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Loss Control & Risk Management

Commercial Vehicle Maintenance Programs

Well-managed vehicle maintenance programs are extremely important in any business that operates motor vehicles. Reduced operational costs, reduced accidents from vehicle defects, and improved public opinion are direct benefits of a well-implemented maintenance policy.

Maintenance programs depend on the support of top management and effective communication. Drivers, maintenance personnel, and supervisors must be held accountable for the condition of vehicles, and clear lines of communication need to be established between them. Periodic review of a company's existing maintenance program, and the degree to which it is being carried out on a daily basis, will help management determine if any program modifications are necessary.

When a company performs its own maintenance, adequate facilities and equipment must be provided, as well as ongoing training of mechanics to keep them abreast of changes in equipment and repair procedures. Companies using vendors for vehicle maintenance want to assure that they are qualified to perform the work and are reputable. When vehicles are leased, it must be clearly stated who is responsible for providing maintenance. The schedule for performing vehicle maintenance must be detailed and performed accordingly.

While an effective maintenance program will afford efficient scheduling of vehicle service, it is important to have procedures in place in the event of vehicle breakdown or discovery of a serious vehicle defect. A vehicle with a known safety defect must never be allowed on the road until repairs have been completed. Placing an out-of-service tag or similar identifier on the vehicle can help to highlight that the vehicle is unavailable for use.

This report highlights the various categories of vehicle maintenance and stresses the importance of accurate maintenance records.

Company Vehicle Selection and Specification Needs

A company's maintenance program starts with the selection of its vehicles. Regardless of whether vehicles will be purchased or leased, management must analyze the company's transportation needs to assure that selected vehicles will be able to perform the expected tasks. If a vehicle is improperly "speced," it will reflect in the vehicle's performance and cost. If a vehicle is "over-speced," it will cost too much initially and will not return its proportionate share in reduced operating expense. If it is "under-speced," management can anticipate shorter life, more breakdowns, and a higher overall maintenance cost.

When selecting vehicles, management should consider both initial cost and the cost of ongoing maintenance. Choosing a vehicle solely on the lowest initial bid can result in significantly higher operating costs over the life of the equipment.

Most companies find that some standardization of vehicles is advantageous. Vehicle standardization can be by manufacturer, model type, or by components within the vehicle. The advantages of standardization include:

  • Reduced parts inventory.
  • Ability of mechanics to make repairs more efficiently and dependably due to their familiarity with the vehicle.
  • Reduction of inadvertent abuse of vehicles by drivers.
  • Better appraisal of the suitability of the vehicle for the task.

If management restricts buying to one supplier, a company may not have the necessary leverage to obtain the most competitive price. Depending on their size, companies who standardize sometimes use two or three different suppliers to assure price competition and parts availability.

Preventive Maintenance for Commercial Vehicles

It is essential that a company have a realistic preventive maintenance (PM) program if a vehicle is to give the most economical service possible. The groundwork for a good PM program usually starts with the manufacturer's recommendations concerning necessary maintenance and the time or mileage when it should be performed. These recommendations should be considered minimum requirements and can be modified by the actual experience of the fleet; however, careful consideration must be given to the maintenance that must be performed in order to meet the requirements of the manufacturer's warranty. PM allows a firm to schedule its repair work so that it is not faced with large fluctuations in work flow (which stabilizes the work force needed).

Preventive maintenance differs from demand or crisis maintenance in that it attempts to anticipate problems and to plan for their correction before they become serious. PM is normally performed on a mileage or a time basis. Typical jobs that are performed on a routine basis include oil and filter changes, lubrication, tightening of components, engine tune-ups, brake jobs, tire rotation, replacement of specific engine hoses, and radiator maintenance.

The PM interval will vary from one company to another depending on the initial vehicle specifications, the type of operation in which the vehicle is used, and management's appreciation and knowledge of operational costs. A well-defined, consistently applied PM program should result in the lowest total vehicle maintenance cost.

The Demand Maintenance Approach to Work Cars

When maintenance is performed only when the need arises, it is often referred to as demand maintenance. Some vehicle parts are only replaced on a "when failed" basis, such as light bulbs, springs, window glass, wiper blades, wiring, gauges, and seat cushions. Other parts will be replaced or repaired when they are worn and when this wear is detected by periodic inspections; these include tires; engine, transmission and rear-end rebuilds; universal joints; bushings; batteries; and fatigued, corroded, or deteriorated structural members. Components necessary for the safe operation of the vehicle should be inspected regularly to assure that a failed condition is detected promptly.

