What to do if you get a warning letter from the FMCSA

The FMCSA (Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration) is tasked with keeping the roads safe, and they regulate motor carriers and commercial vehicles. Since they’re focused on upholding safety standards, they’re able to intervene if those standards aren’t being met. There are different ways that they can intervene, but one intervention method is a warning letter. If you’ve received an FMCSA warning letter, your first instinct might be to panic. But – what exactly are you supposed to do about it? What does it mean? We’ll explain what you need to know about that warning letter and other types of intervention.

What to do if you get an FMCSA warning letter.

A warning letter is a notice from the FMCSA that outlines several things: the safety and/or compliance issue they’re seeing based on their SMS (Safety Management System) data, how you can access your safety record, and what the consequences will be if you fail to take care of the issue.

But what do you need to do about it?

You don’t have to reply to the letter or anything like that, but you should know that the FMCSA will continue to keep tabs on your motor carrier’s safety performance.

What you should do is keep looking at your SMS data yourself. It’s important that you’re aware of where your trucking business stands safety-wise. If you don’t make improvements and step up your safety performance, the FMCSA might take further action to intervene. (This could come in the form of fines or suspension of operating authority, and could include on-site or off-site investigations.) We’ll explain the categories of intervention in a moment.

Now, to keep track of your safety data, you can go to the SMS. The Safety Measurement System is updated monthly, and it incorporates data from different sources (inspections, crash reports from the past two years, and the results of investigations.) This data is then organized into seven different categories, called BASICs, listed below:

  • Unsafe driving
  • Crash Indicator
  • Controlled Substances/Alcohol
  • Hours of Service
  • Vehicle Maintenance
  • Hazardous Materials
  • Driver Fitness

This information is subsequently used to prioritize motor carriers for intervention – basically, to see who’s highest on the FMCSA’s list of motor carriers to intervene with. So, that’s why it’s a good idea to keep track of your SMS rating and prioritize safety.

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What are the types of FMCSA intervention?

There are different types of FMCSA intervention, and the warning letter is part of that. There’s Early Contact, Investigation, and Follow-on.

Early Contact.

The first kind of intervention is Early Contact. This is the part where a warning letter could come into play. Early Contact also includes Targeted Roadside Inspections. These take place at a roadside inspection location, and it’s prompted by data that pinpoints a motor carrier’s specific problems or issues.


There are three types of investigations that a Safety Inspector (SI) might complete, and these inspections can be done either at the carrier’s place of business or remotely. The Safety Inspector uses the FMCSA’s Safety Management Cycle, which allows them to pinpoint safety and compliance issues. From there, they can give recommendations for actions the carrier can take.

The three types of investigation are:

Offsite: The SI gets copies of the needed documentation from the carrier. They look over the documents and do a remote investigation.

Onsite focused: This is where the SI focuses on a specific issue concerning safety or compliance. This is done at the carrier’s business, and it can involve vehicle inspections and interviews of employees.

Onsite comprehensive: The SI reviews the entire operation and looks at safety. This takes place at the business, and it also could include vehicle inspection and employee interviews.


Follow-on can include:

Cooperative Safety Plan: This is a voluntary plan a carrier can put in place with the help of a Safety Inspector. The plan can be used by itself or with an NOV (Notice of Violation), but not as a replacement of a NOC (Notice of Claim). (More on that in a second.)

Notice of Violation: A NOV is a formal notice that could mean formal action – though not civil penalties. This means that the motor carrier has to take steps to improve the issue and provide proof of the fact that they’ve done so. The motor carrier can contest the violation.

Notice of Claim: This is a formal notice that there are violations severe enough for evaluation and civil penalties.

Operation Out-of-Service Order: This is an order that requires the carrier to end all motor carrier operations.

So, that’s the scoop about FMCSA warning letters. It’s a form of intervention and it lets you know about a safety or compliance issue – as well as the consequences of not correcting the issue. If you get a warning letter, it’s important to keep track of your safety performance. If a motor carrier doesn’t improve following the warning letter, they could face further intervention from the FMCSA.

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