What is a Pilot Car? Everything you need to know

Published 8/31/2022

Pilot cars and escort vehicles are required to escort oversized loads across the United States. While states have varying regulations on oversized loads, pilot cars are always used to ensure the safety of the load, the driver, and other motorists.

What is a Pilot Car or Escort Vehicle?

A pilot car is an automobile used to help guide and support convoys of large vehicles or trucks carrying oversized loads.

Pilot cars can be sedans, SUVs, vans, or pickup trucks and require additional equipment such as lights, flags, and a CB radio to communicate with the oversized vehicle.

Pilot cars are also commonly referred to as “escort vehicles,” “pilot vehicles,” or “guide cars.”

The escort car is not usually part of the trucking team. Instead, pilot vehicles are usually contracted to escort the trucker along a defined route.

Why are pilot cars used?

Pilot cars are required in all fifty states for loads over a certain size or weight because oversized loads pose an increased risk to public safety. While there are federal regulations on the size of commercial vehicles, each state sets their own requirements on when a pilot vehicle is required.

Depending on the state and size of the load, more than one escort vehicle may be required. A police or highway patrol escort may also be required depending on the load and route.

What does a pilot car do? 

Pilot cars help the truck hauling the oversized load navigate routes, traffic, and other road obstacles. Pilot vehicles are required because oversized vehicles:

  • Require more time and distance to stop, change lanes, and pass vehicles
  • Have more blind spots
  • Have larger blind spots
  • Can have difficulty accelerating and decelerating when merging with traffic
  • May roll backwards when starting from a stop
  • Are difficult to back up

Responsibilities of the pilot car operator can include:

  • Surveying the route for potential issues
  • Alerting the truck driver of upcoming traffic, turns, or road hazards/issues
  • Alerting other drivers of the oversized vehicle
  • Protecting passing lanes, turning lanes, and on/exit ramps
  • Coordinating the movement of obstructions such as signs, wires, or signals
  • Directing traffic when needed (though not while driving)

Lead Cars vs Chase Cars

Depending on the size of the load and route, oversized vehicles may require a lead car, a chase car, or both. As the name implies, a lead car drives in front of the oversized vehicle and the chase car drives behind.

Lead cars are primarily responsible for keeping the oversized load on the correct route as dictated by state permits. Other responsibilities include keeping an eye out for upcoming obstacles or traffic.

Chase cars on the other hand, are responsible for letting the truck driver know about traffic coming from behind because visibility is typically quite limited when hauling these loads. When oversized vehicles need to change lanes or turn, the chase car will usually “protect” the lane by moving into it before the oversized vehicle.

When a single pilot vehicle is required, state law may dictate whether the escort vehicle should act as a lead or chase depending on the load and type of road. 

When two or more pilot cars are required, the lead car is typically the more senior driver and paid more than the chase car because they have more responsibility keeping the oversized load on the correct route.

What is a pole car?

A pole car, also known as a flag car, is a lead pilot car using a high pole to measure any height obstructions along a route. Pole cars are not required for wide loads but are very common when transporting tall cargo and in some states are required by law.

About the author
Scott Elgin has been in the trucking business since 1982, acting as both a motor carrier and a freight agent at Elgin Trucking Co. During this time, he has overseen thousands of units servicing the entire continental United States.
Table of Contents
What is a pilot car?

Pilot Car Regulations & Requirements

When is a pilot car needed?

Oversized loads and pilot cars are mostly regulated at the state level so while there is no national requirement, most states start to require escort cars once loads are over 12 to 14 feet wide or are 80 to 100+ feet in length.

State Regulations

While most states do not require pilot car operators (also known as pilot/escort vehicle operators or P/EVO for short) to be certified, there are fourteen states that do. Luckily, most states reciprocate certification.

However, just because a state accepts P/EVO certification from another state does not mean that other regulations can be ignored. For example, states may have different insurance or age requirements while other states might require P/EVO operators to complete a defensive driving course or become a certified flagger to offer pilot car services

Ultimately, pilot car operators need to research each state that an oversized load will need to travel through to make sure they are complying with all of the various regulations.

