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Pandemic Increases FMCSA Inspection Powers

It is a secret to absolutely nobody that there has been a pandemic for the past six months or so. The federal government, especially the White House, has been making efforts to reduce not only the health effects of COVID-19, but the secondary collateral effects on the economy as well. This scenario the world finds itself has given the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration the ability to modify its rules. One such change was the hours-of-service exemption for haulers of essential goods, but another is the power of offsite compliance reviews and inspections.

Unsatisfactory Method of Review?

When the FMCSA does a compliance review for safety ratings, it can give three grades: Satisfactory, Conditional, and Unsatisfactory. Before the pandemic and the expansion of authority, the FMCSA could do off-site reviews, but it could not give a lower rating than a Conditional. Now, the FMCSA has the power to give an Unsatisfactory rating without having a representative even step foot onto the premises.

This of course requires carriers and anyone else inspected to take off-site, online inspections much more seriously than they did before.

This change for carriers compounds with the fact that due to the coronavirus pandemic, off-site inspections have been used much more frequently than in previous years. For all of 2017, offsite-inspections totaled 76. 2018 increased to 330, and 2019 increased further to 1374. In just the first half of 2020 alone, total off-site inspections totaled 3,582.

This is more than half of the total compliance reviews done in the first half of 2020. In comparison, 2019 had only 10% of its inspections done in-person.

The Devil in the Details

Whereas an on-site inspection allows the inspector to check different facets of the operation with his or her own eyes, the off-site inspections tend to involve more paperwork. Such documentation includes maintenance records and a larger sample of driver electronic logging device records.

When a carrier is chosen for a compliance audit, the FMCSA will email them and tell them what documents they need to produce. To avoid scammers phishing for private materials, the FMCSA allows the company to follow up with the FMCSA to verify the legitimacy of the claim to inspection. The FMCSA typically gives the carrier a week to send in the documents electronically, then spends a week reviewing it, totaling a two-week experience.

If the carrier gets a Conditional or Unsatisfactory rating, they have 45 to 60 days to file a corrective action plan or to appeal with the FMCSA. Considering how off-site compliance requires much more manual data review, the chance for an appeal succeeding may be higher than for an on-site inspection. Of course, an appeal is not a tool for a carrier to express disagreement with the outcome, but rather a system if they believe something in the inspection went wrong on the FMCSA’s behalf, and should only be done if the carrier believes the FMCSA did review something incorrectly.

Conclusion

There are two solid to handle an FMCSA safety compliance audit.

The first is to keep your CSA score as high as possible. Being safe and inspecting your vehicles regularly will keep your score up and reduces your chances of encountering an inspection. The agency does not want to spend its time (or your time) on a company it believes is doing a fantastic job.

Second, make sure to be organized enough with documentation that you can send it in quickly. Being unable to send in all the requested materials in a timely fashion is a careless way to lower your safety rating down a ranking.

By preparing now for an audit, a carrier can reduce its chances of ever obtaining one in the first place, or at least make it as painless as possible.

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