The rise of off-site FMCSA audits: Be ready to open your digital door

FMCSA increases off-site audits

While not new, many carriers may have been surprised this year when the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) knocked on their digital doors to conduct off-site audits.

The off-site audit has been growing in use by FMCSA, which conducted nearly 1,000 off-site audits through November 2019, an almost 400% over according to federal audit data.

FMCSA has looked to expand the off-site audit program, citing cost and time savings. In a 2017 report to Congress, the agency noted an off-site audit took 33% less time to complete and saved FMCSA 58% on travel costs. Previously, nearly all audits were on site, causing disruption to the carrier’s operation.

As more states adopt off-site audit programs as a crucial compliance tool, more carriers may get a digital checkup.

“Off-site audits are a great addition to the enforcement toolbox because they save time and resources for the FMCSA,” Daren Hansen, senior editor of transportation safety for compliance specialists J. J. Keller & Associates, explained. “They can even have multiple off-site audits going at the same time, which really increases efficiency. There are just too many motor carriers in the industry for the FMCSA to be able to visit them all on site, for up to several days at a time. They need to reserve in-person audits for the companies with the worst safety records.”

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When an FMCSA auditor visits a carrier for an on-site audit, that auditor will look through records and he or she might talk to fleet personnel. Problems can quickly escalate as auditors conduct comprehensive reviews of the entire operation. Conversely, an off-site audit is less intrusive and often more targeted to specific trouble areas. An auditor will request certain records the carrier must supply — electronically.

Annette Sandberg, principal of TransSafe Consulting and a former FMCSA administrator, said that one of the benefits of this approach is that it can help “steer the carrier in the right direction before a catastrophic event like a bad crash happens.”

“This does not preclude an on-site audit but allows FMCSA to use on-site for the worst or very large motor carriers where on-site activity is needed,” she said. “With more and more motor carriers using electronic documents, this is a more efficient means of conducting the investigation.”

Audits are triggered by poor Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) scores. CSA is comprised of seven Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Category (BASIC) categories covering driver fitness, unsafe driving, fatigued driving, drugs and alcohol, vehicle maintenance, cargo and crash indicator. A score above the preset intervention threshold in up to three of these areas triggers an FMCSA audit.

Hansen said the data CSA generates is a positive for FMCSA, but can lead to larger issues for carriers that don’t address elevated CSA scores.

“The FMCSA knows where carriers are having compliance problems,” he said. “If FMCSA conducts an off-site audit and finds significant problems, they can transition to an on-site review to dive deeper.”

If scores are elevated in multiple categories, FMCSA would typically conduct an off-site audit in the highest of these categories. Off-site audits have also been implemented as part of the process to verify the safety performance of new entrants to the industry.

“Currently, 78% of new entrants pass an on-site safety audit, but the same resources are used for those carriers as for carriers that need additional attention,” Joe Bennett, a transportation specialist with FMCSA, wrote in 2015 as the agency announced an expansion of the program. “Off-site safety audits allow agencies to more efficiently audit carriers whose performance indicates an understanding of and compliance with regulations.”

Avoiding an FMCSA audit of any kind begins by having a strong compliance and safety program, J. J. Keller explained. FMCSA advises carriers to regularly check and update their information, review inspection and crash report data to ensure it is accurate and understand applicable regulations.

During an audit, FMCSA may request and inspect:

  • Drivers list.
  • Drivers’ license documents.
  • Drivers’ records of duty and supporting documents.
  • Motor vehicle records.
  • Medical certificates.
  • Vehicle lists.
  • Vehicle inspection reports.
  • Hazardous materials paperwork.
  • Proof of insurance.
  • Drug and alcohol testing program documentation.
  • Accident register.

Eliminating poor hiring practices and training techniques goes a long way toward lowering driver-related BASIC scores and reducing the risks of an audit. Proper maintenance programs also reduce vehicle-related issues. Managing this process requires expertise and proper recordkeeping. J. J. Keller’s Encompass system helps with overall records retention and provides alerts when regulatory requirements need attention. Among the compliance gaps Encompass is able to identify are expired MCS-150 registrations, missing logs, and elevated CSA scores. The solution keeps these items visible until they’re resolved, J. J. Keller said.

Understanding, monitoring and addressing compliance issues help ensure an off-site audit doesn’t become a more thorough on-site audit. Carriers should not take an off-site audit less seriously, either, advised Hansen.

“Motor carriers should never take an off-site audit lightly, or think that it can’t have serious consequences,” he said. “If you’re selected for an off-site audit, it probably means you’re on the FMCSA’s radar for some reason. Being fully prepared for an off-site audit, or seeking help as needed when you’re selected for one, can go a long way toward preventing the situation from escalating into a full-blown on-site compliance review with possible fines and penalties.”

Sandberg advised carriers to make sure their documents are up to date and in compliance.  

“It is more efficient if the carrier has their documents stored digitally, as the agency wants the documents uploaded electronically for these off-site reviews,” she said. “If a carrier does not have documentation stored digitally, it will take them longer to produce the documents. My key warning to carriers is to be careful to review your documents before you send.”

Similarly to an on-site audit, following an off-site audit the carrier will receive a notice of violations that must be corrected, if there are any, fines and its conditional safety rating, which can impact business operations and the ability to do business with certain shippers.

If the carrier fails an audit, FMCSA can assess fines for each violation instance, all the way up to revoking the carrier’s authority if severe safety violations are noted.