FMCSA Guide for Fleet Managers: Overview and Compliance Tips

July 20, 2020

FMCSA Guide for Fleet Managers: Overview and Compliance Tips

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Key Takeaways

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is an agency within the Department of Transportation (DOT) that regulates the commercial motor vehicle industry. Learn about the most important FMCSA regulations for fleets—including Hours of Service (HOS) and the new Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse—and get tips for staying compliant.

What is the FMCSA?

With more than 3.5 million commercial drivers in the United States, safety is a top concern for the federal government. Formerly part of the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is an agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) that regulates the commercial motor vehicle (CMV) industry. The FMCSA’s primary mission is keeping America’s roadways safe by reducing crashes, injuries, and fatalities with large trucks, buses, and other CMVs. The agency does this by issuing rules and regulations that CMV operators must follow. They partner with federal, state, and local enforcement agencies to ensure commercial drivers follow these rules—which is why it’s so important for fleet managers to understand the FMCSA.

Who needs to comply with FMCSA regulations?

All commercial motor vehicle operators—including large fleets and small businesses—are regulated by the FMCSA. This includes not just trucking companies, but also bus companies, construction companies, and any other business that operates commercial vehicles or hires commercial drivers.

However, that doesn’t mean that all CMV operators across the motor carrier industry have to follow the same rules. FMCSA rules vary depending on a number of factors, including the types of vehicles you operate, what you transport, and how far you typically drive.

If you operate any of the following types of CMVs in interstate commerce, you must comply with the applicable FMCSA safety regulations. This applies to vehicles that:

  • Weigh 10,001 pounds or more (including any load)

  • Transport hazardous materials in a quantity requiring a hazardous material placard

  • Transport 16 or more passengers, including the driver, without compensation

  • Transport 9 or more passengers, including the driver, for compensation

The specific Hours of Service (HOS) rules and other regulations that you must follow may depend on additional factors, including your area of operation and what you’re transporting.

Important FMCSA regulations for fleet managers

There are lots of different commercial motor vehicle regulations that the FMCSA and DOT oversee. You can find them all at — but here are three of the most important FMCSA regulations for fleet managers to know about.

1. Hours of Service (HOS)

The Hours of Service (HOS) final rule was published in the Federal Register in December 2011 as a way for the FMCSA to monitor working hours of anyone operating a commercial motor vehicle with a commercial driver’s license (CDL) in the United States. Designed to eliminate accidents caused by driver fatigue, the ruling determines the maximum number of consecutive hours a commercial truck driver (or other types of CMV operators) can drive or work before taking a mandatory rest break.

Under the ELD mandate, a regulation that went into effect in December 2017, CMV operators are required to use an electronic logging device (ELD) to track their HOS. ELDs, also known as electronic logbooks or e-logs, connect to a vehicle's engine and automatically record driving time, providing a reliable way to collect HOS data. They replace paper logs, which were historically used in the trucking industry to record HOS.

Anyone found to be in violation of the FMCSA’s HOS rules runs the risk of negatively impacting their carrier's safety rating or even being put out of service for a certain period of time. Learn more about the specific HOS rules in our complete guide to HOS, or check out Samsara’s ELD compliance solution if you’re looking for an easy-to-use ELD solution.

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2. Compliance, Safety, and Accountability (CSA) scores

In addition to overseeing HOS regulations, the FMCSA is also responsible for the Compliance, Safety, and Accountability (CSA) program. The CSA program is used to identify high-risk carriers with safety problems and prioritize them for interventions, so it’s important for fleet managers to understand how CSA scores work.

To determine CSA scores, the FMCSA groups together carriers who have a similar number of safety events and assigns each carrier a percentile rank. Technically speaking, the FMCSA does not issue "CSA scores," though this term is often used as shorthand for CSA percentiles. The safety data is held online in the FMCSA’s Safety Measurement System (SMS) and is updated monthly with new data from roadside inspections. SMS data is organized into seven Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories (BASICs):

  1. Unsafe Driving: Operating a commercial vehicle in a dangerous manner, such as speeding, not wearing a seatbelt, or improper lane changing.

  2. Crash Indicator: Based on state-reported crash data, this category contains historical patterns of frequency and severity of crash involvement.

