Keeping close tabs on safety inspections can help you cut costs and run a safer fleet.

An important -- yet often overlooked -- component of a fleet's safety program is a system for monitoring the driver and vehicle inspections done by outside agencies. In the first place, you need to know what the problems are in order to correct them. Secondly, taking a close look at the kinds of things your drivers or vehicles are cited for can help you make adjustments to the overall safety program.

In addition, since government agencies rely on data from these inspections to determine enforcement action as well as whether or not to conduct future inspections on your fleet, you need to know as much as possible about every inspection that takes place.

The one thing you don't want is to find out about inspections during a compliance review by state or federal enforcement officials. Carriers have been issued huge fines because they "knew or should have known" about violations issued to drivers or other company managers after an inspection.

To make matters worse, carrier safety ratings were downgraded because the violations had not been corrected. These problems could have been minimized or avoided altogether if the fleet had had a policy that clearly delineated who was responsible for inspection followup.

The first thing you need to do is develop post-inspection procedures for drivers, dispatchers, and anyone else who may be involved with an inspection, whether on the road or at the terminal. This program will work best if there is a central "clearinghouse" for information, usually the fleet safety manager.

Requiring drivers to file reports immediately after roadside safety inspections will help ensure that defects are repaired promptly and completely. Driver violations can be addressed quickly as well.

Being able to document that your company has post-inspection procedures and that you will take action against anyone who doesn't report violations noted during inspections can help you defend against charges that the fleet "knew or should have known" about a violation.

Once you have established a policy, made sure all employees are aware of it, and trained those involved to implement the reporting process, the next step is verifying compliance. Non-compliance should result in progressive penalties, including termination for repeat violation of the reporting procedure.

Perhaps the best way of monitoring compliance is through the current Federal contractor in charge of the Federal Highway Administration's Motor Carrier Management Information System (MCMIS) Data Dissemination Program. MCMIS contains information on the safety fitness of commercial motor carriers and hazardous material shippers that are subject to federal regulations.

The data dissemination program provides information such as carrier safety profiles, accident file extracts, personalized carrier reports, and personalized accident reports.

Currently, Computing Technologies Inc., Merrifield, Va., is responsible for providing this data and has the authority to charge prescribed fees, which can range from $27.50 to $375, depending on the type of report you select and the format you need. They can be reached at 800-832-5660 or 703-280-4001, and a description of services can be found on the Internet at www.fhwa.dot.gov/omc/catalog/ index.htm.

If you operate in a single state or in a specific region of the country, you may be able to get much of the same information through state trucking associations or the state agency responsible for commercial motor vehicle enforcement in your area of operation.

There's no doubt that paying close attention to safety inspection data will improve safety. And putting that information to use in your fleet will also help you reduce costs. That results in a winning combination: a safer and more profitable motor carrier industry.

[Ed. Note: Contributing editor Stephen Campbell is vp-safety, training, and technology for the Motor Freight Carriers Assn.]