Commentary: Traffic Warnings Low on FMCSA's Checklist

Q: We’re a motor carrier. Our fleet runs 40 percent of its miles in Indiana and Michigan, so-called probable cause states. An officer in these states can pull the driver over for going 3 miles an hour over the speed limit and, if no other problems are found, issue a warning, which becomes a violation that can’t be adjudicated.

I know the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has no influence over state legislatures, but it can decide whether these warnings count as violations.

A: You’re so far off base with your brief question that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Let’s start with that cop pulling a truck over for going 3 mph over the limit. We’re all entitled to come up with for-the-sake-of-argument extremes, but you have to admit that’s a pretty unlikely scenario. If cops spent their time in this sort of unproductive way, their superiors would be more than a little annoyed at them, don’t you think?

Still, let’s say it happens. Maybe the officer had some other reason to believe there was something funky with this particular vehicle, driver, load, whatever. Maybe the officer and the driver had some personal history. Anyhow, for whatever reason the truck’s pulled over.

Now, I’m not sure what you mean by a “probable cause state.” I know of no state in which this wouldn’t be permitted. Last time I looked, the speed limit signs don’t say “70 mph or so.” They just give a number and anything over that number isn’t allowed. That’s so in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories and in any other country that limits the speed of travel along its highways.

So it’s legal and proper just about anywhere. And the officer in your hypothetical scenario has the good sense and judgment not to issue a ticket for such a petty violation. All he or she does is hand over a written warning, probably mostly to justify to his or her supervisor why that time was spent on the pullover.

Here’s where you go completely off in left field somewhere. Who says the FMCSA counts that warning as a “violation?” Who even says the FMCSA has any standing to determine what is and what isn’t a “violation?”

The only thing it could be a “violation” against is the driver’s commercial driver’s license. But these aren’t issued by the FMCSA, nor does that agency have any power to regulate them. A CDL is issued by the driver’s home state, which alone has authority to assign violation points against the license, suspend it, revoke it or take any other such action.

The only place the FMCSA gets into the act is in reviewing the overall safety performance of carriers — not the individual drivers, but the carriers who employ them. I suspect that’s what prompted you to write me.

The FMCSA performs what’s called a Safestat evaluation of carriers it chooses to examine. The process entails a fairly rigorous examination of different aspects of a carrier’s safety record, one of which is the recent history of the drivers in its hire. Each aspect gets a numerical score, which are added together to make up the carrier’s overall score. Passing is 75 (out of 100), and, of course, the higher the better.

The primary criterion of the driver evaluation is accident records. Second on the list is moving violations, such as speeding, running red lights and the like. Then we get to such things as drug testing, CDL currency, trip logs, etc. Bad performance in any of these areas can downgrade a carrier significantly.

Way down at the bottom of this list — if it’s there at all — are warnings. I suppose states keep records of such things (I know police keep copies of the warnings, which I suppose they do for some administrative reason), and if they do they’re available to the FMCSA.

My guess is that some overzealous FMCSA minion, on examining your driver roster and finding nothing major wrong, got frustrated and barked at you about a couple of warnings your drivers had received. Hey, if that’s all he or she could find to say, revel in it. I think you’d need a bunch of such warnings before the agency would take even a point or two off your score.

Safety inspections are only as good as the inspectors. If yours got all het up about traffic warnings, you didn’t get a good one.

Consultant, author and educator Colin Barrett is president of Barrett Transportation Consultants. Send your questions to him at 5201 Whippoorwill Lane, Johns Island, S.C. 29455, phone 843-559-1277, e-mail Contact him to order the most recent 351-page compiled edition of past Q&A columns, published in 2010.

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