<img height="1" width="1" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=737313050390762&amp;ev=PageView &amp;noscript=1">

Ultimate Guide to Preparing for a DOT Audit


The audit is a fact of life. The Department of Transportation (DOT) takes its role as federal regulations arbiter very seriously and conducts its necessary audits of terminals and headquarters with a fine-toothed comb.

You try to stay ahead of these with mock audits, but most people find themselves overwhelmed by their responsibilities and uncertain of where to direct their time and resources.

This Ultimate Guide is meant to be a resource to help you understand, prepare for, and pass DOT audits and eliminate that uncertainty. In this guide, you will find:

  • Background information on what DOT audits are
  • The reasons a DOT audit might be conducted
  • The state of safety and auditing right now and where it’s heading, according to longtime safety experts Clay Merches and Irwin Shires
  • An overview of DOT requirements, including a checklist of what to have in your driver files to be in compliance
  • What could happen if you fail a DOT audit
  • An explanation of software that helps prepare for audits and keep your company in compliance
  • Some further resources to help you track your drivers and stay up-to-date on the latest in audit and compliance regulations.

Free DQ File Checklist

What is a DOT Audit?

A DOT audit is a review of your company’s compliance with Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR). It is performed by the Federal Motor Carrier Association (FMCSA), and most often takes place at company locations. However, they have also taken place over the phone or teleconference in the past.

If you are found to be out of compliance with any part of FMCSR, you will receive a detailed explanation of why you failed. You will also be fined, or potentially even shut down.

The only way to survive a DOT audit is to be prepared.

What is the FMCSA?

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (or FMCSA for short) is an operating organization under the umbrella of the Department of Transportation (DOT).

The FMCSA is the governmental agency that carries out DOT audits. They are responsible for industry regulations and provide safety oversight for commercial motor vehicles.

What Triggers A DOT Audit?

Safety and Compliance managers have always dreaded an audit from the Department of Transportation. The overwhelming sense is usually that auditors are out to get companies for little errors and cheap fines. That might be true in some cases - every auditor is different - but the reasons they come to conduct audits at your terminal are almost always the same.

Even in a pandemic world, auditors are busy looking out for negligent or careless management of safety protocols in order to keep our roads safer. But what are the main triggers for a DOT audit?

1. New Entrant Audit

This audit is for motor carriers that have recently filed with the DOT. These audits are completed within three to six months of a DOT number being issued. Their goal is to ensure new companies are complying with all required safety regulations.

2. Accidents or a Large Number of Tickets

Maybe it’s an obvious thought, but a record of poor driving will inevitably lead to DOT compliance attention. If the accidents in question are particularly severe, the DOT will probably give you less notice before knocking on your door. They’re more likely to take a closer look at your driver records as well.

3. Failed Roadside Inspection

Repeated failed inspections will draw attention to your maintenance records, and perhaps also your training program. The DOT will be looking to uncover how you instruct drivers to manage roadside inspections.

4. Failing the New Entrant Safety Audit

New companies all have to pass the NESA before getting final DOT approval. If they do not, the DOT most likely will keep an eye on things for a time to make sure the new company gets on track with their safety program and conduct a thorough review of everything in the future.

5. Whistleblowers

A concerned safety team member or driver may contact the DOT to report widespread violations that would draw an audit. While this doesn’t happen very often, the DOT has taken these reports seriously in the past and would certainly investigate them if they found the report credible. Whistleblower triggered audits can be conducted off-site (remotely) on the record.

20180809-DQ Item Checklist

DOT audits can be a focused or full compliance review, as small or large as an auditor sees fit. To meet time constraints, focused audits tend to focus on one or two record types, such as hours of service.

If an auditor finds issues in that group, the audit may expand to more drivers or more records, or convert the audit into a full compliance review, which will cover all major records.

What Are the Potential Outcomes of a DOT Audit?

At the conclusion of an audit, the auditor gives a grade of Satisfactory, Conditional, or Unsatisfactory. Satisfactory is, of course, a passing grade. Conditional suggests multiple violations that could incur fines and requires the company to submit a corrective Plan of Action to the DOT within 60 days to upgrade the status.

The dreaded Unsatisfactory grade means major violations were found and could likely lead to hefty fines and, presumably, a follow-up audit in the future to ensure the corrective Plan of Action submitted has been followed. 

In the most severe cases, a terminal is shuttered or the company may even be shut down and have their DOT number revoked. There is also the uncommon grade of Unrateable, which is usually reserved for small, focused audits that would not feature enough records to get a full grade, but could still lead to fines if violations are present.