  3. HOS Compliance: Failing to maintain proper records of duty status (RODS) as they relate to HOS requirements or operating a commercial vehicle while fatigued.

  4. Vehicle Maintenance: Failing to properly maintain the commercial vehicle, including improper load securement or faulty brakes or lights.

  5. Controlled Substances/Alcohol: Operating a commercial vehicle under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs.

  6. Hazardous Materials Compliance: Handling hazardous materials in an unsafe manner, such as having leaking containers and failing to label hazardous materials accurately.

  7. Driver Fitness: Operating a commercial vehicle by an unfit driver, such as lack of a valid CDL or medical card, and failing to maintain driver qualification files.

Carriers receive a CSA score for each of the seven BASICs. CSA scores are calculated on a zero to 100 percentile scale, with 100 indicating the worst performance and zero indicating the best performance. The FMCSA sets intervention thresholds on a per-category level, based on the BASIC's relationship to crash risk.

In general, you want your CSA scores to be as low as possible. The FMCSA has created BASIC Intervention Thresholds for each category, which help them determine which carriers may be high-risk and subject to FMCSA investigations. Because the Unsafe Driving, Crash Indicator, and HOS Compliance BASICs have the strongest correlation with crash risk, they have a lower Intervention Threshold than the other BASICs. Similarly, passenger carriers and hazardous material carriers have lower Intervention Thresholds across the board, since when they are involved in crashes, the consequences are often far more serious.

Carriers with CSA scores greater than 65% in Unsafe Driving, Crash Indicator, and HOS Compliance are subject to FMCSA investigations. For hazardous materials and passenger carriers, the threshold is even lower, at 60% and 50% respectively. The remaining BASIC categories have an 80% threshold for most carriers, after which the FMCSA will intervene.

FMCSA BASIC Intervention Thresholds

BASIC Category

Passenger carriers

Hazardous material carriers

General carriers

Unsafe Driving




Crash Indicator




HOS Compliance




Vehicle Maintenance




Controlled Substances / Alcohol




Driver Fitness




Hazardous Materials Compliance




Carriers with good CSA scores will benefit from lower insurance premiums, fewer DOT audits and roadside inspections, and a better reputation with current and potential customers, so staying well below those thresholds can have an outsized impact on your operations and profitability. Learn more in our complete guide to understanding and improving your CSA score.

3. Drug and alcohol testing

Since the early 1990s, the FMCSA has mandated drug and alcohol testing for employees who drive commercial trucks and buses that require a commercial driver's license (CDL). The FMCSA’s drug and alcohol regulations identify who is subject to testing and when. They also specify how testing must be conducted and how employees can return to safety-sensitive duties (like driving a CMV) after they violate a DOT drug and alcohol regulation. In addition, they include privacy protections for employees, so sensitive medical information isn’t abused.

Per FMCSA regulations, motor carriers are required to conduct drug and alcohol testing before hiring CDL drivers (as part of a pre-employment check), as well as annually. In general, anyone who operates a motor vehicle as part of their job responsibilities can be subjected to drug and alcohol testing in the following situations:

  • Before being hired

  • When there is reasonable suspicion/cause

  • When returning to duty

  • As a follow-up to a reported concern

  • After an accident or incident has occurred

  • Randomly

In late 2019, the FMCSA officially opened registration for the new Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse, an online database that will—moving forward—compile all records of commercial drivers who fail or refuse a drug or alcohol test. Now, motor carriers are required to use the Clearinghouse to conduct pre-employment and annual driver checks. You can register for the Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse on the official Clearinghouse website.

3 tips to keep your fleet FMCSA compliant

There’s no doubt about it—federal motor carrier safety regulations are complicated. It’s time-consuming for a fleet of any size to manage compliance. However, there are a few things you can do to make FMCSA compliance easier, faster, and less costly to your business. Here are three fleet management tips to help your fleet stay compliant and reduce administrative overhead.

1. Invest in an easy-to-use ELD solution

During roadside inspections (or if your fleet is ever audited), you’ll want to be confident that your HOS logs are accurate, complete, and easy to access. That’s why it’s so important to choose an ELD solution that’s easy for drivers and compliance managers to use. For example, Samsara’s ELD compliance solution offers an FMCSA-registered ELD and user-friendly Driver App that works with any Android or iOS device. With built-in WiFi hotspots, Samsara eliminates the need for cellular data plans and keeps your fleet compliant, even in areas without cellular reception. Plus, Samsara also offers a Compliance Dashboard, giving your back office at-a-glance visibility into HOS violations, unidentified driving, and unassigned hours. This helps you easily monitor compliance across your fleet and avoid violations.

