A fact of life in professional driving is the audit. 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. Safety teams live for preparing for these audits, but often they 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 understand, prepare for, and pass DOT audits and eliminate that uncertainty. In this guide, you will find:
- 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.
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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 followup 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.
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, or 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.
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 everyday 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.
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.
Managing your DQ Files doesn’t have to be a thorn in your side. You should never lose a wink of sleep when you find out you’re going to receive a DOT audit.
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.
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
- 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
- expiration on each unexpired commercial license
- Driver must note if any license was suspended, revoked or forfeited with in 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 time stamp 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 error 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.
- Document the evidence in your Applicant Tracking System
- Reporting employers must sign and date the PEV request and send back within 30 days of receiving
- Complete documented efforts before 30 days from the date of hire
- 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 skill 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.
- 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/Annual Review
- This Annual Review is a separate document signed and discussed by both the driver and manager.
- Ideally, a new Annual MVR should be completed the same day as the Annual Review.
- Drivers and managers must sign and date the 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 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 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.
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
Managing this checklist for your fleet is a taxing process. Use the A-Suite to automate collecting, building and tracking your DQ files. Get back to more important tasks than paper pushing by trying the A-Suite Free today:
What Happens If You Fail A DOT Audit?
- 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: https://ai.fmcsa.dot.gov/NewEntrant/SafetyAudits.aspx. 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 to Use Compliance Software to Prepare for An Audit
No one has ever accused the government of being cutting edge technology adopters. Without a literal act of congress, the FMCSA will have to audit your files in person for it to be on the record. That changed with the COVID-19 National Emergency Declaration which allowed for remote audits to go on the record. Emergency Declaration or not, this digital trend was started before COVID-19. For this reason, compliance software has never been more critical to track and store your hundreds of driver documents for ease of access and transfer. The perks in saving trees and time through digital recordkeeping (and money in the process) have caught on are a part of several recent changes, such as the establishment of the Clearinghouse and more widespread inclusion of electronic documents and signatures, that point the way to a digital future.
In light of this trend, compliance software has increased in popularity and value as a more efficient and effective system of record keeping than the old school file cabinet, leading to both fewer day to day headaches and less uncertainty when the DOT knocks at your door for an audit. But why would you pay for something your safety team already does themselves?
- 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.
- Quick and easy access. When the COVID-19 National Emergency Declaration is lifted, audits on the record will still need to be conducted in person. However, the DOT plans to use remote audits to identify if an in-person audit is necessary. You’re going to have to scan and digitize your Driver Qualification Files for this purpose. Pro-tip: do it now while you’re not under the gun. We’ve scanned a lot of DQ Files in our day from clients who said their files were perfect - it’s never true because paper + humans = errors. This exercise will be a good scrub of your files.
- 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. That’s very convenient for the difficulties of right now, but also after the pandemic ends as well. Since drivers are always on the go, 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.
Compliance software will continue to grow in popularity as professional driving and the FMCSA adapts 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 out in getting compliant and set for audits.
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.
Some other resources that might help you prepare and stay up-to-date on DOT audits:
- The up to date full digital FMCSA regulations
- A list of entries from our blog on audits and maintaining compliance with DOT regulations:
- AvatarFleet's DQ File Checklist
- Four Items For Your DOT Audit Checklist
- Get The Most Out of DOT Compliance Software
- Now's The Time To Invest in A Compliance Tracking System
- FMCSA Remote Audits Increase
- The Ultimate Guide to DOT Compliance | AvatarFleet
- Updates To The Hours Of Service Regulations