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The Ultimate Guide to DOT Compliance

A Brief History of DOT Compliance

DOT compliance tends to fall under a basic principle: these are the rules, so this is what you and your drivers need to do. In some ways, it is that simple. You need this record by that date. But compliance in transportation has always followed a pendulum swing of regulation. Often, changes involve specific concerns like rising accidents or a struggling industry. But as long as the government has been involved in regulating trucking, they have created rules, and none of those rules have eliminated accidents. Here’s a brief summary of how the government has attempted to regulate trucking:

Governments have been interested in the transportation of goods for millennia, but the widespread concept of protecting the public from the hazards of transportation is relatively new.

History of Trucking

Government intervention began in 1843 with the railroads, which were essentially a monopoly. They could bully shippers and charge unfair tariffs and the federal government decided to do something about it.  Early regulations focused on interstate commerce.

Then, in 1935 Congress passed the Motor Carrier Act, issuing a scant eight pages of regulations related to safe operations and followed up in 1937 with the first hours of service rules.

Skipping ahead to 1967, Congress established the Department of Transportation (DOT), alongside the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in an attempt to police the growing trucking industry.

The Federal Motor Carrier Act deregulated trucking in 1980, citing the stringent rules and regulations as problematic. The new act sought to undo the laws that previously made trucking an exclusive industry for established carriers and caused logistical headaches with the existing “lanes” system of restricted transportation between states. Soon, you really only needed a CDL and a truck to join the market, so new companies began to pop up all over. The old, established marketplace became chaotic. Within a few years, large established carriers were out of business, replaced by upstarts who lacked the knowledge and capitalization to implement sound safety and operational policies. At first, deregulation appeared to be a smashing success. After all, lower transportation costs meant everything would cost a little less for everyone. But unintended consequence of deregulation began to emerge, namely the deterioration of public safety. Accidents rose as a result of more inexperienced truckers on the road.

The Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act was introduced in 1986. Once again, the intent was honorable: improve highway safety. This time the goal was to ensure that truck, bus and motor coach drivers were better qualified. Even with CDL requirements in place, things continued to worsen, and the safety of heavy vehicles was being called into question as a result of several high-profile collisions.

Mike Wallace and 60 Minutes presented a scathing report on March 15, 1987 entitled Killer Trucks, which gained serious attention from Congress. Rules and regulations returned as a way to try and improve safety and score political points. Unfortunately, many of these rules and regulations only half-worked or didn’t work at all.

Mandatory drug testing came out in 1989 – a good idea, but not well executed again. The system has often been criticized for its flaws and failure to establish a foolproof program.

New hours of service rules took effect in 2004, aimed at reducing on-duty time for drivers and increasing the time a driver must take off between shifts. The DOT doubled down on these rules with the recent move to electronic logs in trucks.

CSA enters the picture in July 2010. It was designed for law enforcement to prioritize poor safety performers, but to date it’s unclear how effective it has been.

FMCSA has published their most recent rules and regulations both in print and online for 2019. You need to know them, of course, but it’s important to remember the same fact that was true in 1919 is true today; rules and regulations do not constitute safety. Only drivers who practice safe behaviors can reduce the risk that leads to accidents.

What Is DOT Compliance?

The Department of Transportation has a large body of rules and regulations that govern commercial drivers. Who can drive what vehicles where and when is the gist of DOT regulations. They are designed with the intention of keeping drivers, both professional and amateur, safe on the road. Even if they don’t seem to work or make sense or you don’t agree with them, they still have to be followed. As a member of a safety team, it’s your job to follow those regulations to the letter for each and every driver.

So what does day to day compliance look like? Depending on the size of your safety team and how your company divvies up responsibilities, a normal day could look very different from another safety person. It probably consists of some combinations of jobs: reviewing applications, conducting training and road tests, checking driving records, requesting employment verifications, helping dispatchers route drivers just to name a few. Whatever your responsibilities, there are a few compliance questions to ask yourself that apply to just about everyone who works on a safety team that can help you be successful.

The Annual CVSA International Roadcheck June 5-7 2018-1

Day 1: What You Need to Know

Responsibilities - What am I generally expected to do in my position? What parts of DOT compliance am I personally responsible for?

Organization - What do I need to track, when is it due, how does my company do those things? If your company uses a software system, how do I upload and look at records and where does each one go? If we’re still using paper files (sad face), how do we file each record?

Language - What do certain terms mean? What kind of terminology do we use and how does this transition to DOT terminology (ex: do we call it annual review or Certificate of Violations?)

Compliance - What do I need to do TODAY? How does our system for tracking everything help me do that?

Support - Who can I call or where can I go to if I have questions or need assistance? What is the chain of command in my terminal/location?

Helpful Hints - Are there specific ways to achieve my daily tasks faster? Do we have a way to get electronic records uploaded faster? Do we have tricks within our software or hiring/retention process to speed things along while still maintaining maximum compliance?