States that require certification

State
Other States Accepted
Age Requirement

CO, FL, NC, UT, VA, WA

18

AZ, FL, MN, OK, UT, WA

18

AZ, CO, GA, MN, OK, NC, PA, VA, WA

18

AZ, CO, FL, NC, OK, UT, VA, WA

18

At least CO & WA

18

CO, FL, NC, OK, UT, WA

18

None

21

CO, FL, GA, MN, NY, OK, UT, VA, WA

18

CO, FL, GA, MN, NC, UT, WA

18

Pennsylvania

(only required  when replacing law enforcement in a super load transport)

CO, FL, GA, NC, UT, VA, WA

21

AZ, CO, FL, MN, NC, OK, VA, WA

18

FL, VA, MN, NC, OK, UT, WA

18

AZ, CO, GA, MN, NC, OK, UT, VA

18

Additional Certifications

Other useful credentials for pilot and escort vehicle operators according to the Department of Transportation include:

  • Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) – Since 2009, anyone who needs to go into a secure area of a maritime port must have a TWIC card. If an individual does not have a TWIC card, they must be accompanied at all times by someone who does have the card. TWIC cards are important for people who work around ports.
  • Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) and First Aid – Regardless of profession, it is recommended that all adults have current first aid and CPR training. This is especially important for people who work in remote locations, such as truckers and pilot car operators. Pilot cars should have CPR equipment, including barrier devices and/or a rescue mask, on board.
  • Defensive Driving – Most big insurance companies offer discounts to drivers who participate in a 6- to 8-hour in-person course (not online) and repeat the course every 3 years. Also, some states now require P/EVOs have a current defensive driving certificate to operate. Even if it's not required by law, it's still a good investment of time and money to get a lower insurance premium and learn about safe driving practices.
  • Flagger Certification – While some states will require P/EVOs to be certified flaggers as well, all pilot car operators can benefit from flagger training and certification in the event they need to direct traffic.
Pilot car escorting an oversize load
A pickup truck pilot car escorting an oversized load

What type of vehicle is a pilot car?

Almost any vehicle can be used as a pilot car or escort vehicle as long as it is safe, reliable, provides visibility to the driver, and is easily visible to other vehicles on the road.

While most sedans, SUVs, and pickup trucks will easily meet these requirements, some states do have one or more of the following requirements:

  • Passenger vehicles must weigh at least 2,000 pounds
  • Pickup trucks to be rated for at least a ¼ ton capacity
  • Drivers must be able to see 360 degrees (cargo vans and panel trucks would be prohibited)

What is the best vehicle for pilot cars?

Most operators say small pickup trucks make the best pilot cars. Pickup trucks allow operators to easily transport the required equipment and provide an elevated view of the road. Smaller and newer pickup trucks can also get decent fuel mileage without breaking the bank at the pump.

Pilot Car Equipment

Equipment requirements vary from state to state so operators will need to research each state they operate in to stay within guidelines.

With that in mind, the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, the Specialized Carriers & Rigging Association, and the Federal Highway Administration suggest the following equipment be carried in or displayed at a minimum. 

