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.
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.
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.
Pilot cars help the truck hauling the oversized load navigate routes, traffic, and other road obstacles. Pilot vehicles are required because oversized vehicles:
Responsibilities of the pilot car operator can include:
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.
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.
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.
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.
CO, FL, NC, UT, VA, WA
AZ, FL, MN, OK, UT, WA
AZ, CO, GA, MN, OK, NC, PA, VA, WA
AZ, CO, FL, NC, OK, UT, VA, WA
At least CO & WA
CO, FL, NC, OK, UT, WA
CO, FL, GA, MN, NY, OK, UT, VA, WA
CO, FL, GA, MN, NC, UT, WA
(only required when replacing law enforcement in a super load transport)
CO, FL, GA, NC, UT, VA, WA
AZ, CO, FL, MN, NC, OK, VA, WA
FL, VA, MN, NC, OK, UT, WA
AZ, CO, GA, MN, NC, OK, UT, VA
Other useful credentials for pilot and escort vehicle operators according to the Department of Transportation include:
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:
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.
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.
The average pilot car driver in the US makes $37,086 a year as of August of 2022.
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:
Regardless of the state of operation, the Federal highway Administration provides an excellent study guide for potential pilot car operators.
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.
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:
It is important to note that while all oversized loads will require a permit, not all oversized loads will require a pilot car.
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.
It is not illegal to pass a pilot car but drivers should be cautious when passing pilot cars and oversized loads.
It is not illegal to pass an oversized load on the highway but drivers should be cautious when passing.
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.