These are just a few general things you need to be aware of to be successful when you start out maintaining compliance of driver records. Your job may entail more or less than what is mentioned here. But the point is that you have a lot on your plate from the get-go and on a day to day basis. Even for handful of people, this is a lot of work, and you should have some system of support in place, whether that’s a clear division of duties, a cheat sheet of daily jobs or record-keeping programs.

But all of this also highlights one of the easiest things to forget about a compliance job: Compliance and safety ARE NOT the same thing.

Compliance Is Not Safety

One of the most important things to remember during the compliance process is that “compliance” and “safety” are not the same thing. Compliance is following DOT and state mandated rules and regulations in how you evaluate and monitor your drivers. Safety means going above and beyond the minimum requirements in order to minimize risk as much as possible.

Compliance is important and must be considered as part of the safety process. You need to know your drivers are safe and healthy on the road, for their safety and that of others. It is important to closely watch drivers by checking MVRs diligently and putting new drivers through road training. These can reveal poor driving habits and unsafe behaviors that cause accidents. If you can identify these before something bad happens, you may take steps to minimize the risk caused by these behaviors.

But it’s equally important to remember that compliance is one part of the safety puzzle. Safe driving practice come with enforced, repeated action. The right kind of training and orientation can help with that. Rigorous hiring standards can as well. These are parts of a larger idea of a company-wide culture of safety. If you always put safety first in all aspects of your company, and follow through on that mandate, drivers will eventually get the picture.

In this way, we try to help trucking companies improve both their compliance and safety efforts. These are integrated and complementary, but not the same thing. Record-keeping is important, but it should not be all the time you spend on safety on a daily basis. We can help you improve both at the same time with renewed focus rather than more hours in a day you don’t have.

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How to Achieve 100% DOT Compliance

DOT compliance requires a lot of attention. There are many records you are expected to maintain and many rules the DOT wants you to remember. And sometimes, those rules even change a bit. With that in mind, it’s extremely important to get in the habit of knowing what to look for for each record. Practice looking for the little details and soon you’ll be a compliance expert in no time.

But how do you know what to look for? The DOT lists everything in their rules manual, but the legal jargon and list of exceptions will give you a headache. Better to keep it simple and list only the essentials, and when there’s a weird case, then you can go to the book. It helps to go record by record and to keep separate folders within a file for different driver paperwork.

DQ File Items Checklist

Driver Qualification - The records from a driver’s initial hire paperwork and their annual renewal paperwork

Application- An application should list up to date demographic information (name, address, phone number, email, social), residence history for at least the past 3 years, work history for at least the past 3 years plus 7 years (a total of 10 years) of DOT safety sensitive jobs. Your application should have a checkbox for each position to clarify if a job is safety sensitive or not. If the driver isn’t sure, assume that it was and run a verification for that position. Better to be safe than sorry. Also, be sure the driver accounted for any gaps in employment for the required 3+ years. Finally, an application should have a driver’s history (license, accidents, violations) and the driver’s signature and date.

Disclosure and Authorization Forms - If your application does not include this release at the end of the form, you will need individual forms (which is better anyway) that permit you to conduct your necessary background checks for a driver’s criminal, driving and safety history. The driver must sign and date these forms before you run your checks. You should also have a release form for financial history (under the Fair Credit Reporting Act) if your company conducts these investigations for positions.

Pre-Hire MVR- Every driver needs their driving record checked before they drive. Easy enough. But the hiring process can sometimes take a while, and it’s important to remember three key facts. One, that you need to run an MVR for each state the driver held a CDL in the past three years. Two, that a Pre-Hire MVR is different than a regular one, in that Pre-Hire packages go back at minimum three years (what the DOT requires for this record) instead of just one. And third, that the MVR has to be run within 30 days of hire or else you need to run another one. If you hire a driver into a training program where they are not an active driver, be sure to specify this in a driver’s file.

Previous Employment Verification - The one that often gets people confused, mad and in trouble. If a driver worked in a safety sensitive position of any kind, you are expected to get permission and then a response for that position. Not every company is as punctual or cooperative as you would like, but it’s critical that you make the proper effort to contact each of these past employers for a driver. The DOT counts three “good faith” efforts as a valid attempt to verify. This means that on three different days, you tried to contact that employer. In the digital age, this is not terribly hard. Sending an email with the form attached and calling to ask the questions over the phone three times will do it. If you are still mailing out paper verifications via USPS, you are causing yourself unnecessary pain with the waiting game. But that still would require three different mailings. Keep all record of your attempts to contact regardless if you got a response or not, and make sure they are all complete or attempted within 30 days of hire. This is the way that the government most often tries to fine people for record negligence, along with maintenance records.

Road Test - Every driver needs to prove that they can operate the vehicle they will be driving. Most companies accept a valid CDL as proof that a driver is able to operate their commercial vehicle, and that is completely fine. But it’s never a bad idea to conduct your own road tests, especially for drivers with less experience. Brand new drivers, of course, will need to be tested either by you or a third party company. Always keep a copy of the original CDL or road test results for a driver in their file.

