In addition to operational concerns, regulated trucking companies are tasked with navigating a complex web of responsibilities, with the safety of their drivers, cargo, and the motoring public firmly at the core. And it's no secret that fleets have a big target on their back when things go sideways. The consequences of non-compliance and unsafe operations are severe, with fleet-wide shutdowns and multi-million dollar jury verdicts becoming increasingly common.
Fortunately, there are ways to significantly increase safety and minimize exposure; small things fleets can do to substantially bolster their compliance posture and reduce risk. In this article, we explore five proactive steps regulated trucking companies can implement today to seriously elevate their safety & compliance game.
From consistently verifying driver credentials to staying on top of key compliance metrics, these actionable strategies can make a substantial difference in avoiding enforcement, reducing accidents, and preventing injuries, thereby improving your overall risk profile.
1. Track your key compliance metrics & buck negative trends
There's no shortage of ways motor carriers can find themselves sideways with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the federal agency that regulates interstate highway transportation, or its state partners. Serious accidents, driver complaints, and violations from roadside inspections are just a few things that can trigger an FMCSA audit. What's more, poor safety performance is often the driving force in nuclear verdicts against motor carriers after a bad accident.
In other articles, we've talked extensively about key safety metrics we believe all fleets should be monitoring and constantly working to improve. These metrics are regularly used by (1) the FMCSA to prioritize carriers for audit, (2) by insurers to help set premiums for commercial auto liability insurance policies, (3) by the plaintiff's bar to paint them as bad actors, and (4) by some shippers and brokers to select their carrier partners. Most of these metrics are publicly available for all to see and say quite a bit about a carrier's compliance (or lack thereof) with federal and state safety regulations.
Keeping tabs on what your safety metrics are saying about the safety of your operations is a critical step in improving your overall risk profile. What metrics should you be watching? At minimum, carriers should be tracking the following data:
Out-of-service rates. Publicly-available data indicating the number of times your drivers and/or vehicles have been prohibited from operating due to serious safety violations. Available online via the FMCSA's SAFER system.
Safety Measurement System (SMS) scores. Also known as "CSA scores," this data reflects how regulated carriers are performing relative to their peers in 7 categories known as the BASICs. SMS scores stem from violations from roadside inspections. Carriers with relatively high scores are prioritized by the FMCSA for enforcement. We've addressed how to improve your CSA scores in another article.
Safety Fitness Determination (SFD). Also known as your "safety rating," this three-tier rating system identifies how carriers have fared in an FMCSA compliance review. Safety ratings are available publicly on FMCSA's SAFER system. Carriers who receive an Unsatisfactory rating following a review will be shut down. We've offered practical tips for protecting your safety rating in other articles.
Inspection Selection System (ISS). A score used by the FMCSA and its state law enforcement partners to target motor carriers' vehicles for roadside inspections. In essence, the ISS dictates how frequently a carriers' vehicles will be stopped for roadside inspections. The ISS scores carriers from 1 to 100, depending on their safety performance data such as roadside inspection violations. Carriers who perform poorly from a safety perspective will have a higher ISS score. ISS scores are available via your SMS account.
Accident rate. How many DOT-recordable accidents are you incurring per million miles traveled? That's one of the many questions asked by the FMCSA in a compliance review. An accident rate of more than 1.5 accidents per million miles will cause you to fail the accident factor of a DOT audit.
But just tracking your safety metrics is not enough. Once you know what your data is saying about you, you must put in the work to improve the areas where you are deficient. For example, if your hours-of-service SMS score is high, it's time to start working with your drivers through re-training and progressive discipline to get the issue under control.
2. Reconcile unidentified driving time
As we've addressed previously, driver log falsification continues to rank among the most common regulatory violations discovered by the FMCSA and its state partners. This is true even now that most commercial drivers are required to utilize electronic logging devices (ELDs) to track their duty status.
One exceedingly common way that drivers falsify their logs is by failing to log in to their ELDs to begin with or by unplugging the device altogether. What you may not realize, however, is that in these instances, the devices are still tracking the vehicle's motion and putting all the drive time on a so-called "unassigned driving report."
The FMCSA uses these reports in compliance reviews to sniff out log falsification, so it's critical that fleets routinely review the reports and reconcile all time that appears on it. Driving time should be assigned to the appropriate driver or, at at the very least, annotated to explain why the time was not placed on a driver's account (e.g., third-party mechanic move). We recommend carriers review and reconcile unidentified driving time at least once a month.
