Partners in Business: Staying Compliant and Safe

Updated Mar 17, 2015

Protect your career by knowing and following regulations, practicing safe driving and using data to your advantage.

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Before you legally can operate a commercial vehicle in interstate commerce, you and your vehicle must comply with certain laws and regulations. It is your responsibility to know them. For the owner-operator, it starts with truck registration. This is to the truck what a commercial driver’s license is to the driver: a means of identifying and tracking. If your truck isn’t registered, it’s not legal.

Independents are responsible for their own registrations. Leased owner-operators have the option of doing it themselves or letting the company they are leased to handle it. Generally, the company deducts the cost from the driver’s settlements. That’s easier, but not necessarily wiser, because if you get your plate through the carrier, you must leave it behind if you sever ties with the carrier. You even could get billed for whatever you owe on the plate you’re no longer using.

The cost of registering a truck varies from state to state, but you aren’t allowed to shop for the cheapest base state. To base-plate in a state, you must:

• Have an established place of business in that state, with a street address, a listed telephone number and at least one person conducting business at that location. A post office box is not sufficient.

• Maintain records in that location, and be prepared to make them available to authorities at that location.

• Accrue miles in that state.

Before you can register, your base state will require you to pay the federal heavy-vehicle use tax. Also, if you don’t register your truck within 60 days of purchase, your base state will require proof of payment, usually a copy of Internal Revenue Service Form 2290 (heavy vehicle use tax return) and a canceled check.

Although you register your personal automobile only in your home state, your truck must be registered in every state through which you travel. Years ago, you had to register separately in each state, but in 1991 Congress created the International Registration Plan, a streamlined nationwide system for truck registration. Under IRP, you fill out a form, and write one check to your base state. Similar to the way the International Fuel Tax Agreement apportions fuel taxes, a percentage of your fee goes to each state you travel through based on the number of miles you run in that state. When you register, you need to estimate how many miles you will travel in the coming year, state by state. Fees, bond requirements and taxes vary with each state, so check with your base state for details.

If a load takes you through a state where your truck is not registered, you can get a temporary registration, usually for 15 to 30 days.

SAFETY REGULATIONS

Most of the safety laws involving heavy trucks are found in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, and all truckers should have a working knowledge of them. Owner-operators must keep a copy of the regulations in their trucks. Many truck stops sell inexpensive paperback copies of them, and they’re also available online and in digital form via FMCSA.DOT.gov.

The parts that most affect owner-operators include:

• Part 390. General overview: violations and penalties.

• Part 391. Driver qualifications: responsibilities, annual review, records, road tests.

• Part 392. Driving commercial motor vehicles: safe loading and fueling practices, safety at railroad crossings, seatbelt use, emergency signals, emergency equipment use, passengers, illness and fatigue, drug and alcohol use.

• Part 393. Parts and accessories: proper lights and reflectors, wiring, batteries, brakes, windows, fuel systems, coupling devices, towing methods, tires, sleeper berths, mirrors, defrosters, speedometers, exhaust systems, floors, rear-impact guards, frames, cabs, suspensions, steering systems.

• Part 395. Hours of service: maximum driving time and on-duty time, record of duty status, onboard recorders, out-of-service declarations.

• Part 396. Inspection, repair and maintenance, including record keeping requirements.

• Part 397. Transporting hazardous materials, state and local laws, driver presence and surveillance, parking, fires, smoking, fueling, tires and routing.

In December 2010, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration began implementing a new safety rating system for motor carriers, including independent owner-operators. The new system changed an old numerical rating methodology based on information gleaned from onsite safety compliance reviews to one based on roadside inspection observations and crash data. This system’s inclusion of real-time violations in an independent’s safety score makes complying with safety regulations even more important.

For owner-operators who are leasing on to a carrier, the change is equally important, given that your carrier’s score will be affected directly for the first time by all of your on-road actions noted by an inspector or motor carrier safety officer. FMCSA also is deploying a similar system that tracks individual driver performance internally the same way they are ranking motor carriers publicly; they’ve made clear intentions to take this system public in the future to rank individual drivers. This system is in part available to carriers checking your business’ history for pre-lease screening.

In short, safety regulations are getting sharper teeth – staying compliant now is ever more crucial to your continued operation. You can minimize impact of the new Compliance, Safety, Accountability safety program by being certain your truck is in compliance with all equipment regulations and by following these steps.

*Do everything practical to avoid inspection violations. That starts with thorough pre-trip and post-trip inspections and attention to needed maintenance, and extends to minimizing inspections themselves. Some carriers have instituted cash awards to operators for inspections with no violations, which help a carrier’s CSA rankings, so this could pay extra dividends. Use PrePass or other weigh-station bypass systems (such as Drivewyze, operational via operators’ smartphones) to stay out of the inspection stations as much as possible, wash your truck regularly, dress cleanly and otherwise avoid doing anything that might draw the attention of patrol officers. State highway patrolmen note that up to 90 percent of every motor carrier’s problems arise from speeding. Slowing down will help your carrier’s or your own ranking, because if you speed and are caught, they often will inspect your vehicle, and small violations can mount up.

*Pick your partners wisely. A carrier that takes its safety scoring seriously is going to be increasingly more likely to have solid customers and its pick of freight than the opposite. Treat your carrier as a partner in your business, and look for them to treat you the same way.

*Go electronic with logs. The Hours of Service Compliance Behavioral Analysis and Safety Improvement Category, one of seven such categories in the CSA system, is the most-frequently violated of all the BASICs, with more than 13 percent of all interstate freight carriers ranked above the FMCSA action threshold. A majority of the violations in that BASIC are so-called “form and manner” infractions, or simple administrative errors in how the log is represented on the paper. Electronic logs eliminate the large majority of that kind of error, partially automating much of the logging process. In 2014, FMCSA renewed pursuit of a regulatory mandate for virtually all interstate haulers to track hours electronically – getting ahead of the mandate curve by adopting e-logs early could also be a boon to business management prospects.

