With the COVID-19 pandemic waning, on-site DOT audits are roaring back and hitting motor carriers’ bottom lines. Are you prepared?
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) relied heavily on off-site audits during the height of the pandemic and its need for social distancing. But last year brought a resurgence in traditional on-site investigations, which were up a whopping 54% over the prior year.
The Closer They Look, The More They Find
With more auditors going on-site, it’s no surprise they’re finding more violations — and issuing more fines and penalties. Last year saw a 40-percent jump in fines paid, and a similar rise in audits that uncovered the most serious types of violations.
Only about 5 percent of motor carriers escape an audit without a violation. So are you ready for that knock on the door? If not, it’s time to prepare for a DOT investigation of your compliance program.
And if you think you’re too small to be targeted, think again. Over half of all audits in 2022 (54%) were on companies with fewer than seven power units. About 97 percent of those audited had fewer than 100 units.
2020 saw a steep rise in off-site “desk audits” performed at the DOT’s offices. In fact, there were more off-site audits that year than on-site for the first time.
The easing of the pandemic has brought a rebalancing. Though many audits (about 27 percent last year) were conducted off-site, auditors are returning to the field. In 2022, the FMCSA and its state partners performed 12,500 investigations, including roughly:
- 3,600 on-site comprehensive audits (up 54%)
- 5,400 on-site focused reviews (up 7%)
- 3,400 off-site audits (down 31%)
An off-site audit involves a review of documents sent to the auditor. By nature, they’re less intensive than an on-site investigation, where the auditor has more freedom to conduct interviews, inspect vehicles, request documents, and take the audit in new directions.
Over 40 percent of audits were “on-site focused,” where the auditor targets a specific safety problem, such as hours of service (HOS) or driver files.
Penalties are Up
As noted, an increase in on-site audits means more violations are being found, and higher penalties are being paid. Last year saw a 10-percent rise in investigations that led to some type of enforcement.
When fines are levied, they are higher than ever. The maximum fines the FMCSA is allowed to levy are tied to inflation and have increased by 14 percent over the past two years.
2022 By the Numbers
- 95% of audits resulted in at least one violation
- 27% resulted in fines or other penalties
- 3,620 enforcement cases were finalized (up 31%)
- $25,700,000 in fines were collected (up 40%)
- $7,100 was paid per settlement, on average (up 7%)
- 47% of audits resulted in acute or critical violations (up 24%)
o 30% of audits resulted in critical violations (up 15%)
o 17% of audits resulted in acute violations (up 39%)
- 36% of audits resulted in a less-than-satisfactory safety rating
o 30% were conditional
o 6% were unsatisfactory
Audits are hitting motor carriers on the bottom line. However, they also have longer-range impacts, given that a less-than-satisfactory safety rating can lead to lost customers, higher insurance rates, and increased liability in court.
Top 5 FMCSA fines of 2022
- $791,640 — CDL and HOS violations
- $91,620 — HOS violations
- $88,450 — log falsification
- $75,080 — drug/alcohol testing, HOS, and vehicle violations
- $72,300 — HOS violations
It’s All About Your Records
The state of your documentation will make or break your audit results. If you’re unsure where to begin preparing for an audit, getting your DOT-mandated paperwork in good shape is a great place to start. Sixty-four percent of all critical violations found during audits last year related to recordkeeping, including 7 out of the top 10.
Why does it matter?
Consider one of the FMCSA’s favorite targets: false logs. If an auditor finds that just 1 in 10 of your drivers’ logs are falsified, the best you can hope for is a Conditional safety rating. If additional problems are found, you could easily end up having your vehicle operations shut down for good.
Top 10 audit violations of 2022 that could affect your safety rating*
- Failing to follow local laws and regulations (§392.2)
- Falsifying records of duty status
- Not using the correct method to record hours
- Using a driver before getting pre-employment drug test results
- Violating the 14-hour on-duty limit
- Violating the 11-hour driving limit
- Failing to keep initial MVRs
- Failing to inspect vehicles annually
- Failing to keep driver qualification files
- Driving with a suspended/revoked CDL
*These are the most commonly found “acute” and “critical” regulations, which are the ones used to calculate safety ratings.
Digital is Critical
No matter what type of audit you might face, you may be asked to submit records electronically on short notice. If you can’t, you’ll be at a disadvantage.
For more and more companies and auditors alike, digital records management is no longer a novelty — it’s expected. The more organized and digitized your DOT records are, the easier you can spot problems before an auditor does, and the quicker any audit will conclude.
Where should you focus your efforts? Your driver qualification, drug/alcohol testing, HOS, and vehicle inspection/maintenance files should top the list — most acute and critical regulations fall into those areas. You may also be asked for proof of insurance, an accident register, and other compliance documents.
Your documentation is often your only proof of compliance. If you fail to create a record or toss one out too soon, you’ll have no way to prove you were doing what’s required.