving a DOT stop in hopes of sparing you from the mistakes I made leading up to it.

Getting my foot in the door

As a young man, I gained access to many opportunities working with transportation departments on studio films and TV productions. For instance, as a camera assistant (AC), I secured a number of coveted jobs working as a loader (on non-union jobs) by agreeing to drive the camera truck. This involved arriving early and working past wrap to move the camera gear from one location to another. I used this bargaining chip as an incentive for recruiters to pick me over other ACs.

I offered the same service to grips and gaffers when I changed disciplines and entered the set lighting side of the business. On non-union jobs, the best-boy often drives the equipment truck to and from set. On union-contracted shows, the Teamsters preside over all rolling stock. However, when there’s no union contract to define working conditions, employees are often called on to perform double-duty driving and working set positions due to budget limitations. Many productions at the micro and low-budget levels cannot afford Teamster representation on their smaller shows. This can be a good way to earn credits for young hopefuls with little to no prior set experience — provided you have a clean driving record and a willingness to learn. In some cases, you may need a CDL driving license.

What’s a CDL?

A CDL is a special driving license obtained by individuals who drive professionally and frequently drive equipment with GVWs (gross vehicle weight) at or over 26,000 pounds. Those who drive two-piece vehicles like tractor-trailer rigs, fifth-wheel units or multi-passenger vehicles also need CDLs.

Anyone can obtain a CDL by simply applying at their local DMV office. However, the catch is you’ve got to use a vehicle in the same weight class you’re applying for during the road test and inspection walk-through. Also, if you need any endorsements (like air brakes or heavy loads), the testing vehicle must have those features too. There’s also a written test, as well as a road test, for transporting things like compressed gas transportation. Getting a CDL means you also need a medical clearance. You have to pass a physical and drug test every year to keep your license current and legal. You must carry a medical certification card with up-to-date stamps on the back. Not having this card during a DOT traffic stop could lead to vehicle impound, your detainment and hefty fines.

All of these details provide context for one of my earliest horror stories.

How it started

When I was still a very young grip, in my early twenties, I would often spend the off-seasons and summers working at Panavision Lighting and Grip to boost my freelance income. The off-seasons were particularly lean, and working at Panavision served many purposes. First, it allowed me to work with and familiarize myself with all the different types of gear used in video productions. Second, I met many of the working area professionals and got to know them and their best boys. It allowed me to demonstrate my acquired skills and knowledge needed to work in the business. Lastly, the paychecks helped to fill the gaps between shows until I could establish my reputation as a set technician.

One summer, Panavision hired me to load out a show going to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania titled, “With Honors,” starring Joe Pesci. In addition to the grip gear needed for the film, the key grip also ordered a Lenny-Arm crane for some special scenes. The crane required transport in a separate truck, due to its size, the complexity of its parts and accessories and because it was a sub-rental from another vendor.

The manager of Panavision asked me if I would be interested in driving the crane up to Pittsburgh and dropping it off for the show. I was to return the truck to Orlando when finished. Since I needed the work, I accepted. I was set to leave the next morning in a company truck loaded with the specialized gear. Since it was assumed the GVW of the vehicle did not exceed 26,000 pounds, I didn’t obtain a CDL to deliver the equipment. I reported early the following morning, hopped inside the truck and began my cross-country drive.

The horror begins

The trip was smooth and uneventful. I took the turnpike out of Florida and began my northerly trek into Georgia, passing through Atlanta and beyond. During this particular time period, many of the DOT checkpoints were closed for interstate trucking to encourage interstate commerce for business. As I recall, it was late in the season, and the weather was balmy. I was happy to be on the road and was enjoying the ride as I entered the Smoky Mountains heading north.

Everything was fine as I entered West Virginia. The road rose higher and higher as I climbed along the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was here that I encountered the first open DOT weigh station since I had left Florida. I pulled off the highway and entered the taxi lane through the checkpoint. This is a fairly standard procedure, and I had no concerns. But, to my surprise, the DOT station agent signaled me to pull over for inspection. Still, this is not uncommon, as trucks are often selected at random for a visual confirmation of the loads they carry.

I pulled off into the holding area and waited for the DOT agent to approach. He climbed up to my driver’s side window and asked for my documents. I fished through the glove compartment and handed him a wad of paperwork. He took the documents and walked around to the back of my rig.

Not going anywhere

After he was gone for an uncomfortable amount of time, I began to sweat. When he finally returned to my window, I asked him if there was anything wrong. He signaled for me to exit the vehicle. My heart jumped into my throat as I slid out from behind the wheel.

“What’s the problem, officer?” I asked.

He looked at me for a second, then replied, “Son, you don’t have a stitch of legal paperwork on this vehicle.”

I felt a lump form in my throat. I was confused. “What does that mean?” I croaked.

“It means that this vehicle is not going anywhere until we can contact your fleet manager and get the correct registration and insurance on this truck. There will also be an impound fee for the violation.” His response was sober and matter-of-fact.

I looked around at the weigh station at the top of the world and realized I wasn’t going anywhere until I spoke with someone from Panavision and convinced them to expedite whatever he needed. If they did not fax over the proper valid registration and wire the funds for impound, I was spending the night in that cold parking lot.

Learning from our mistakes

Fortunately, I only spent a few hours in detention at the DOT station, but this oversight seriously delayed my trip. In short, I was lucky not to be held for any other local violations that I had not anticipated. The value of the lesson was not lost on me. Know the rules. I was relieved when Panavision took care of all the necessary paperwork and fines, allowing me to continue on my way. I drove through the rest of the night and into the next morning and delivered the crane on time. Then, I returned to Florida no worse for the wear.

In retrospect, I learned many valuable lessons from this experience. First, before an inexperienced driver takes on the task of interstate transport, it’s a good idea to drive locally until they familiarize themselves with DOT rules and procedures. Second, before getting into any commercial vehicle and driving for a vendor, the driver must do a thorough walk-around of their vehicle. This includes inspecting the systems on the rig like signal lights, brake checks, visual inspection of the undercarriage, tires, drivetrain, etc. Also, they need to do a thorough review of the required documents onboard. This includes any registrations, insurance policies, fuel stickers that coincide with the route, any manifests, as well as the driver’s logbook and personal licenses and medical cards. Never take on a job without all these critical items.

Always have your DOT documents

Ultimately, driving can be a fun and rewarding way to build experience. It can also be a good way to break into the technical departments like camera, grip, lighting, set decorating and props. If the show does not employ Teamster drivers for these rigs, the respective departments will always benefit from driver/workers who know the rules and are willing to take on the responsibility for transporting the necessary gear for production. And, of course, always make sure you have your DOT documents.

Michael Walsh
Michael Walsh
Michael is a retired gaffer with over 26 years of experience in the film industry, working on 74 feature films and over 400 episodes of TV.

Related Content