A year ago would we ever have used the word “Zoom” without raising a quizzical eyebrow? Of course, COVID-19 social distancing measures made video meetings and remote offices commonplace and “working from home” became known as “WFH.”

So, it should be no surprise that the pandemic similarly caused the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to conduct a significant number of its carrier safety audits remotely, rather than expose audit personnel to potential infection. The federal COVID-19 emergency declarations gave FMCSA that authority, including, for the first time, the ability of FMCSA to issue an unsatisfactory motor carrier safety rating based on a remote audit.

New figures in 2020 show the total number of carrier audits dropped, as did all levels of enforcement activity. But the percentage of audits conducted remotely rocketed 50.3% last year. This compares to year-over-year increases of 10.5% in 2019, 2% in 2018 and only 0.5% in 2017.

No longer will a carrier necessarily receive an FMCSA letter that an investigation or audit has begun, followed by the dreaded “knock on the door.” Today it may be an FMCSA email, with instructions to upload files, and a phone call to discuss carrier performance.

The process may be remote, but the results remain just as critical. In 2020, only 7% of FMCSA audits concluded there were no carrier violations. This means nine out of 10 times FMCSA found problems. With remote audits, that conclusion can come quickly. The entire process may take as little as one week, with conclusions delivered within two weeks.

Did anyone see this coming? Yes. As PrePass reported in August 2019, FMCSA invested eight years of field testing in 10 states before launching remote audits on new carriers. An average 34,000 new interstate motor carriers enter the industry every year. Before COVID-19, FMCSA aimed to complete these required initial audits within12 months as urged by Congress.

That new entrant experience refined the remote audit process. FMCSA knew what to do when the pandemic drove remote audits on established carriers. Plus, FMCSA learned that offsite safety audits take 33% less time than on-site audits and require 58% less in travel costs. Savings of time and money to cash strapped states means carriers should expect remote safety audits to stay.

How can a motor carrier avoid a remote safety audit? The same way as for an on-site audit: stay out of the FMCSA crosshairs. Whether it’s speeding violations, positive drug and alcohol tests or hours of service issues, follow up immediately with corrective actions and then document them. Compliance and correction are the keys to avoiding audit.

With the remote audit now a possibility, it is important to get organized ahead of time. Once notified, a carrier may have as little as 48 hours to upload the requested files to FMCSA. A typical FMCSA safety audit will look at six aspects of a carrier’s operations:

  • Driver qualification files
  • Drug and alcohol testing records
  • Hours of service (HOS) records
  • Vehicle inspections
  • Vehicle permits and registration
  • Insurance

FMCSA will likely select from those six – especially from the first three — in its request for document uploading. A quick, complete and up-to-date response can help assure FMCSA that matters are well in hand.

The pandemic will end sooner or later, but remote audits are a new fact of life for FMCSA and the trucking industry.