Updated: Dec 1, 2021
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 and so-called "nuclear verdicts" in the context of highway-accident litigation.
The industry has long appreciated the importance of ensuring drivers are properly trained on safe driving techniques and how to properly operate commercial vehicles. But carriers are only starting to recognize the need for additional and more comprehensive instruction on the safety regulations themselves and how exactly to comply with them.
Traditionally, such training, if provided at all, has been handled through periodic safety meetings and written driver handbooks, leaving it up to safety managers and drivers to deal with on their own over time. This often results in a reactionary, ad hoc approach to regulatory compliance--addressing issues and putting out fires as they arise--rather than proactively heading off issues before they lead to problems. As the DOT continues to expand its enforcement reach through prioritization programs like CSA and SMS, and as the plaintiffs' bar becomes more savvy to these issues in highway-accident litigation, it's become clear that motor carriers must do more to ensure their safety managers and drivers are fully and uniformly trained on regulatory requirements. Here are just a few reasons why.
The regulations are complex and nuanced
DOT registration, vehicle marking, insurance, operating authority, driver qualification, medical exams, licensing, hours-of-service, records of duty status, electronic logging devices, drug/alcohol testing, vehicle inspections, vehicle components, DOT inspections, safety ratings, CSA/SMS. These are just a few of the topics regulated carriers and their drivers are expected to fully understand.
In fact, Section 390.3 of the FMCSRs provides that "every employer shall be knowledgeable of and comply with all regulations contained in [the FMCSRs] that are applicable to that motor carrier's operations," and that "every driver and employee involved in motor carrier operations shall be instructed regarding, and shall comply with, all applicable regulations." Carriers should note this is not just a suggestion; it's a mandate. They have a legal obligation to ensure their safety managers and drivers fully understand and comply with all applicable regulations. That's no easy task, of course.
As anyone who has perused a printed version of the FMCSRs (i.e., the "Green Book") will attest, the regulations span thousands of pages and are not particularly user friendly. Too often carriers are content to simply provide these books to their managers and drivers and expect them to internalize the contents. But this ignores the fundamental concepts of human learning which we all understand from having completed some level of formal education. Individuals cannot be expected to understand complex topics and content like the FMCSRs without some level of instruction and guidance from others who have, themselves, worked to understand those topics.
Take this one example. The hours-of-service rules generally require commercial drivers to log all time spent operating a commercial vehicle as "driving" time on their record of duty status. This is to ensure drivers aren't exceeding substantive hours-of-service limits and operating vehicles while fatigued. However, the FMCSA has issued "regulatory guidance" that authorizes drivers to log certain driving time as "off-duty personal conveyance" when they are operating commercial vehicles for their own personal reasons. This guidance has morphed over time but currently contains several examples of driving time that qualifies, and some that doesn't, as "personal conveyance." Misuse or a misunderstanding of this "personal conveyance" status is one of the leading violations discovered during roadside inspections and has led to the imposition of thousands of dollars in fines. When safety managers and drivers are left to their own devices to understand nuanced topics such as personal conveyance, there will inevitably be confusion and violations in the ranks.
The lack of uniform, comprehensive training leads
to systemic violations & enforcement
For years, carriers have invested in ways to uniformly train their drivers on safe driving techniques (e.g., vehicle operation, lane changes, stopping distance, etc.) because they intuitively understand the real world consequences that flow from unsafe driving. Whether it's a video- or text-based training platform, fleets routinely push out important content to their managers and drivers that covers safe driving.
The same is not true for regulatory compliance. Fleets have not traditionally invested in uniform, comprehensive training materials covering the FMCSRs and related regulations. As we'll discuss further below, this is likely because such training has not been as readily available as it is now, or has only been offered as an add-on to more traditional safe driving materials.
Without a way to uniformly and comprehensively train managers and drivers on the regulations themselves, fleets are left to address these complex topics on an ad hoc and often reactionary basis--in 20-minute chunks during monthly safety meetings or one-on-one with drivers who need remedial training due to violations.
With an industry-wide turnover rate of nearly 100%, these traditional methods of disseminating critical regulatory compliance training are just not sufficient. Drivers may only attend one monthly safety meeting before moving onto another carrier, and what little regulatory information they've gleaned from former employers may not transfer well to their new position or carrier. This necessarily results in a fleet of drivers with a fragmented and disparate understanding of key regulations, which unsurprisingly leads to fleet wide violations and enforcement action.
