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The building blocks of a compliant safety program

For all motor carriers, safety compliance is one of the most basic necessities for success, but navigating the ins and outs is far from simple due to the extensive nature of Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) regulations.

Each carrier needs a safety program that allows them to withstand Department of Transportation (DOT) roadside inspections and carrier investigations. Last year alone, over 85,000 federal roadside inspections took place, which is the most since 2019, and there were more than 8,000 federal carrier safety investigations.

The FMCSA holds motor carriers, and drivers, accountable for their safety performance, including violations and crash history, through safety ratings in the form of Compliance Safety and Accountability (CSA) ratings and Independent Selection System (ISS) scores. These scores aren’t arbitrary; they can have a reverberating impact on a carrier for years. 

Higher scores, which indicate more violations and safety issues, increase the frequency of inspections and mean possible FMCSA intervention. This includes additional audits and resulting civil penalties, which increased 7.75% in early 2023. Additionally, CSA measures and violations are publicly available and may leave a detrimental impact on a carrier’s reputation with customers.

Adhering to regulations alone is complex in itself, but is it enough for a strong safety program? J. J. Keller & Associates Inc., industry experts in safety and compliance guidance, don’t think so.

“Compliance is a minimum to be defensible against nuclear verdicts and avoid claims of negligent hiring and negligent supervision,” said Mark Schedler, J. J. Keller’s senior transport editor.

J. J. Keller recommends exceeding FMCSA regulations where possible, beginning with the three foundational areas of any successful safety program: driver qualification, drug and alcohol testing, and hours of service. 

Documenting driver qualifications

Carriers assess drivers’ qualifications when they are hiring them to ensure compliance with FMCSA requirements and company standards before they get behind the wheel. It is just as important that drivers remain qualified throughout their employment.

This is why driver qualification (DQ) files are a recordkeeping necessity, allowing carriers to compile documentation on a driver’s fitness and ability to operate a CMV safely. 

“Your DQ files are a risk management tool,” Schedler said. “They have the potential to reduce the likelihood of an unfit driver operating your CMV.”

Upon hire, the FMCSA requires companies to have certain unchanging documents in each DQ file. These include a DOT-compliant application; background investigation documents, which comprise motor vehicle records (MVRs) and employer verifications in the last three years within 30 days of hire; and a certificate of a road test, or a copy of a CDL where allowed, before operating in commerce.

Proof of medical qualification is also necessary for both non-CDL and CDL drivers. Non-CDL drivers require a medical card for their DQ files.  CDL drivers need a medical card for the first 15 days after each DOT exam and need a copy of the medical or Commercial Driver’s License Information System MVR in their driver qualification files. 

DOT physical exams are valid for up to two years unless more monitoring is needed because of a condition. After each DOT exam, CDL drivers must self-certify with their licensing agencies.

Keeping a driver’s qualification file updated means ensuring continued compliance with annual MVR reviews, license renewals and medical qualifications, but carriers will want to go above and beyond if they are to stay on top of compliance. 

Driver qualification best practices: 

  • Pull PSP reports. Though the FMCSA does not require carriers to utilize the Pre-employment Screening Program (PSP), it is valuable for companies to gain insight into a driver’s last three years of violations and five years of crashes to make a hiring decision.
  • Run MVRs before hire. The FMCSA requires an initial MVR review within 30 days of hire but waiting that long may work against a carrier. Instead, carriers should screen a driver’s MVR before hiring to use as part of an employment determination and know a driver’s driving safety record upfront.
  • Continually monitor MVRs. Instead of just once a year, as required by law, continuous MVR monitoring helps companies hold drivers accountable for any changes to their driving records between annual reviews. Ongoing monitoring also minimizes exposure to unqualified drivers on the road. 
  • Conduct mock audits. Mock audits are an invaluable learning tool for companies to successfully prepare for the real thing. Carriers also detect, document and correct problems going forward, to minimize violations that they may receive if detected during a real audit. Mock audits ultimately help identify weak areas and improve them. 
  • Outsource DQ file management to experts. With a large number of drivers or very limited staffing, it can be difficult to keep track of every single DQ file. Even a little bit of disorganization can result in overlooking something, which could spell disaster later on. Outsourcing DQ file management to those well-versed, like compliance experts at J. J. Keller, can save time and ensure driver qualification file management is done right.

When to test drivers for drugs and alcohol 

Drug and alcohol-related violations account for common acute audit violations, which are so severe that even one of these violations needs immediate carrier action to correct. Failure to implement a drug and alcohol program, failure to randomly test for drug and alcohol and use of a driver who has tested positive for a drug are all included in this. 

With positive drug test results on the rise, according to Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse data, it’s more imperative than ever for carriers to maintain a compliant testing program for their CDL-CMV drivers.

There are several circumstances when carriers test their CDL-CMV drivers for drugs and alcohol:

1. Pre-employment. Before they are hired, drivers must take a drug test and receive negative confirmed results before performing safety-sensitive functions or operating a CDL-CMV for the carrier.

The carrier must also run a Clearinghouse query, which shows the last three years of a driver’s FMCSA drug and alcohol violation history, and the driver must have a “not prohibited” status.

2. Random annual. Each year carriers must randomly test at least 10% of drivers for alcohol and 50% for prohibited drugs. 

