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2020 FMCSA Audits Year in Review

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a surprising effect on DOT enforcement. Read more about 2020's dramatic shift to off-site auditing.

J.J. Keller Senior Editor Daren Hansen

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

March 09 , 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic and — in some ways — surprising effect on DOT enforcement. The result could be lasting changes that impact the way motor carriers deal with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) long into the future.

This article examines the DOT auditing trends that shaped 2020, how the pandemic has changed the face of audits, and how motor carriers may need to refocus their efforts to survive DOT audits going forward.

A Dramatic Shift

The need for social distancing brought changes to all types of enforcement activities in 2020, especially audits. Face-to-face, on-site auditing — which used to be the FMCSA's primary enforcement tool — is no longer the safest choice.

As a result, there has been a dramatic shift to off-site auditing, where there's little direct contact between the DOT investigator and the motor carrier being audited. You might think this means today's audits are easier to pass but consider this:

  • Documentation is king. If you're audited, you won't be able to rely on charm, goodwill, or even coffee and doughnuts to influence the result. The outcome will depend on the state of your paperwork and will only be as good as the documents you send the auditor. Your compliance documents must be in tip-top shape.
  • Timing is critical. Once you're notified of an audit, you may have only a few days to upload the requested documents for review. There won't be time to fix errors or find missing paperwork. Having your documents all organized in one place — and electronic — will help.
  • Penalties are steep. If violations are found — and they almost certainly will be — you need to be prepared for the same consequences you might get after an in-house audit: a warning, a fine, a downgraded safety rating, or worse.

It's no time to let your guard down. Consider the following trends and why you might not be focusing on the right priorities regarding audit preparation.

Some Trends Continued

Overall, the 11,430 audits performed in 2020 were down 12 percent from 2019, but that simply continued a trend. There were nearly twice as many audits a decade ago (but note that this trend could reverse with the new Biden administration).

Other trends that continued in 2020:

  • The focus is still on the "little guy" — 82 percent of carriers audited had 20 or fewer power units, and 54 percent had six or fewer.
  • More carriers are failing their audits — While about 40 percent of carriers received a "Satisfactory" rating as recently as 2017, just 31 percent got that rating in 2020.
  • Most audits result in violations — 93 percent of 2020 audits resulted in at least one violation. This means you have about a 1 in 14 chance of passing an audit with zero violations. About 27 percent of audits resulted in enforcement.

The Start of New Trends - Off-site Audits and Increase in Fines

For the first time, there were more off-site than on-site audits in 2020. Last year's 5,750 off-site audits represented a nearly 320 percent increase from the prior year and were 50.3 percent of all audits performed.

Also increasing in 2020 were fines paid for violations:

  • The FMCSA collected $27.9 million in civil penalties, an increase of over 10 percent since 2019.
  • Though the number of motor carriers fined was lower (down 33 percent), the average settlement per motor carrier was up by 65 percent, reaching $11,000 in 2020 (up from $6,650 in 2019).

Though your chance of being selected for an audit is lower than in the past, the potential consequences are high. Despite most audits being done off site, auditors will likely find violations, and any penalties they impose will be steep.

Survival — Where to Focus Your Efforts

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, and vehicle maintenance files are key. You may also be asked for proof of insurance, an accident register, and other compliance documents. Store them electronically and — most importantly — keep them up to date and compliant.

Don't Lose Sight of the FMCSA's Priorities

You probably have many business-related concerns but don't lose sight of the FMCSA's priorities, or you could get in trouble.

Consider, for example, the list of the industry's top concerns as compiled annually by the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI). It overlaps very little with the most common violations the FMCSA finds during audits. For example, hours of service is number 10 on the ATRI list but is by far the most common type of violation found during audits, occupying three of the top seven spots.

As another example, driver qualification and drug testing are not top-10 industry concerns, but the driver shortage is number one on the ATRI list, with driver retention at number six. This may be leading companies to take shortcuts to get marginal drivers on the road as fast as possible, without due concern for whether those drivers are fully qualified. As a sign of this, the list of top 10 audit violations includes:

  • Failing to obtain driving records (#3)
  • Using drivers with invalid licenses (#4)
  • Using drivers before getting drug test results (#6)
  • Failing to maintain a driver qualification file (#10)

Are you paying enough attention to the things that most concern DOT auditors? If not, don't be surprised if your safety rating — and bottom line — take a hit after your next audit.

Top 10 Audit Violations of 2020

These are the most commonly found "acute" and "critical" regulations used to calculate safety ratings that could affect your safety rating.

  1. Not using ELDs or logs when required
  2. Falsifying HOS records
  3. Failing to keep driving records
  4. Using a driver with a suspended or revoked CDL
  5. Failing to inspect vehicles annually
  6. Using a driver before getting drug test results
  7. Failing to keep HOS supporting documents
  8. Failing to keep inspection and maintenance records
  9. Not having a drug and alcohol testing program
  10. Failing to keep a driver qualification file

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