3. Regularly review driver licenses, med cards, & MVRs
In its 2020 report titled "Understanding the Impact of Nuclear Verdicts on the Trucking Industry," the American Transportation Research Institute noted that a significant percentage of multi-million dollar jury verdicts lodged against trucking companies stemmed from problems with the commercial driver's driving history or credentialing. Indeed, the first ever billion-dollar jury verdict in our industry, which occurred in Florida in 2021, resulted, in part, from the fact that the commercial driver involved in the accident lacked the appropriate license.
Sufficed to say, keeping tabs on your drivers' driving histories, licenses, and med cards is critical to improving your safety profile. Carriers should have a system to track the expiration dates of their drivers' licenses and med cards and removing the drivers from the roadways if those things expire. Although not currently required by federal regulations, we highly recommend carriers consider enrolling their drivers in continuous license monitoring to be automatically alerted any time there is a negative development with their drivers' licenses (e.g., CDL downgrade).
4. Limit PC use
Of all the hundreds (maybe thousands) of safety regulations contained within the FMCSA's safety regulations, there's nothing quite as amorphous as the concept of personal conveyance. In general, personal conveyance refers to a scenario where a regulated driver operates a commercial motor vehicle for personal use (i.e., not at the direction of a motor carrier) in off-duty status, meaning that time is not counted against his/her available hours. In essence, personal conveyance is a limited exception to the requirement that all time spent at the operating controls of a commercial motor vehicle must be logged as driving time on the driver's records of duty status.
As we've discussed in other articles, personal conveyance is fraught with the potential for misuse, and regularly contributes to log falsification violations and driver fatigue. For these reasons, many fleets choose to turn off the personal conveyance functionality on their ELDs altogether. This is often a good idea for fleets whose drivers don't require the flexibility of legitimate personal conveyance use.
But even if your drivers need the ability to use personal conveyance, you MUST keep it under control or else risk weighty false log violations and increased highway accident exposure. How do you do that? First, you should be limiting PC use, which the regulations authorize you to do. For example, many fleets, as a matter of company policy, limit PC use to 1 hour or 50 miles per day. And once you set the limit, it's critical that you hold drivers to it by periodically auditing PC use and taking any necessary remedial action with drivers who have exceeded your limits.
5. Train your drivers & safety team
It's no secret that highway transportation is one of the heaviest-regulated industries in the U.S. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs) impose thousands of individual requirements on motor carriers and their drivers and charge those carriers and drivers with the responsibility for understanding and complying with each and everyone one of those requirements. As they say, "ignorance of the law is no excuse." Non-compliance with these rules is costly from both a financial and risk-management perspective. Fleets that neglect their regulatory responsibilities risk compliance audits, roadside enforcement, civil penalties, and shut-downs. And they also expose themselves to heightened damages in highway accident litigation.
So what's the solution? Well, it's very often the case that your drivers and/or safety team simply don't understand what the regulations require of them. And the solution to this knowledge gap is additional training. In another article, we broke down why exactly fleets should be investing in regulatory training. Simply put, there's really no substitute to spending time with your team to ensure they understand exactly what the rules are and how they work in your particular operations. Evidence of training goes a long way to demonstrating that you are proactive when it comes to compliance and safety.
Safety & compliance can be overwhelming topics to manage. But as with most things in life, taking small deliberate steps each day to improve your safety posture goes a very long way to keeping you out of the crosshairs. If you need assistance in this regard, don't hesitate to reach out!
About Trucksafe Consulting, LLC: Trucksafe Consulting is a full-service DOT regulatory compliance consulting and training service. We help carriers develop, implement, and improve their safety programs, through personalized services, industry-leading training, and a library of educational content. Trucksafe also hosts a livestream podcast on its various social media channels called Trucksafe LIVE! to discuss hot-button issues impacting highway transportation. Trucksafe is owned and operated by Brandon Wiseman and Jerad Childress, transportation attorneys who've assisted some of the nation’s leading fleets to develop and maintain cutting-edge safety programs. You can learn more about Trucksafe online at www.trucksafe.com and by following Trucksafe on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Or subscribe to Trucksafe's newsletter for the latest highway transportation news & analysis.