*Mind the small stuff. Pay strict attention to all aspects of your operation. A frequently incurred violation contributing to scores in the Unsafe Driving BASIC is the simple seatbelt violation, often accrued after a speeding stop.

*Build law enforcement relationships. For independents, good relationships with the highway patrol in your area will enable you to call on them for advice in particular situations. It also will increase the possibility that, should you need help in the Vehicle Maintenance BASIC, they might make themselves available for terminal inspections, conducted at your central place of business on your equipment.

Managing the historical inspection information that is being collected about you also is important.

ACCESS YOUR RECORDS. In the view of FMCSA, technically speaking any owner-operator who is leased to a carrier and who hasn’t had his authority for the last two years does not have any safety ranking in the CSA Safety Measurement System. But a leased owner-operator’s data profile there is important. Leased owner-operators can gain access to the data the internal measurement is based on via FMCSA’s Pre-Employment Screening Program or PSP (psp.fmcsa.dot.gov) for $10. Alternatively, making a Privacy Act request via the FMCSA’s Freedom of Information Act office will net you the same results for free – but with a turnaround time of several weeks. If you have a prior driving and inspection history and haven’t accessed the information yet, it’s important to do so to make certain it is correct. It will be used by carriers evaluating any lease application you make, and it could impact your insurance rates.

For owner-operators with their own carrier authority, SMS results are publicly available via csa.fmcsa.dot.gov, click “SMS Results.” You’ll need a Department of Transportation-issued login and PIN number to access the full results. Most owner-operators will not have a ranking in any of the measurement categories, but that may change as time goes on.

USE DATA TO YOUR ADVANTAGE. Safety data and any scoring that may be available can be used in many ways.

* Prove safety to a carrier to which you’re looking to lease. For owner-operators applying for a new lease and facing carrier qualifying processes, a pristine PSP report is valuable, as some carriers look to tie driver mileage or percentage pay scales to safety performance. Providing an up-to-date clean PSP to a prospective carrier before they request such is something an owner-operator confident in his/her safety performance might do to document safety performance history effectively.

*Review data quality and correct errors. Whether you’re leased or independent, you’ll be reviewing information contained within the same database. Make certain all violations and/or crashes contained in your SMS results or on your PSP are connected to you correctly. For independents, challenging erroneously assigned inspections or crashes, or violations tied to citations thrown out in a court of law, is your responsibility entirely. Challenges are conducted via FMCSA’s DataQs portal at dataqs.fmcsa.dot.gov. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association offers its members free assistance with navigating this process.

USE DATA TO YOUR ADVANTAGE

In early 2013 and again in 2014, Overdrive published months-long series of feature stories offering practical strategies toward managing the CSA program’s effect on owner-operator businesses. Part of that series was extensive data-mining on trends in enforcement (both inspection rates and violation priorities) by state, all of which you can access via OverdriveOnline.com/csa.

Inspections

 

PRACTICING SAFETY

Every year some 500 truck drivers die in highway accidents in the United States, thousands more are injured, and thousands of citizens die or are injured in accidents involving a truck. Avoid becoming part of those statistics by learning safe driving techniques and making your approach to driving the foundation of how you operate.

LOGS. Strict adherence to hours-of-service regulations is a good step toward safety – and keeping out of trouble. Today’s procedures, with nearly every stop documented with date and time, allow DOT and carriers to closely monitor hours-of-service compliance. Sooner or later, anyone violating the regulations will be caught.

PARKING AND BACKING. Most minor accidents occur when a driver is parking or backing, so even at low speeds it’s no time to become complacent. Never begin backing before first walking to the rear and looking all around – including up and down – for obstructions. A complicated backing maneuver may require you to get out and look several times. Never rely on the opinion of spotters (especially at truck stops).

STAY IN YOUR LANE. It is normally in your best interest to maintain a single lane of travel until you come to a stop. What could force you to leave your lane? Some causes are under your control, such as traveling too fast for conditions, loss of vision, cargo shifts, high wind, tire failure, mechanical failure or fatigue. Other reasons for leaving your lane may not be under your control, such as another driver cutting you off or an animal darting in front of you. You likely will do less harm to yourself and others and create less property damage if you maintain a single lane of travel during any incident.

DEADLY DISTRACTIONS. It is illegal to talk on a handheld phone or text while operating a commercial motor vehicle in interstate commerce. That said, even the best drivers find that their attention can be diverted easily. Reading a map, talking on a CB, listening to music, thinking about home or picking something up from the floor are all distractions. What is happening outside your vehicle is where your main attention always should be.

THE MOTORING PUBLIC. Truck drivers are expected to drive safely and predictably, and the vast majority do. On the other hand, four-wheelers often drive in an unpredictable fashion, especially when they are near trucks or carrying a carload of people. Their poor driving may display ignorance of your vehicle’s limitations, their own impatience or other conditions. Recognize their inexperience, and use extra care.

SPECIAL LOADS. Certain types of hauling, such as with tankers and flatbeds, require even more training and care to operate safely. Tankers carry liquids that may be flammable or toxic. In certain circumstances, these liquids can push the vehicle in unexpected directions just when it needs to be stable and predictable. Flatbed cargo can become dislodged or, in a sudden stop, come loose and be projected toward the driver or others.

KNOW YOUR LIMITS. Don’t overestimate your ability, whether driving in substandard conditions or dealing with fatigue. The only true cure for fatigue is sleep. Never let anyone or anything distract you. If you are uncertain of what is happening around you, slow down. Stop if necessary. Give yourself time to analyze the situation and make a thoughtful decision.