  • Signs – All states require that both escort vehicles and load vehicles have signs that say "Oversize Load." The signs must be the same color: black letters on a yellow background. However, the sign must be displayed in different places on the two vehicles, and the size of the sign and letters vary from state to state.
  • Flags – Many states require that warning flags be displayed on the escort vehicle, but the details of these requirements vary from state to state. For example, some states require two flags while others require four, and the size of the flags required also differs, with some states requiring flags that are 12 inches by 12 inches while others require 18 inches by 18 inches. Additionally, where the flags are to be placed on the vehicle also varies, with some states requiring the flags be mounted from the top of the cab while others require flags at the vehicle extremities.
  • Warning lights – At least one amber warning light is required for the escort vehicle, in addition to fully functioning headlights, taillights, brake lights, and emergency flashers. Most States require the warning light be visible from 500 feet, and the light should rotate, oscillate, and/or flash through 360 degrees, consistent with the minimum requirements stated in Part 6 of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.  Extra bulbs for not only the warning light, but also headlights, taillights, etc. should be carried at all times.
  • Full-size spare tire and tools for changing – While some states require a full-size spare tire by law, it is always advisable. Vehicles will also need a lug wrench, jack, and other tools needed to change the tire.
  • Fire extinguisher – Most States require pilot car operators to carry a fire extinguisher that meets federal standards for commercial vehicles. Fire extinguishers must be filled and readily accessible.
  • Hardhat – Hardhats must comply with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Z 89.1-2009 requirements. ANSI has divided impact protection into two categories, Type I and Type II. Type II hardhats are more versatile and, therefore, are recommended  because they reduce the force of impact that may be off-center, from the side, or the top of the head.
  • Safety vest – Safety vests are required for flaggers and others involved in roadside operations. The safety vest must meet the ANSI Performance Class 2 or 3 requirements for daytime and nighttime activity. According to the standard, "the apparel background (outer) material color shall be fluorescent orange-red, fluorescent yellow-green, or a combination of the two. The retro-reflective material shall be orange, yellow, white, silver, yellow-green, or a fluorescent version of these colors, and shall be visible at a minimum distance of 1,000 feet. The retro-reflective safety apparel shall be designed to clearly identify the wearer as a person."
  • STOP/SLOW paddle – Most states require that pilot car operators carry at least one 18-inch STOP/SLOW paddle. The paddle should be reflective and the standard shape and color of a STOP sign. The minimum size is 18-inches with 6-inch letters, but a 24-inch paddle is recommended for highway speeds. Some states require two paddles in a crash situation.
  • Cones and reflectors – Most states require warning devices, like reflective triangles or traffic cones. Typically 3 bi-directional emergency triangles are required but some states require cones of various sizes and/or flares.
  • Flashlight – All pilot car operators should carry a traffic wand flashlight with them. The light should be LED and visible for 500 feet. 
  • First aid kit – A first-aid kit should contain: personal items and medication, emergency numbers, compress dressings and adhesive bandages, gauze and tape, antibiotic and hydrocortisone ointment, and antiseptic wipes, aspirin, non-latex gloves, breathing barriers, cold compress, emergency blankets, thermometer, tweezers, and scissors. Gloves, masks, and eye protection should be included.
  • Spare parts/fluids – Spare parts and fluids should include bulbs, batteries, fuses, hoses, belts, and fluids like oil, coolant, and windshield washer fluid. Tools needed to make minor roadside repairs must also be in the escort vehicle.
  • Measuring pole – A height pole is used to measure vertical clearance. This is needed when escorting loads that are taller than 14 feet 6 inches, although this number can vary depending on the state.
  • Two-Way radio – The ability to communicate with the load driver and other escorts is important for successful oversize load movement. Two-way radios or other communication devices are required by most States since the FMCSA has banned cell phone usage for load drivers. CB radios are the most reliable two-way radios.

Pilot Car Drivers

How much do pilot car drivers make?

The average pilot car driver in the US makes $37,086 a year as of August of 2022

How to Become a Pilot Car Driver

Becoming a pilot car is relatively straightforward depending on the state(s) of operation. 

As mentioned above, most states do not regulate pilot car drivers so anyone with a valid driver’s license and a vehicle with liability insurance can become one. 

However, in addition to certification, some states may restrict operators to those that:

  • Are at least 18 or 21 years of age depending on the state
  • Have completed of a defensive driving course or those that hold a commercial drivers license
  • Have their flagger certification

Regardless of the state of operation, the Federal highway Administration provides an excellent study guide for potential pilot car operators.

How do pilot cars find loads?

Similar to trucking companies, pilot car operators can find loads by forming relationships with carriers and brokers. However, there are also load boards that cater to pilot cars that will be the easiest way for new drivers to find work.

Pilot Car FAQs

What is an oversized load?

A load can also be oversize based on the weight, length or height of the cargo, which varies from state to state. However, a vehicle that hits any of the following qualifications is typically considered an oversized load.

While states also set their own guidelines for weight limits, the Federal Highway Administration sets the following maximums:

  • 80,000 lbs of gross vehicle weight
  • 20,000 lbs single axle weight
  • 34,000 lb tandem axle weight

It is important to note that while all oversized loads will require a permit, not all oversized loads will require a pilot car.

What is a super load?

A “super load” is a load that surpasses the measurements of a normal oversized load. While each state has their own classifications, many states qualify loads that are wider than 16 feet to be super loads. 

The height, length, and weight limits will also vary.

Is it illegal to pass a pilot car?

It is not illegal to pass a pilot car but drivers should be cautious when passing pilot cars and oversized loads.

Can you pass an oversized loaded vehicle on the highway?

It is not illegal to pass an oversized load on the highway but drivers should be cautious when passing.

What is a pilot car map?

Pilot car maps show how many pilot cars are needed for an oversized load on a California state highway. The maps are divided by areas managed by the California Department of Transportation, starting with the area in Northern California and ending with the area in Southern California.

The requirements for pilot cars vary depending on the route, and are represented by five different colors. The colors go from least restrictive to most restrictive and the legend provides more information on whether one or two escort vehicles are required when the load meets specific dimensions.

Trending Guides
A black pickup truck hauling a trailer

What is hot shot trucking?

A refrigerated truck, also known as a reefer

What is reefer trucking?

Commercial Truck Insurance

Commercial Truck Insurance Companies