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:
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
The major flags that DOT auditors tend to look for include:
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.
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:
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.
You want to avoid scrambling once you know you’re being audited. Your goal is to always be prepared.
Here are some best practices:
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.
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 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here are some other resources that might help you prepare and stay up-to-date on DOT audits:
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