Things are trickier for owner-operators, which must be in a pool of two or more drivers for random drug testing. In order to comply, very small fleets and owner-operators can join a consortium or a group of employers that pool together to manage their drug and alcohol testing programs.

Annual limited Clearinghouse queries are also necessary to determine if any information about a driver’s drug and alcohol history exists within the system. If there is an entry, carriers are required to perform a full query within 24 hours to ensure no prohibitions exist.

3. Post-accident. Often misunderstood, DOT post-accident testing occurs only if a CDL driver operating a CDL vehicle after a crash if there was a fatality or if the driver was cited for a moving violation within eight hours of the occurrence and there was either an injury requiring treatment away from the scene or crash damage requiring a tow. Other tests would need to be conducted under a company policy not with DOT consequences.

4. Reasonable suspicion. Trained supervisors with direct contemporaneous observations may order a reasonable suspicion drug or alcohol test for a driver if they suspect drug and alcohol misuse.

5. Return to duty and follow-up. After a drug or alcohol violation, drivers are required to take a test to return to CMV driving. This is only allowed if the driver has completed education or treatment as the substance abuse professional prescribes. After this, a testing follow-up plan is established and intermittent testing may last up to five years.

Drug and alcohol testing best practices:

  • Outsource. Outsourcing drug and alcohol testing and Clearinghouse requirements to a third-party administrator is one of the best things a company can do to make sure the numerous requirements are met. J. J. Keller can assist in multiple ways. Its compliance specialists can manage all aspects of a carrier’s Clearinghouse compliance and drug and alcohol program management. Carriers can easily view all up-to-date information about a driver’s test results and compliance status through its DataSense platform.
  • Conduct mock audits. Knowledge is power and knowing how a company’s self-administered program and policies would hold up in an audit is vital to preventing acute and critical violations.
  • Audit contracted clinics and medical review officers. Drug and alcohol testing records and the qualifications of those conducting tests should be verified. Also, test results are only as accurate as those trusted to interpret them. 
  • Conduct regular training. Policy implementation begins with personnel who understand the rules, so those involved in testing and driver random notification should always be informed about any upcoming regulatory changes and company protocol. Regular training keeps personnel in the know and reinforces the company’s best practices.

Staying on top of hours of service 

The FMCSA’s hours of service parameters are intended to ensure drivers receive sufficient breaks and rest time to stay awake and alert during their shifts. Fatigued driving can be deadly, and it was the cause of 13% of large truck crashes, according to an FMCSA study. 

Carriers must ensure their drivers avoid fatigued driving, comply with the HOS driving and break parameters that apply to them and use exceptions in a safe and compliant manner.

Drivers are required to use ELDs to track their duty status and hours of service unless exempt from logging or HOS altogether, like short-haul drivers and vehicles with engines older than the model year 2000. Although, the FMCSA is eyeing changing the ELD exemption for vehicles with older engines in the future, as per a DOT notice of advanced rulemaking published last year.

Some HOS exceptions do exist, such as the adverse driving conditions exemption that permits drivers more driving time in the event of unforeseen circumstances like weather or road conditions; drivers should know what exceptions apply to them, annotate their logs and be able to explain the exception to an officer if the need arises.

Documentation on logs is critical to avoid form and manner violations, which often occur due to the omission of information on drivers’ logs.

“Common form and manner violations with ELDs occur when a driver or the ELD system fails to record the trailer or shipping document numbers. Form and manner was the 10th most frequent driver violation in 2022,” said Schedler.

Form and manner violations are straightforward enough to avoid, as drivers just need to ensure they’re filling out all forms necessary on their logs and that the ELD is in working order and properly capturing details like miles and locations. 

HOS compliance best practices:

  • Require ELDs for all. J. J. Keller recommends carriers require short-haul drivers, who are usually exempt, to use ELDs if they operate within a 150-mile air radius of their normal work reporting location. This helps enforce consistent compliance, operational flexibility and vehicle tracking.
  • Limit personal conveyance. Personal conveyance is defined by the FMCSA as “the movement of a CMV for personal use while off duty.” While on the surface it appears clear, the FMCSA limits its use with a number of limitations that can sometimes be misinterpreted by drivers, resulting in misuse. Companies can and should implement a stricter personal conveyance policy than that of the rules designated by the FMCSA to avoid violations and prevent abuse that can result in fatigued driving and false logs.
  • Monitor unidentified driving events daily. Unidentified, also known as unassigned, driving events occur when the driver moves the truck without being logged into or associated with their ELD. It is required by the FMCSA for carriers to assign these unidentified driving events to the appropriate driver and provide reasoning in an annotation. The best practice is for carrier personnel to monitor and assign unidentified driving events daily.
  • Develop detailed internal reviews. Don’t wait until hours of service or form and manner violations are caught in a roadside inspection or an audit. Carrier personnel monitoring drivers’ logs should be trained to detect falsification and form and manner violations with ELDs. Coach, train and discipline drivers to avoid future issues.
  • Use dashcams and coaching. Dash cams, like those provided by J. J. Keller, can be used to verify instances of unsafe driving, such as following vehicles too closely. Dash cams can be used when coaching drivers to help them correct their behavior as well as for recognition. Dash cam video can also provide solid proof to exonerate safe drivers or establish facts in post-crash litigation.

Learn more about J. J. Keller & Associates Inc. here.