FMCSA Regulations: A Guide for Fleet Managers

July 24, 2020

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Key Takeaways

There are many different FMCSA regulations that commercial motor vehicle operators must follow—including Hours of Service (HOS), drug and alcohol testing, driver vehicle inspection reports (DVIRs), and the Compliance, Safety, and Accountability (CSA) program. Keep reading to learn about these and other important FMCSA regulations. Plus, get tips on staying compliant.

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What is the FMCSA?

Headquartered in Washington, DC, 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.

How does the FMCSA create and enforce regulations?

FMCSA rulemaking is a complex process. In general, the FMCSA creates new regulations based on nationwide accident and safety data. The agency works with CMV companies to balance federal regulations with concerns about efficiency and privacy, often holding hearings with industry leaders to adapt and update their policies. Regulations issued by FMCSA are published in the Federal Register and compiled in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations. FMCSA regulations are enforced with the help of federal and state law enforcement agencies.

What does the FMCSA regulate?

The FMCSA regulates all aspects of CMV safety, including (but not limited to):

  • How many consecutive hours truckers (and other CMV operators) can drive before taking a break

  • How carriers must conduct pre-employment checks for commercial driver’s license (CDL) drivers

  • How often CMV operators must undergo drug and alcohol testing

  • What materials CDL drivers must always have in their cab

  • How and when CMV operators must inspect their vehicles

  • How shippers must label hazardous materials

  • How cargo must be secured

There are many different federal motor carrier safety regulations (FMCSRs) that the federal government has passed into law. Keep reading for an overview of the most important FMCSA regulations for fleet managers to know about.

Overview of important FMCSA regulations

Below is an overview of the most important FMCSA regulations for motor carriers to understand. You can find more information about these regulations (and others) on the FMCSA website at www.fmcsa.dot.gov.

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 regulate the working hours of anyone operating a commercial motor vehicle with a commercial driver 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 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.

It’s extremely important to follow the HOS regulations you are subject to. Anyone found to be in violation of the FMCSA’s HOS regulations runs the risk of negatively impacting their carrier's safety rating or even being put out of service for a certain period of time. 

HOS rules are one of the most complicated of all FMCSA regulations. There are many different rules with multiple subparts, including exemptions for adverse driving conditions, emergencies, and more. Learn more about the specific HOS rules in our complete guide to HOS, or check out Samsara’s ELD compliance solution for an easy-to-use ELD solution.

Compliance, Safety, and Accountability (CSA) program

In addition to overseeing HOS rules, 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

50%

60%

65%

Crash Indicator

50%

60%

65%

HOS Compliance

50%

60%

65%

Vehicle Maintenance

65%

75%

80%

Controlled Substances / Alcohol

65%

75%

80%

Driver Fitness

65%

75%

80%

Hazardous Materials Compliance

80%

80%

80%

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 outsize impact on your operations and profitability. Learn more in our complete guide to understanding and improving your CSA score.

Pre-employment checks

Before hiring a new CDL driver, the FMCSA requires that employers conduct a pre-employment background check, which includes:

  • Obtaining the applicant’s motor vehicle records for the past three years

  • Investigating the applicant’s safety history, including their accident record

  • Verifying any substance abuse history, including alcohol abuse or drug violations

  • Conducting a pre-employment drug test

While a drug test is always a required part of a pre-employment check, FMCSA drug testing requirements don’t stop once drivers are employed. According to FMCSA regulations, anyone who operates a motor vehicle as part of their job responsibilities can be subjected to random drug or alcohol testing. In the next section, learn more about the FMCSA’s drug and alcohol testing regulations.

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 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 drug or 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 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.

Vehicle inspections

The FMCSA requires that CMV drivers complete vehicle inspections every morning (before operating the vehicle) and at the end of the day. These driver vehicle inspection reports (DVIRs) are a critical aspect of fleet compliance. If a safety issue is documented during a DOT inspection, the issue must be repaired before the vehicle can return to the road.

Brakes, lights, tires, axles, horns, steering mechanisms, and emergency equipment (among other components) should all be examined during a DVIR for any damage, defects, or deficiencies. If an issue is noted, the vehicle should be removed from service immediately until the necessary repairs are made. In order to return to service, the driver must present signed proof of the repairs from a licensed repair shop.

DVIRs are one of the greatest protections against safety issues in the commercial transportation industry. During the 2018 Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) International Roadcheck, more than 11,000 commercial vehicles were removed from the roads as a result of failing a roadside inspection. In fact, the top three out-of-service vehicle violations in 2018 were for brake systems (28%), tires and wheels (19%) and brake adjustment (16%).