Medical Certificate/Med Card - The DOT recently switched to a universal Med Certificate that every DOT driver in the country now has to use. Each medical examiner has to fill it out the same way after conducting a physical, and sign it along with the driver. The med card must always be completely filled out and match the certification information that appears on a driver’s current MVR. If a driver’s medical information changes, you have to run a Medical MVR so that everything matches the up to date med card. Med cards are valid for any period from 30 days to 2 years at the examiner’s discretion. You must also supply proof of the medical examiner’s validity with a copy of their entry in the National Medical Examiner Registry Database.

Annual MVR - Once a year (or more often if need be), a driver’s driving record must be run through the state database. The report must have the driver’s name, license information, and medical information match their current CDL and med card. The report must list any and all violations for the driver that occurred in the past year, which you must note if there are any.

Certificate of Violations/Annual Review - Terminology sometimes gets confused here. The Annual Review and Annual MVR are technically two different records. Also called the Certificate of Violations, the review takes place immediately after running a driver’s MVR. Ideally, the manager and driver sit down and review the MVR and both sign and date the COV/Annual Review sheet afterwards. Technically, this form is supposed to be completed the same day as the MVR, but the real world often prohibits that efficiency. Just be sure to complete the form within a few days and always date the expiration as the same date as the MVR for next year. These can be on paper or electronic now, and should match the violations listed on the MVR.

Criminal Background Check - Once you have authorization to do so, you will conduct a background check on a driver through the appropriate agencies, meaning the national sex offender registry, and the county, state and national criminal databases. Most criminal background agencies run these four by standard, but be sure to double check that your preferred reporter does so as well.

7 Day Log - Every new driver operating a commercial vehicle has to fill out and sign a Record of Hours or 7 day log, listing all the time they have driven in the previous week to ensure for safety purposes they do not exceed the DOT mandated hour limits upon starting their new job. The manager should review and sign that document and make sure if they have any previous road time in the past week, to limit their driving to a suitable amount of hours.

Training - any type of new driver or remedial training may go in this folder. This can encompass anything from orientation materials to driving practice to written knowledge based tests. If your state requires certain types of training (ex: New York 19A training) those should be kept here as well.

Medical - any medical paperwork besides the medical card/certificate should go here. This includes physical long forms, medical waivers (ex: diabetes, eyesight, sleep apnea) or any other special medical treatment that could potentially affect a driver’s abilities behind the wheel. If you need to run a Medical MVR to update a driver’s medical information, that should still go in the Driver Qualification Folder.

Personnel/HR - any paperwork outside the realm of driving, including things like payroll forms, insurance information, emergency contact or union paperwork should be stored here. These documents, of course, do not have to be kept with these other folders, but if you prefer to keep everything in one file, this is the recommended way to divide these out.

Accidents - Accidents unfortunately do happen. Accident reports and information should be stored in a separate folder all to themselves and follow your company’s accident policy regarding what documents need to be there.

Drug and Alcohol - Any documents pertaining to pre-hire or random drug testing, or a driver rehabilitation program should be kept here in their own folder. DOT rules demand that this folder be only accessible to certain identified individuals in your company. For a paper file, this might mean storing this folder in lockup somewhere separate from the other folders here, or electronically, making sure only certain need to know administrators have the password/access to view these documents.

Maintenance and Logs - Maintenance records are typically maintained by a tech in charge, but be sure to periodically (politely and within reason) check to make sure repairs and inspections are conducted as required or needed. You’ve likely made the transition to electronic logs by now; store these in their own folder on your computer in an easy to find place and review them weekly. Note any adjustments or errors that you find or need to make.

We also have a shorter checklist you can download using the button below!

DQ File Items Checklist

DOT Compliance Software

Safety staff are busy folks. Even if they possess the knowledge and desire to follow compliance requirements to the letter, that doesn’t mean they will always have time. Drivers come and go from the terminal. Previous employers don’t get back to you. You have to run 500 MVRs. You have to interview and hire people. Compliance is just one of the many tasks on a daily basis for most safety personnel.

For that reason, compliance software programs exist to streamline the process. Designed for the speed and necessities of the modern age, compliance programs reduce the record-keeping workload to only the essentials. By funneling record checks into a customizable dashboard that only tells you the information you want to know- what’s coming due, what’s missing, what’s expired- these programs eliminate time spent poring over spreadsheets or flipping through paper files. Plus, some programs, like ours, A-Suite, also come with integrated recruiting software and plug-ins to third party verification companies, allowing you to streamline the entire driver hiring and maintenance process from day one. In other words, compliance software makes many parts of your job as quick, simple and pain-free as possible. Depending on how your day to day operations go, compliance software might be worth the investment for you.

Read the articles below to learn more about DOT Compliance Software.

Additional Learning

We understand DOT Compliance can be a complicated subject to take in at once - that's why we assembled all of our blog posts for you to take in bit by bit with the links below.

We'd love for you to check out our additional resources and please subscribe to our blog for weekly updates on driver recruiting, training, compliance and retention articles

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