[by Bryan Shannon, Director ORDP]

As Director of ORDP, I’ve talked to enough carriers and drivers over the years to know the stress that can be caused by receiving a motor carrier safety letter. It can be scary to receive a safety letter, and they’re often filled with an alphabet soup of acronyms that can make it difficult to interpret what it is they’re actually asking you to do. The good news is that motor carrier safety letters are not penalties – they are an opportunity to help you improve your safety practices so that your company and its drivers can avoid penalties. Through a membership model, ORDP offers a suite of services to help protect your CDL, together with great extra benefits like discounts on hotels and car rentals. If this is something that your company could use, take a moment to fill in the membership application at the bottom of this post.

Motor Carrier Safety: The Basics

Regular drivers have to meet basic safety standards before they can be licensed to operate a passenger vehicle. These safety standards are even higher and more complex in our industry. This is thanks to the heavy weights of our vehicles, the nature of the goods we move (some of which can be hazardous), and the long distances and driving times our drivers operate in.

If you’re not meeting these high safety standards, it can bring unwanted attention from regulatory agencies – not to mention the risk of tarnishing your reputation in the eyes of your customers. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is an agency of the US Department of Transportation and is responsible for, among other things, ensuring proper safe practices are followed by trucking companies in the US.

FMCSA is authorized to enforce safety standards in our industry, and one tool they use to do so is the motor carrier safety letter. Maybe your company recently received one, and now you’re wondering: what is this motor carrier safety letter? And, more importantly, what should I do if my company receives a motor carrier safety letter?

What is a Motor Carrier Safety Letter?

Let’s start with breaking down what a motor carrier safety letter is. According to the FMCSA’s website, a safety letter “identifies potential safety performance and compliance issues based on SMS data. A warning letter is an opportunity for a carrier to improve its safety performance and compliance without further intervention from FMCSA.” I know it can be jarring to get a safety letter; it’s not a pleasant experience. But the good news is in the FMCSA’s own language regarding these motor carrier safety letters: safety letters are intended to help carriers to improve their safety practices and to avoid penalties, and are not in themselves a penalty.

Motor carrier safety letters are generated based on information from SMS data. SMS stands for Safety Management System, and it is one of the key components of FMCSA’s Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) program. Ok, so where does SMS get its data from?

What Goes Into FMSCA’s SMS Methodology?

According to the FMCSA’s SMS methodology document (publicly available on their website if you want more detail) there are four primary categories of data sources that feed into SMS:

  • roadside inspections,
  • investigations,
  • state-reported commercial vehicle crash data
  • motor carrier census data.

Let’s break each of these down a little further.

Roadside Inspections

Roadside inspections are familiar to any CDL holder; they are carried out by authorized inspectors who are part of law enforcement agencies. Inspectors check to ensure compliance with Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR) and the Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR). If violations are found, they are entered into the Motor Carrier Management Information System (MCMIS), which is a national database managed by FMCSA. Depending on what the violation is, your driver and/or vehicle may be taken out-of-service and not allowed to return to service until the violations are corrected.

SMS Investigations

The second category of source data that feeds the SMS are investigations. Investigations are carried out by certified safety investigators to check for compliance with FMCSR and HMR. These investigations may be conducted offsite or onsite. Offsite investigations are done remotely and rely on documentation provided to the investigator by the carrier. An onsite investigation takes place in-person at your carrier’s place of business, and can either focus on specific safety problems or on your company’s entire operations. If any violations are found, they are entered into the same MCMIS previously mentioned. Violations can be acute or critical. Acute violations are of a nature that you will be required to correct them immediately. Critical violations are triggered by an ongoing pattern of noncompliance.

State Reported Commercial Vehicle Crash Data

State-reported commercial vehicle crash data is the third category of source data for the SMS. This category of data looks at official crash reports from state and local law enforcement around the country. Crashes that have been classified as “Reviewed – not preventable” don’t negatively affect SMS. Otherwise, crashes that involve a commercial vehicle and result in a fatality, injury or tow-away enter into the SMS.

Receiving a motor carrier safety letter because of a crash

Motor Carrier Census Data

The fourth and final category of source data for the SMS is motor carrier census data. This is information that all carriers provide when obtaining a US DOT number, and include information provided by the carrier as well as information collected by law enforcement. This data includes items such as US DOT number, number and type of power units, vehicle miles travelled, location, types of cargo hauled, and other categories of information.

How Are Motor Carrier Safety Letters Issued?

All of these four categories of data are fed into the SMS and used to calculate the Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Category (BASIC) prioritization status. BASIC compares similar carriers against one another to put them into different levels of safety records (called safety event groups). Your company’s BASIC prioritization status may be one reason for triggering a motor carrier safety letter. If your company is found to be underperforming similar carriers based on the BASIC prioritization status, you could receive a safety letter.

Ok, it took some doing but now that we know what a motor carrier safety letter is, what should you do about it?

What To Do About a Motor Carrier Safety Letter

Again, as I said earlier a safety letter is not a penalty in itself. It is intended by FMCSA to be a tool to help you and your drivers improve their safety practices without receiving penalties. Each motor carrier safety letter is going to be different, depending on what triggered it. As I described above, there are four categories of data that get fed into the system that can trigger safety letters being sent out. This means that your specific safety letter could be caused by a combination of several factors, or it could be one specific thing that recently happened while one of your drivers was in service. Whatever the reasons for your particular motor carrier safety letter are, they will be outlined for you in the letter and you can also contact the agency directly for more guidance on what you should do to address the issues.

About Bryan Shannon

Bryan Shannon is Managing Director of ORDP. His strong track record of helping carriers manage their fleet operations, grow market shares, and increase revenue is backed by years of experience in the trucking industry.

About ORDP

ORDP’s CDL Driver Protection Legal service finds attorneys for CDL drivers nationwide to resolve traffic violations and DOT compliance-related issues impacting the bottom line of commercial fleets.  ORDP’s CDL protection comes with built-in trucking benefits that help carriers attract and retain top talent and improve employee performance.