Richard Trester, Sr. Safety Consultant
Imagine this … you have recently been hired as the new Safety Director for a mid-sized motor carrier. Since you have taken the position, you have worked hard to implement practices and policies to improve your company’s DOT compliance program. Over the last several months, there has been an improvement in driver morale, profits are up, and roadside violations, although historically high and with only one CSA BASIC in alert status, have decreased slowly but steadily over the last two months. As you settle in for another day’s work you check your email and much to your surprise there is a message from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) with the subject line: “XYZ Transport has been selected for an FMCSA investigation.” After further reading you determine that this is not an ordinary investigation, this is an Off-Site Audit! Immediately, you ask yourself a million questions: “What is an off-site audit?” “Why were we selected?” “What is this going to do to our safety rating?” “Are we going to be penalized?”
The FMCSA uses the Compliance Safety and Accountability (CSA) data to determine which motor carriers are targeted for compliance investigations and audits. Historically, poorly performing motor carriers, generally those that have BASICs in alert status or a high number of crashes, received notification from the FMCSA that an agent or representative of the agency would go to the principle place of business to conduct the investigation. This practice created a huge strain on the FMCSA due to limited resources, which limited the number of motor carriers the FMCSA could audit. Therefore, the agency decided to develop other methodologies and tools to capture more of the 560,000 motor carriers that operate under FMCSA jurisdictions. As a result, the Off-Site Audit was implemented and has resulted in a 305 percent rise in investigations between 2018 and 2019, before the pandemic started, and eighteen times higher than the number of audits completed in 2017. This audit format allows the FMCSA to conduct more investigations in a shorter amount of time and is used for motor carriers that have operated for a long time, as well as those subject to the “new-entrant” process.
The Off-Site Audit is conducted in much the same way an on-site investigation is done, except that the field agent is conducting the audit from a remote location and all documents must be sent to the field office for review. When a motor carrier is selected for an audit due to high CSA scores, they’re a “new-entrant,” or a complaint has been filed against them, the field investigator will begin pre-audit reviews to understand more about the motor carrier’s operations. These include: • Where the company is located and contact information • What the company does • Previous audit results (if applicable) • Safety performance • Vehicle licensing • Insurance • Registration data • Information resulting from roadside inspections and crash data. Essentially, the field agent is building a case prior to notifying the motor carrier that an audit is to take place. The next step includes notifying the motor carrier that an investigation will occur and begin with a document request. The number and types of documents requested will depend on what triggered the audit in the first place (e.g. new-entrant, CSA related, etc.). Document requests must be fulfilled within the time frame requested or the motor carrier risks having their DOT number revoked. Therefore, it is important to meet all required timelines.
The FMCSA will assess which documents and how many are to be obtained based on the reason for the audit. For example, if the motor carrier has incurred many Hours-of-Service and Driver Fitness violations within the last 12 months, the auditor may request ELD records and supporting documents, as well as driver qualification files for review. The number of documents will generally depend on the number of drivers and the number of commercial motor vehicles in the fleet. Keep in mind that the auditor will focus on the CSA data and drivers responsible for roadside violations received across all seven BASICs, especially those inspections that resulted in an Out-of-Service (OOS) event. Documents may be submitted in a variety of ways, including email, upload to the FMCSA website, mail or physical delivery. It is important to only send copies of the records, never the originals.
The auditor will review all documents to determine if there have been any violations to the FMCSR. The auditor is not only looking at whether violations have occurred, but is also looking for evidence that the motor carrier is using the Safety Management Cycle (SMC) to manage their DOT compliance program. The Safety Management Cycle is a set of guidelines written by the FMCSA to help motor carriers comply with the complex Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs). The SMC is much more than a set of regulations; it is essentially a set of management controls put in place to help prevent roadside violations and, more importantly, DOT-recordable crashes. The SMC is based on six parts: Policies and Procedures Roles and Responsibilities Qualification and Hiring Training and Communication Monitoring and Tracking Meaningful Action. The auditor will not only identify which areas of the DOT program are out of compliance, but also make recommendations on improvements to prevent future violations.
Once the audit is complete, the motor carrier will receive a report which outlines what, if any, violations were discovered. If none were found, the motor carrier can feel confident that they have met the DOT’s minimum compliance and safety requirements. However, if the auditor has determined that violations have occurred, then there are several possible outcomes, including: Notice of Claim (NOC) - If serious violations have been identified, including those that are deemed acute and/or critical, a civil penalty may be levied against the motor carrier. Notice of Violation (NOV) - This is a notification that indicates less severe violations have occurred, which likely will not result in penalties unless the violations are not able to be immediately verifiable and correctable, the motor carrier has been cited for the same violations in the past six years, or the violations included falsification of records. Safety Rating Change - The safety rating cannot be changed to an Unsatisfactory during an off-site audit, but may result in a Conditional rating. Conditional ratings can impact the motor carrier’s insurance rates and reputation. Conditional ratings should be taken seriously, and efforts should be made to improve the rating to Satisfactory as soon as possible. By taking proactive steps now, you can prepare your motor carrier to have a positive off-site audit, and even prevent one from occurring in the first place!