The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration gave notice that it is tightening its standards on fines for safety violations.

Under the law, the agency is required to assess the maximum fine for each violation in a pattern of violations of critical regulations. It also must impose the maximum fine on someone who has repeated the same or a related violation of a critical rule. Until now the agency has interpreted this in both instances to mean that the maximum fine applies when someone has three such violations within the past six years.

At the recommendation of the Government Accountability Office, the agency will now apply different standards to the two types of violations.

A "pattern of violations" will occur when the agency finds two or more critical violations in each of three or more areas. This pattern can be found in a single instance of enforcement following prior contact between the agency and the carrier, and does not require a previous enforcement action. The necessary prior contact can range from a new entrant audit to a compliance review - anything that will alert the carrier to the agency's enforcement role. An important exception: a roadside inspection is not considered prior contact.

The agency is adopting a "two strikes" policy with respect to a carrier's repetition of the same or a related violation. A carrier will be subject to the maximum fine if it commits an acute violation within six years of a previous acute violation in the same area.

The agency also has expanded the types of investigations under which maximum fines can be assessed, to include rated and unrated compliance reviews and on- and off-site investigations, among others.