Hazardous materials

According to FMCSA regulations, only registered entities are allowed to ship or receive hazardous materials in the United States. Additionally, in order for the shipment to be valid, all hazardous materials must be classed, described, and packaged in accordance with specific FMCSA hazardous materials (or hazmat) regulations. Any individual or business that is found to be in violation of these regulations is subject to both civil and criminal penalties. Employees who handle hazardous materials must also receive adequate training, and it is the employer’s responsibility to ensure all training efforts meet the standards set by the FMCSA.

Cargo securement

All cargo must be properly secured during transportation as per FMCSA cargo securement rules. This means that all tie-downs must be carefully and adequately fastened, chocks and wedges must be used to prevent rolling or movement, and the appropriate number of tie-downs must be used in accordance with weight requirements. It is also mandatory that loads do not obscure front or side views and that there are no packaging issues (like broken pallets or insufficient wrapping).

Lastly, it is not enough to simply ensure that a vehicle’s cargo is secured. Tailgates, doors, spare tires, and any other elements that can become dislodged during travel must be adequately attached to meet FMCSA regulations.

Record keeping

There is a significant amount of paperwork required to run a fleet that is compliant with DOT and FMCSA regulations. Some of the various documents that your fleets needs to have on hand in case of an audit include (but are not limited to):

  • Proof of insurance

  • Motor vehicle reports

  • Drug testing records

  • Driver rosters and driver qualification files

  • Service provider contracts

  • Hours of service records

  • Vehicle inspection, maintenance, and repair reports

  • Employee training records

  • Incident and accident reports

  • Quarterly IFTA reports

The amount of time a business is required to keep these documents on file can vary depending on the type of record. It is the responsibility of the employer to ensure all required records are maintained, properly filed, and readily available in case of a DOT audit. Learn more in this detailed summary of FMCSA recordkeeping requirements.

Who must follow 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 regulations. FMCSA regulations 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 rules and other regulations that you must follow may depend on additional factors, including your area of operation and what you’re transporting.

3 tips to keep your fleet compliant with FMCSA regulations

FMCSA regulations are complicated—but staying compliant doesn’t have to be a headache. Here are three ways the most efficient fleets stay compliant while reducing 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-approved 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. 

In fact, Swire Coca-Cola decreased HOS violations by 70% by using the Samsara Compliance Dashboard to surface and correct areas of improvement to prepare for DOT audits.

2. Go paperless using electronic DVIRs

If you’re still using paper DVIRs, now is the time to switch to digital. Because electronic DVIRs (or eDVIRs) are digital, they make it easier to stay compliant with FMCSA regulations related to maintenance and vehicle safety. 

For example, drivers can submit eDVIRs right from the palm of their hand using the Samsara Driver App. This means the eDVIRs instantly appear in your online dashboard and sit alongside preventive maintenance schedules, maintenance logs, and real-time vehicle statuses. Mechanics can then prioritize the most urgent issues and sign the eDVIR for the next driver to verify, completing the FMCSA requirement. With Samsara, you can even set up alerts for unsafe eDVIRs, so you never let a vehicle safety issue fall through the cracks.

Dohrn Transfer Company, for example, was able to use Samsara’s eDVIRs to set up real-time maintenance alerts and decrease their response time to unsafe DVIRs by 40%.

3. Keep your CSA scores low with dash cams

The FMCSA uses their CSA program to identify high-risk carriers and intervene. Sometimes, the FMCSA will even put carriers with high CSA scores out of service until they can improve their compliance or safety procedures. One of the best ways to avoid FMCSA intervention is to keep your CSA scores low—and dash cams can help.

Dash cams are an extremely effective safety tool for commercial fleets. With better visibility into risky driving behavior (like speeding, distracted driving, and tailgating), you can more effectively coach drivers and prevent accidents. Plus, Samsara AI Dash Cams can auto-upload incident footage to the cloud—which makes it easy to exonerate your drivers from not-at-fault accidents and avoid unnecessary marks to your CSA scores.

For example, Windy City Limousine used Samsara’s dash cams and driver coaching tools to improve their CSA scores by 50-75% across the board.

Streamline compliance with Samsara

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. 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, unidentified driving, and unassigned hours.

Trusted by more than 15,000 fleets, Samsara can help you mitigate risk and stay compliant. See firsthand how Samsara can help your fleet stay compliant with FMCSA regulations 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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