Free DQ File Checklist

Top Reasons Companies Fail DOT Audits

The major flags that DOT auditors tend to look for include: 

  • Drug and alcohol testing violations of any kind
  • Unlicensed or incorrectly licensed drivers
  • Drivers who are not medically qualified
  • Incomplete or missing maintenance records
  • Driver log violations
  • Operating vehicles that haven’t passed inspection or haven’t received necessary repairs
  • Any kind of record falsification

These are problem areas that are easy to address for a safety team on top of things. Begin to review these areas as well as the rest of your DOT paperwork and you will not have to worry about triggering a DOT audit.

What Happens If You Fail A DOT Audit?

As we mentioned above, you will receive one of three grades: satisfactory, conditional, and unsatisfactory.

Here’s what it looks like when you don’t pass:

  • The audit report will contain specific results of violations. Depending on their frequency and severity, the violations could carry a warning (usually followed by a second audit sometime in the future to verify improvements), but more often result in fines and, in extreme situations, the closing of a terminal or company. 
  • FMCSA will provide the carrier written documentation detailing the violations that caused the carrier to fail and the requirements for developing a Corrective Action Plan (CAP). The CAP must explain the actions the carrier will take to address the violations identified. 
  • CAPs must be submitted to the FMCSA Service Center within the number of days specified on the failure notification. Failure to either submit a CAP, or implement the corrective actions, will result in loss of FMCSA registration. 

See the FMCSA website for more details on the initial audit process that is part of the New Entrant Program for companies that recently registered with the DOT.

New companies often get extra attention as they get acclimated to the rules, so an early violation will likely lead to greater, longer-term monitoring by the DOT, which no company wants to bother with.

How Can You Prepare For A DOT Audit?

You want to avoid scrambling once you know you’re being audited. Your goal is to always be prepared.

Here are some best practices:

  • Invest in a compliance tracking system to never worry about compliance again. Electronic documents are much harder to misplace or misfile.
  • Run your own internal DOT audits quarterly so you catch issues before they hurt your business.
  • Assign someone the sole responsibility of constantly monitoring your compliance so there is ownership.
  • Enforce compliance as a part of your safety centric culture so that drivers buy-in to keeping their documentation up to date

What Are The DOT Audit Requirements?

It helps to know specifically what the DOT is looking for when they arrive to perform an audit. Below is our breakdown of the requirements of the driver qualifications file, as well as some of the other key items that often draw the DOT’s attention and likewise the most likely to lead to warnings and fines.

This checklist is a summary from FMCSA 391 and is designed to help you ensure no little detail is missed when you’re creating DQ files.


  • Driver’s name, date, and signature
  • Name and address of the Employing Motor Carrier
  • Driver’s date of birth and SSN (SSN not needed if religious practices indicated)
  • 3 years of residence history without gaps
  • 3 years of previous employment plus up to an additional 7 years (total of 10) if the driver worked in a safety-sensitive position
    • Each employer includes: 
      • Company name
      • Address
      • Supervisor
      • Contact information
      • Reason for leaving
    • Any gaps in the employment history greater than 30 days need to be explained (including unemployment)
  • Current license information for each active license:
    • Issuing state
    • Number
    • Expiration on each unexpired commercial license 
    • Driver must note if any license was suspended, revoked, or forfeited within the past 3 years
  • Driving experience and type of equipment 
  • 3-year driving history of violations and suspensions 
  • Hours worked last eight days before hire

Pre-Hire Motor Vehicle Report (MVR)

  • Report covers most recent 3 year period (in every state that driver held a license in the past 3 year period)
  • Report order date is within 30 days of a driver’s official date of hire
    • If a driver is not hired within that period of time, you must run a new MVR before the driver is permitted to drive
  • Confirm your Compliance Management System provides a timestamp for when a company employee reviews the results

Previous Employment Verification

  • Any safety-sensitive positions a driver has held over the past 3 years must be verified. If you are unsure if a previous employer was a safety-sensitive position or not, always err on the side of caution.
  • Ask and document the DOT mandated questions about a driver’s history of drug and alcohol testing: 
  • Were they in a safety-sensitive position? 
    • If so, were they drug tested? 
      • Did they test positive? 
      • Did they refuse to be tested? 
      • Did they have other DOT test violations? 
      • Did they report any outside drug/alcohol violations to you?
  • Document a “good faith” effort for each previous employer
    • “Good faith” is subjective, so our best practice is three separate phone calls and follow-up email/fax for written documentation.
    • Reporting employers must sign and date the PEV request and send it back within 30 days of receiving
    • Complete documented efforts before 30 days from the date of hire

Road Test

  • If the road test is successfully completed, the person who gave it shall complete a certificate of driver's road test that is signed and dated by the driver and trainer completing the road test
  • A copy of a current and valid CDL can be used in lieu of the Road Test
    • Review your company’s policy and your state’s individual rules regarding road testing. They may be more demanding than the DOT. Many states, for example, require occasional road tests to track driver skills over time.
  • If your company runs its own initial road tests, or a driver has a road test conducted at a third-party site (not the BMV), you must retain this documentation in the DQ folder.