In a prior article, we explored five of the most common violations discovered during roadside inspections, as reflected in FMCSA enforcement data. As we addressed there, the most common violations are ones that stem from a lack of understanding of the applicable regulations on the drivers' part. If carriers would spend just a little extra time and effort addressing these issues with their managers and drivers, they would incur fewer of these violations and would be less of a target for DOT enforcement and the plaintiffs' bar.
Top 10 Driver Roadside Violations 2021
Safety managers wear many hats and often neglect necessary training
Without any dedicated regulatory compliance training materials, carriers typically rely on their safety managers to communicate critical information on this topic during periodic safety meetings. But as these managers will tell you, they wear many hats and typically have very little time to invest in their own professional development and understanding of the applicable regulations.
On any given day, safety managers may be tasked with onboarding new drivers, contacting previous employers, getting drivers to required drug/alcohol testing, running MVRs, dealing with accidents, auditing driver logs, or assisting drivers through audits, just to name a few. Expecting them to play the role of an educator for an entire fleet of drivers on top of these activities is likely asking too much. More often than not, regulatory compliance training goes by the wayside because of it. And even if managers find enough time to provide such training, who's to say they have the necessary background and information to effectively communicate the requirements?
Non-compliance is costly
The consequences of non-compliance with federal and state safety regulations can be severe. For one, non-compliance leads to violations and violations lead to regulatory enforcement. In 2021, the average fine assessed against motor carriers for regulatory violations was just over $6,000. And aside from fines, the regulations authorize the DOT to downgrade safety ratings and impose company-wide shutdowns as a result of systemic safety violations. As we discussed in a prior article, DOT offsite audits and enforcement activity are on the rise.
Setting aside DOT enforcement, non-compliance is costly from a highway-accident litigation perspective. In an episode of our monthly Trucksafe LIVE! livestream, we heard from Steve Bryan of Bluewire.ai and John Esparza from the Texas Trucking Association about how the plaintiffs' bar has developed its "reptile theory" of litigation and how it is using violation data to force multi-million dollar settlements and lawsuits against motor carriers. But as Steve and John noted during the show, the good news is that there are now options available to carriers to help close the gaps and avoid these types of cases.
Regulatory compliance training is now easily accessible and affordable
What many carriers may not appreciate is that regulatory compliance training is now available to them, just the same as the safe-driving training they are already sourcing. In fact, the former lack of high-quality, comprehensive regulatory training is what drove us to start Trucksafe Consulting and Trucksafe Academy.
With our backgrounds as transportation attorneys who have spent decades assisting some the nation's largest carriers develop and maintain cutting edge safety programs, we knew we were uniquely suited to build out the necessary training materials for both safety managers and commercial drivers, and that's precisely what we did.
Our courses, available completely online, offer carriers a path to uniformly and comprehensively onboard safety managers and provide them precisely the information they need to effectively manage a DOT safety program and communicate key requirements to their drivers. And our driver course ensures that drivers have access to the information they need to remain compliant throughout their tenure with the carrier and beyond.
Having audited carrier safety programs for many years, we understand where they most often fall short and need attention. But we also appreciate the complexities of operating a transportation business, including driver shortages, turnover, customer demands, etc. This in mind, we developed no-nonsense courses aimed at distilling key regulations down to their basis components and communicating them to safety managers and drivers in an extremely effective, efficient, and engaging manner. What's more, we didn't want carriers and drivers to have to navigate a complex menu of a la carte training offerings, so our courses are comprehensive in nature, covering all major components of the FMCSRs, including DOT registration, general compliance, driver qualification, hours-of-service, vehicle maintenance, drug/alcohol testing, and DOT enforcement.
Our courses are primarily video-based, but also include helpful handouts, graphics, and quizzes to help ensure managers and drivers better understand and internalize the content. We also offer completion certificates for carriers to include in personnel files.
Several carriers have helped pilot our regulatory training platform over the past year, and we're excited to see the immediate improvements they have already seen in their safety programs. While our program is not the only one on the market, we firmly believe it is the most comprehensive and accessible one available to carriers at the moment.
Non-compliance with federal and state safety regulations costs carriers billions of dollars each year in civil penalties, insurance premium hikes, and settlements/verdicts from highway accidents. Most regulatory violations stem from a fundamental lack of understanding of the applicable regulations and can be fairly easily rectified with proper training. Carriers have, for years, invested in training their drivers on safe driving techniques and it's time they make a similar investment in regulatory training for their managers and drivers.
For more information on our comprehensive training courses, be sure to check out Trucksafe Academy. And if you have any questions on how we are helping fleets get compliant, stay compliant, and avoid enforcement, please feel free to contact us.