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2021 FMCSA Audits Year in Review

In 2021, 95% of FMCSA audits resulted in violations. Here's what they found, and how your fleet can prevent these issues.

J.J. Keller Senior Editor Daren Hansen

Daren Hansen - Sr. DOT Editor - J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc.

March 18 , 2022

A “new normal” has emerged regarding DOT enforcement — the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is relying heavily on off-site audits. They appear to be working, which means they may remain part of the agency's toolkit for years to come.

If you’re not already, it’s time to get serious about being prepared for an off-site review of your DOT compliance program. Let’s take a look at the audit numbers from 2021.

The Rise in Conditional Safety Ratings

At the height of the pandemic and the need for social distancing, the FMCSA came to rely heavily on off-site audits, performing more audits off-site in 2020 than on-site for the first time.

Last year brought a rebalancing, with about 40 percent of audits conducted off-site. However, 2021 saw a new first: more motor carriers received a “conditional” safety rating than “satisfactory”, despite so many audits being done remotely. (A little-noticed rule change in 2021 enables the FMCSA to issue safety ratings after off-site audits, something the agency could never do before.)

Conditional safety ratings can have costly consequences, including lost customers, higher insurance rates, and increased liability in court.

Those 2021 results aren’t surprising when you dig a little deeper into the auditing data:

  • There was a 6% increase in audits, with 95% resulting in violations.
  • There was a 30% increase in the number of audits that uncovered acute violations, the most severe type.
  • There was a 37% increase in audits with critical violations (such as missing records), which are easier than ever to find with electronic auditing.
  • At least 65% of all critical violations related to recordkeeping, including seven out of the top 10.

With remote audits uncovering so many acute and critical violations, off-site reviews are likely here to stay. It's just a matter of the FMCSA finding the right balance.

Top 10 audit violations of 2021 that could affect your safety rating*

  1. Not using the right method to record HOS
  2. Falsifying HOS records
  3. Utilizing a driver with a suspended or revoked CDL
  4. Failing to keep inspection and maintenance records
  5. Failing to keep driving records
  6. Using a driver before getting pre-employment drug test results
  7. Failing to keep HOS supporting documents
  8. Failing to inspect vehicles annually
  9. Not having a drug and alcohol testing program
  10. Failing to test drivers randomly

*These are the most commonly found “acute” and “critical” regulations, which are the ones used to calculate safety ratings.

Small Carriers are the Target

Overall, audits are back on the rise after reaching a low point in 2020. The 12,330 audits performed in 2021 put a stop to a three-year decline. Other significant details from last year's DOT audits:

  • Small carriers are still a primary target — 83 percent of audited carriers had 20 or fewer power units, and 54 percent had six or fewer.
  • More carriers are failing their audits — Just 27 percent of carriers received a “satisfactory” safety rating (down from 40 percent as recently as 2017), and 33 percent were rated as “conditional.”
  • More audits are leading to enforcement — 95 percent of audits uncovered at least one violation (up from 93 percent), and there was a 42-percent increase in the number of audits that resulted in enforcement.
  • Fines can be costly — The average settlement paid after an audit in 2021 was $6,626, down from 2020 but historically average.

Your chance of being selected for an audit is lower than in the past. However, if selected, the potential consequences are high, despite nearly half of audits being done off-site. Statistics show that auditors are likely to find violations and can impose steep penalties and drop your safety rating as a result.

The Key is Electronic Recordkeeping

With off-site audits now being one of the FMCSA’s primary enforcement tools, you need to be prepared to upload compliance documentation to the agency on short notice.

Your driver qualification, drug/alcohol testing, hours-of-service (HOS), and vehicle maintenance files are critical (most acute/critical regulations fall into those areas). You may also be asked for proof of insurance, an accident register, and other compliance documents.

Pay particular attention to your HOS records because they alone could result in a downgraded safety rating. When combined with other violations, you could face an “unsatisfactory” rating and an order to cease all vehicle operations.

DID YOU KNOW? Being cited for a single “critical” hours-of-service violation during an audit — such as missing just 10 percent of required logs — will automatically bring your safety rating down to “conditional.”

In summary, the outcome of an audit largely rests on the state of your documentation. Waiting until you receive notice of an audit before getting those documents in shape is just asking for trouble. You may have only a few days to upload requested documents for review, so there won’t be time to fix errors or find missing paperwork.

Be Prepared for Audits with J. J. Keller® Encompass

In the age of off-site auditing, now more than ever, your business survival depends on storing your documents electronically, keeping them up to date, and being compliant. J. J. Keller® Encompass is a comprehensive fleet management system that helps you organize, store, and manage DOT required records. It’s a great time to talk with a compliance specialist about the new features coming to Encompass, including award-winning training, a regulatory library, and a new dual-facing dash cam.


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