Commercial Driver's License (CDL)

  • Non-expired CDL with proper endorsements and class
  • Scan both sides of a CDL (if your state has endorsements or restrictions on the back)
  • Drivers may only have one valid CDL at a time (unless they are granted a special exemption from the DOT, which you need to keep in the DQ folder as well)
  • It is a good practice to retain the original CDL of a driver in the DQ folder for as long as the driver is employed with your company
  • Non-CDL drivers should also have their valid (not expired) state driver’s license on file with appropriate endorsements if applicable

Medical Card/Medical Examiner's Certificate

  • Complete DOT-approved physicals no less than every two years and more frequently if a physician deems it necessary. 
  • The physician must completely fill out and sign a Medical Examiner’s Certificate (commonly known as a Med Card). No fields can be left blank.
  • The doctor conducting the physical must be in the National Registry and can be searched with the registry number on the med card. Some states have restrictions such as not allowing chiropractors to qualify, even if they are in the registry.
  • The driver must sign and complete the bottom section of the Med Card.
  • The accompanying physical documentation (long form), as well as exemptions and waivers, must be stored in a driver’s separate Medical folder, unless state law dictates otherwise.
  • Add to your checklist state’s laws for any special waivers.
  • Non-CDL drivers must still have physicals conducted if they are interstate drivers (i.e. they cross state lines).
  • Drivers who drive in exempted interstate/intrastate are not required to have DOT physicals conducted. You must still have a waiver in their DQ file stating this in lieu of the record.

Annual MVR

  • MVRs should be run at least once a year starting on day 365 after the hire date.
  • MVR should contain all recent driver history and up-to-date medical information for that driver.
  • MVR should contain the correct self-certification for the driver. Consult the full DOT descriptions for each of the four categories of drivers if you aren’t sure how certain drivers should self-certify with the state licensing agency.

Certificate of Violations

  • Prior to May 9, 2022, at least once every 12 months, drivers were to submit a list of all convicted violations of motor vehicle traffic laws and ordinances during the previous 12 months. Click here for more information on this rule change. 
  • Carriers were to review this and compare it with the driver’s annual MVR, typically during the driver's Annual Review.
  • As of May 9, 2022, the requirement is now eliminated.
  • Motor carriers must retain all COVs obtained before May 9, 2022, in the DQ File for 36 months from the document date.

Annual Review

  • The Annual Review is held at least every 12 months between both the driver and the manager.  The manager is to review the MVR to determine whether the driver still meets the minimum requirements for safe driving, and to confirm they are not disqualified pursuant to 49 CFR 391.15. 
  • Ideally, a new Annual MVR should be completed the same day as the Annual Review.  Prior to May 9, 2022, a driver-supplied Certificate of Violation was also used to complete the Annual Review.
  • Managers must sign and date the Annual Review document on the same day.
  • The Annual Review should list all of the violations (regardless of vehicle type or ownership) a driver had in the past year that are on the MVR. It should also include out-of-state violations reported by the driver.
  • If a driver had no violations, this must be indicated on the form. Most DOT-approved forms have a box to check for no violations.

Disclosure and Authorization Forms

  • The DOT requires drivers to receive a document that lists all of the inquiries that will be made. This must be signed and dated and in the file.
  • Inquiries fall under the four major categories of employment history (both previous employment for safety-sensitive purposes and also for character and work experience), personal history (residence verification, credit/financial history, and Social Security verification), criminal background check, and driving history.
  • These forms may be combined into one document or be several separate documents. However, each one must be signed and dated by the driver and must be separate from the application.

Other Record Types

There are several other records you will or may have to collect during a driver’s hiring process. Some of these, such as the criminal background check, typically are stored in separate paperwork from the Driver Qualification folder in a distinct HR folder of some kind.

With software systems, you can automate the folder labeling of these kinds of documents, as well as training documents, in a separate folder. Others, such as drug and alcohol test results, must be kept separate in their own specific folder per DOT rules for privacy and legal reasons.

Consult both the DOT regulations and your state’s regulations regarding some of these specific records in order to make the best decisions regarding how to organize these other record types. However you choose to organize your records and streamline the audit, provide the auditor only what they asked for.