2. Implement a preventative maintenance program

Of all roadside violations, 30% are connected to lights and more than 11% are related to tires—which means maintenance issues can quickly add up to a high CSA score. To keep your fleet running smoothly and your CSA score low, implement a preventative maintenance program and make sure drivers are completing pre- and post-trip inspections. For example, Samsara allows your drivers to seamlessly submit paperless DVIRs, which are immediately uploaded to a Maintenance Dashboard for mechanics to address.

3. Proactively manage safety with AI dash cams

Dash cams might seem more related to driver safety than HOS compliance. After all, unlike ELDs, dash cams aren’t required by the FMCSA. However, dash cams provide video footage that is incredibly helpful for coaching drivers, reducing risky behavior, and improving driver safety. In fact, one of our customers, ADM Trucking, was able to reduce accidents by 50% by coaching drivers with footage from Samsara AI Dash Cams. Because their CSA accident score dropped to single digits, the FMCSA knows they are a safe fleet—and as a result, they are seeing fewer and fewer roadside inspections. In 2019, they cut their roadside inspection numbers by almost 60%—from about 24 inspections per month to under 10.

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Streamline compliance with Samsara

With Samsara’s ELD compliance solution, you can more easily manage HOS, avoid violations, breeze through roadside inspections, and stay compliant. 

How Samsara can help you stay compliant

Samsara offers a complete ELD compliance solution that can help you streamline your operations and reduce administrative overhead—whether you have a handful of vehicles or thousands. Trusted by more than 15,000 fleets, Samsara can help you:

  • Mitigate risk with improved HOS visibility: With real-time visibility into every driver’s logs, dispatchers can easily take drivers’ status into account when planning routes to avoid HOS violations. Plus, with Samsara’s Compliance Dashboard, you can get at-a-glance visibility into your fleet’s HOS violations (HOS), unidentified driving, and unassigned hours.

  • Simplify HOS management and reduce administrative overhead: With Samsara’s easy-to-use dashboard and Driver App, you can review driver logs and suggest log edits to ensure your e-logs are always up-to-date. Plus, Samsara’s Unassigned HOS Report makes it easy to maintain clean driver logbooks and reduce administrative overhead. Track unassigned driving time and assign hours to the correct driver with a single click.

  • Approach DOT roadside inspections with confidence: With up-to-date logs and built-in log transfers, drivers can feel confident during DOT inspections. Plus, with preventative maintenance scheduling and alerts, your back-office can ensure that maintenance issues are identified and addressed before vehicle inspections.

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Reduce HOS violations and increase efficiency

With Samsara’s easy-to-use hardware and software, you can more easily avoid violations and increase back-office efficiency—delivering real savings to your business. Here are just a few examples of how our customers have captured ROI from Samsara’s ELD compliance solution:

  • Swire Coca-Cola decreased compliance violations by 70% by using the Samsara Compliance Dashboard to surface and correct unassigned hours to prepare for DOT audits.

  • Frames Transport saved up to $4,000 per day by eliminating handwritten time cards and improving payroll efficiency by using Samsara's ELD solution to automate HOS tracking.

Your partner in navigating compliance

With Samsara, you get more than just a technology vendor—you get a partner. We know that changes in FMCSA regulations can be difficult to keep track of, and we're always looking for ways to keep our customers informed. You can depend on us to keep you up-to-date with the latest FMCSA news and help break down complicated compliance topics, including the recent national emergency declaration and HOS regulatory relief that resulted from the COVID-19 (or coronavirus) pandemic and the FMCSA’s May 2020 Final Rule on Hours of Service. No matter what compliance challenges your fleet is facing, we can help. And with a support team that’s available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, we’ll be there to answer the phone whenever you or a driver needs help.

Get a free trial of Samsara’s ELD compliance solution

See firsthand how Samsara can help your fleet streamline FMCSA compliance by requesting a free trial today. Our team of product experts can show you how our ELD compliance solution works, plus you can try it out for yourself in your own vehicles.

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