Crisis Maintenance for Commercial Vehicles

If preventive maintenance or demand maintenance is ignored or postponed, a likely result will be crisis maintenance when a vehicle has a breakdown on the road. A mechanic will have to be dispatched to repair the vehicle and another unit may have to be sent to replace the one having problems. In extreme cases, the mechanical failure could cause, either directly or indirectly, an accident. Also, the sudden failure of one item will frequently result in damage to other component parts.

Crisis maintenance is much more expensive than preventive or demand maintenance due to the cost of:

  • The driver's downtime.
  • Supervisory time expended to organize necessary repair procedures and possibly reroute deliveries.
  • The mechanic's time to get to and return from the location of the breakdown (or having an outside garage make the repairs).
  • Additional time required due to the inefficiency of a mechanic working on the road versus working at a garage.
  • Additional damaged parts.

A company's reputation can also be damaged by customer dissatisfaction if a delivery schedule is missed.

Keeping Maintenance Records on Company Cars

Every good maintenance program includes a thorough and up-to-date record keeping program. Management cannot guess about maintenance costs and past performance of vehicles or accessories. To be useful, maintenance records must:

  • Clearly identify the vehicle.
  • Be kept current.
  • Only record meaningful data.
  • Be reviewed on a periodic basis.

Most State and federal transportation regulatory agencies require companies operating trucks to keep maintenance records detailing minimum data on the vehicles they operate.

One maintenance record that every vehicle operator should use is the driver's vehicle condition report. This report provides direction to the driver in inspecting the vehicle in a systematic manner to help assure that the driver does not overlook any important areas. It also provides a convenient means for the driver to note vehicle deficiencies and to report these for maintenance follow-up.

By keeping a copy of the last vehicle condition report on the vehicle, the driver, mechanic, or other interested parties can ascertain at a glance the known mechanical problems with the vehicle.

Vehicle operators subject to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, as well as many State regulations, are required to have drivers complete a vehicle condition report for each vehicle they drive; and they must keep a copy of the latest report on the vehicle. Those companies who are not required to follow these regulations should assure that their vehicles receive adequate inspections to identify potential unsafe conditions. Verbal reports are not recommended.

There should be a record of all PM and repair work performed on a vehicle. Such a record will allow management to develop needed cost data and to review the past performance of a specific vehicle or group of vehicles. Management can analyze the maintenance work that has been performed on a vehicle to determine if additional work is necessary or can be expected. The maintenance record can also provide clues to help determine the source of problems that might have been overlooked in routine maintenance, or to identify equipment that is not being operated correctly by a driver.

As a vehicle's age and mileage increase, the maintenance costs will increase. At some point, the anticipated maintenance costs, less the remaining depreciation value, will exceed the cost of a replacement vehicle. Thorough maintenance records will allow management to accurately determine this "break-even point."

Program Verification for Your Work Fleet

A determination should be made that a maintenance program is in place and that procedures are being followed. Various record systems for scheduling maintenance may be found. How the company assures its vehicles are available for scheduled maintenance should be reviewed. When reviewing a company’s maintenance program, the condition of some of the vehicles, inspection forms, and maintenance records should be reviewed to see if the "paper trail" and the vehicle condition appear to coincide.

Visit the American Family Insurance Loss Control Resource Center for more information on maintaining and protecting your commercial vehicles.

Commercial Vehicle Additional Information

For additional information for operators subject to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR), see Commercial Vehicle Report, CV-50-16, FMCSR – Inspection, Repair, and Maintenance.


1. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, 49 CFR 396. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation, November 18, 2011.

COPYRIGHT ©2011, ISO Services, Inc.

The information contained in this publication was obtained from sources believed to be reliable. ISO Services, Inc., its companies and employees make no guarantee of results and assume no liability in connection with either the information herein contained or the safety suggestions herein made. Moreover, it cannot be assumed that every acceptable safety procedure is contained herein or that abnormal or unusual circumstances may not warrant or require further or additional procedure.

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Related Topics: Auto Fleet Safety , Protecting Your Business , Safety Programs