June 26, 2023

FMCSA on-site audits are surging back in 2023


The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated many trends, including the rise in the number of off-site safety audits.

Before social distancing, off-site investigations were already becoming a more significant part of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s auditing strategy for time and cost-saving advantages compared to traditional on-site auditing. 

Recognizing the benefits, the FMCSA’s off-site audits grew by 300% between 2018 and 2019, according to J. J. Keller & Associates Inc., the transportation industry’s trusted experts in safety compliance.

As staying apart became necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021, instead of auditors traveling for face-to-face audits, it made sense to request carriers submit documents electronically to conduct the investigation remotely.

In 2022, there was a return to in-person investigations, with the total number of on-site audits increasing by 54% from 2021, as J. J. Keller reported in a recap. The FMCSA walked back its off-site audit focus by 31% for a total of 3,400 audits.

Out of the 12,500 total investigations, there were 3,600 on-site comprehensive reviews (an increase of 54%) and 5,400 on-site focused reviews (an increase of 7%). 

Why is the FMCSA conducting more on-site audits?

While relaxed social distancing efforts likely contribute to the rebound of on-site audits in 2022, it’s also worth noting that for the second year in a row, more than 46,000 people died in preventable motor vehicle accidents, according to an estimate by the National Safety Council. 

Compared to 2019, the last year before the pandemic, the mileage death rate in 2022 increased nearly 22%, the same report stated.

“There has never been more innovative safety technology in tractors today, but crashes are not decreasing,” said Joshua Lovan, industry business adviser at J. J. Keller.

On-site audits provide the FMCSA with the opportunity to potentially vet a carrier’s safety practices more thoroughly. Daren Hansen, senior DOT transportation editor at J. J. Keller, explained: “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.”

Fines on the rise

According to the American Transportation Research Institute’s 2022 report on Critical Issues in the Trucking Industry, Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) scores ranked as the eighth most important issue to motor carriers.

High — meaning worse — percentile rankings in CSA Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories (BASICS) can trigger an audit, as they signal to the FMCSA potential unsafe driving behavior or noncompliance. 

Violations found during an audit can also contribute to higher scores and result in fines, which are becoming costlier. Last year, the FMCSA collected $25.7 million, a sizable increase of 40% from 2021. There was an average of $7,100 paid per settlement.

The top FMCSA fines for 2022 were as follows:

  • HOS violations $91,620.
  • Log falsification $88,450.
  • Drug/alcohol testing and vehicle violations $75,080.

Prepping for an audit

  1. Self-audit. One of the best ways for carriers to identify gaps in their safety program is to conduct a self-audit. If the carrier doesn’t have the bandwidth or industry knowledge, partnering with a third-party provider like J. J. Keller is an optimal solution.
  2. Focus on digital records. Electronic recordkeeping offers an easier way to stay organized and spot problems, helping companies stay compliant and successfully pass both off-site or on-site audits.
  3. Evaluate driver qualification files, drug/alcohol testing, HOS and inspection/maintenance files. These categories are areas where violations are commonly found. 

“J. J. Keller can assist with conducting a complete inspection of your files. J. J. Keller will also show the client areas of nonconformance so subsequent incidents can be prevented,” said Lovan.

Closing thoughts

Before an audit costs your business thousands of dollars, consider conducting mock inspections and mock DOT audits to assess your business compliance. 

Teaching drivers and management about the focus areas of an audit and following up with corrective action for nonconformance issues helps to reinforce the importance of adhering to regulations to promote safe practices and prevent crashes.

J. J. Keller recommends using the Safety Management Cycle (SMC), the FMCSA’s six-step process for addressing safety and compliance issues. This includes addressing the following areas in the following order:

  1. Policies and procedures.
  2. Roles and responsibilities.
  3. Qualification and hiring.
  4. Training and communication.
  5. Monitoring and tracking.
  6. Meaningful action.

Finally, if possible, working with a third party that is recognized as a leader in that respective field for mock audits can help to catch gaps your business overlooked.

Click here to learn more about J. J. Keller & Associates Inc. and how it can help you successfully prepare for audits.


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