Rehired Drivers

Rehired drivers who have left the company for more than 30 days must have a new and separate DQ File created upon their return to your company. This requires new documentation for all pre-hire records.

You may use a valid CDL in lieu of a road test. You can build on any successfully conducted Verification of Employment during the original screening process and then conduct verifications for any period since leaving your organization. In addition, drivers who left the company for more than 30 days must undergo a new drug test.

Non-DQ Records

In addition to these necessary items for your driver qualification files, you will also want to have the following critical items accounted for as they can be requested during an audit:

  • An up-to-date copy of FMCSA regulations
  • MCS 90 form with your current liability insurance
  • Drug and Alcohol Testing paperwork, including your company policy and testing procedures, all driver pre-employment test results, and an up-to-date summary of the past calendar year of random tests
  • 6 months of all driver logs
  • Complete maintenance records, including 14+ months of annual inspections for all commercial vehicles in operation and 90 days of post-trip inspection reports for any vehicles with issues or defects
  • A current DOT security plan
  • Drug and alcohol training materials and policies with a signed driver receipt for them (from before hire)
  • A current and up-to-date accident file
  • Documented policies for hiring, discipline, and removal/reinstatement of unqualified drivers from service

Free DQ File Checklist

Save yourself precious time by utilizing a simple checklist and technology to automate the communication and document uploads from your drivers. No more hours wasted pushing papers.

How to Use Compliance Software to Prepare for An Audit

Compliance software is critical to tracking and storing your hundreds of driver documents. It grants ease of access and transfer.

The perks in saving trees and time through digital recordkeeping (and money in the process) have caught on as the government begins entering the digital age.

Now, compliance software is part of several recent changes, such as the establishment of the Clearinghouse and more widespread inclusion of electronic documents and signatures. This points the way to a digital future. 

In light of this trend, compliance software has increased in popularity and value. It’s a more efficient and effective system of record-keeping than the old school file cabinet. Best of all, it leads to fewer day-to-day headaches and less uncertainty when the DOT knocks at your door for an audit. 

You might be wondering: why would you pay for something your safety team already does themselves? Here are just a few of the most powerful reasons that people invest in compliance tracking.

Tracking missing or expired records.

Many safety directors rely on spreadsheets and other messy and imperfect methods to track what expires when.

Compliance software does that for you and can even be set up to warn your team 30, 60, 90 days out when certain important records are going to expire. You’ll have ample time to have your drivers get that physical or license renewal before the expiration date.

Once it's in, it's not going anywhere.

Digital records have automatic backups so they never disappear the way paper records do. Even the most organized filing cabinet has a few stray papers that wind up in the wrong file or stuck behind the drawer.

You don’t have to worry about that if everything is on a computer and online. We’ve been on document scavenger hunts in the back of old trailers looking for an MVR - it’s a bad place to be.

Remote record upload.

Because the system is online, you can also upload records from anywhere, anytime. If a new driver hasn’t sent their copy of their med card yet, you can message them and they can upload it into the system themselves.

It saves a lot of time and pain if they can snap a picture of their license on their phone and send it to you rather than having to come into the terminal at the right time and hand the license to you to scan, which again eliminates the likelihood of missing records come audit time.

Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse Guide

To avoid hefty fines, you need to be up to date on the Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse. Luckily, we have you covered. Check out this article to learn how you can comply, and download our free Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse Guide below.

Download our Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse Guide

The State of DOT Audits in An Evolving World

On our podcast “Solving the Driver Problem”, we cover a variety of topics that attack the pain points facing managers and safety teams every day in professional driving. Two episodes directly address the state of audits and safety in a changing, ever-more-digital world. 

First, our episode featuring Clay Merches covers the “rules of the game” in safety. Merches is the president of LEC transportation safety consulting and a safety expert. He and AvatarFleet president Scott Rea discuss how to adapt your safety efforts to make DOT regulations palatable and easier to navigate when trying to stay compliant.

We also talked to longtime safety expert Irwin Shires and asked about his experience with managing DOT audits. Shires discussed how the digital, remote audit option is changing both how the DOT conducts its typical audits and how companies prepare for them.


It's Time to Take Your DQ Files Digital

Compliance software will continue to grow in popularity as professional driving and the FMCSA adapt to the 21st century. In addition to making day-to-day life easier and more efficient for drivers and safety teams, they can also help ease your mind about potential DOT audits.

If you know exactly where everything is at all times, you worry a lot less about getting fined or worse. Try out a compliance system like A-Suite for free and see if it can help you get (and stay) compliant.

Further Resources

Here are some other resources that might help you prepare and stay up-to-date on DOT audits:

Related Articles