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A Newbie’s Guide to FMCSA Compliance

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, or FMCSA, is the agency of the Department of Transportation (DOT) charged with regulating the trucking industry in the United States. The FMCSA monitors and ensures compliance with federal motor carrier safety and commercial regulations, utilizing everything from roadside inspections and onsite audits to data scoring and enforcement actions to keep America’s roadways safe for the general public.

But, what is a motor carrier, anyway? Do all trucking companies fall under the FMCSA’s authority? Does truck size matter? What about HazMat?

This post aims to get total beginners up to speed quickly on the ins and out of FMCSA compliance without digging too deeply into the details and finer points of the regulations. If you are starting at the ground floor, this is the place for you.

Let’s get rolling.

Do You Have to Register with the FMCSA?

Some people are surprised to learn that not all transportation companies are required to register as a motor carrier with the FMCSA. The types of vehicles you use and what you haul can both be determining factors, but it is pretty easy to assess, once you know the rules.

In short, you are a motor carrier if one or more of your vehicles:

  • Weighs at least 10,001 pounds, and operates in interstate commerce, or
  • Transports more than 8 passengers (including the driver), for-hire (compensated), or
  • Transports more than 15 passengers (including the driver), private (not for compensation), or
  • Transports amounts of hazardous materials requiring placards (49 CFR, subtitle B, chapter I, subchapter C)

And, that’s it. If any of those definitions describe any of your vehicles, congratulations, you are a motor carrier!

New Entrant Registration & US DOT Number

The DOT provides their Unified Registration System to all new carriers that are registering for the first time. Brand new motor carriers are known as New Entrants, a status that lasts 18 months and includes an initial FMCSA compliance review (or, audit) in the first 12 months.

Before you sit down to register through the URS, make sure you have these required names, numbers, and documents handy:

Once you complete your registration, you will receive a letter with your official USDOT number, your official pin to be used when logging into the FMCSA portal, and some initial instructions for New Entrants.

Operating Authority

Even if you do need a USDOT number, you may not need Operating Authority. It only applies in certain situations:

  • When transporting passengers in interstate commerce (for a fee or other compensation, whether direct or indirect)
  • When transporting federally-regulated commodities owned by others or arranging for their transport, (for a fee or other compensation, in interstate commerce)

If neither of those sounds familiar, chances are you do not need operating authority with the FMCSA. Check the link above if you are not sure, though, and make certain. Heavy fines can result if you are engaged in commercial transport without being registered correctly.


Under DOT regulations, a driver is a person that operates commercial motor vehicles (CMVs). Drivers are usually either employees of a motor carrier or owner-operators, contracting with carriers or operating as carriers themselves.

Part 391 of the CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) provides all the specifics around driver compliance, so let’s just focus on the main points for motor carriers.

Driver List

It is very important to keep an active driver list on file at all times. It helps keep things organized and can be very useful when it comes time to run MVRs. Primarily, though, it is one of the first things that a DOT safety investigator will request, so it is critical to have it on hand and current.

A driver list should have:

  • Name
  • Date of Birth
  • Date of Hire
  • License Number
  • License State


Qualifying a driver for hire is one of the most important compliance processes to perfect, as it can have lasting effects (both good and bad) on your company. Simply put, drivers qualified correctly tend to perform much better than those that were not, in everything from work performance to accident rate. Combined with the potential fines involved when an auditor discovers a noncompliant hiring process, this can be a costly process when done incorrectly.

The items that must be completed when hiring a driver are:

  • DOT-compliant application, fully completed and with employment gaps explained
  • DOT previous employment verifications for all prior driving jobs (last three years)
  • Motor vehicle records for all states in which the candidate lived in the last three years
  • Road test;
    • or, a copy of the candidate’s CDL (if applicable)
  • Medical Examiner’s Certificate
  • Negative DOT pre-employment drug test result
    • Only if candidate is a CDL holder and is being hired for a position that requires a CDL

Driver Qualification Files (DQFs)

Most of the items obtained during the hiring process must be filed in the driver’s DQ file. DQ files also have a number of expiring items that must be renewed at specific intervals as long as the driver is employed with your company.

A DQ file contains:

  • DOT Application
  • MVR (last three years)
  • Certificate of Violations (last three years)
  • Annual Management Review of Driving Record (last three years)
  • Medical Examiner’s Certificate (last three years)
    • If driver is a CDL holder, an MVR verifying state self-certification is required here
    • Proof that a registered and certified medical examiner was used for DOT physical
  • Road test;
    • or, a copy of the driver’s CDL (if applicable)

There are other items that must be retained, like the DOT previous employment verifications and negative drug test result, but they are not required to be in the DQ file. A driver investigation history file is often used for this purpose.

DOT Alcohol & Controlled Substance Testing

If you have any vehicles that require drivers with a CDL, you must have a DOT drug and alcohol testing program in place. There are a number of requirements around this (too many to cover in this post, frankly), so click here to see a full guide to DOT testing.

Right now, let’s just focus on the basics to get you started.

Test Types

A federal chain of custody form must be used when conducting DOT drug or alcohol testing. In fact, that is the only difference between a DOT and a non-DOT test.

There are strict guidelines on when to submit a CDL driver to a DOT test. It can only be done at certain times, namely:

  • Before they are hired (pre-employment screening)
  • After a DOT-recordable accident (when certain criteria are met)
  • When there is reasonable suspicion of intoxication
  • When returning to duty after a controlled substance or alcohol violation
  • Through a random testing process if the carrier has two or more drivers

Random Testing Program

If a motor carrier has two or more CDL drivers that operate CMVs requiring a CDL, a random testing program is required. There are two options when it comes to DOT random testing:

  1. Manage the program yourself, including a compliant random selection process and correct testing percentages for drug and alcohol.
  2. Join a DOT testing consortium, and allow a third party to manage your random testing for you.

Either way, the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that the program is run correctly will be on you as the motor carrier. So, be sure to choose wisely, if you do decide to go with a consortium.

Hours of Service

Hours of service compliance is a key area, to put it mildly. Driver logs can truly make or break you in an audit, and fines can sometimes be a precursor to more severe enforcement action by the FMCSA if the problem is systemic. Many of the worst accidents involving CMVs are due to hours of service violations, so the DOT places a lot of importance on ensuring that motor carriers get this right.

In other words, do not screw this up. Make sure you follow the regulations to the letter here.

Record of Duty Status

All drivers that operate CMVs must record their duty status for each 24-hour period. The methods for doing this are specified in the regulations, but the hours can be recorded on specially-designed cards or in electronic format. All vehicles also must have an automatic onboard recorder (AOBR) that meets the requirements of 395.15.

Duty status must be recorded in one of the four categories listed below:

  • Off Duty
  • Sleeper Berth (if sleeper berth is used)
  • Driving
  • On-duty Not Driving

All driver logs must be retained for six months, at which time they may be discarded.


There are a number of exceptions for records of duty status, but the regulations are the best resource for determining whether or not any of your drivers qualify. Just know that not all drivers are required to log all the time, and there is a moderate learning curve involved before being able to make that determination.


Like drivers, commercial motor vehicles have requirements that must be periodically managed. The FMCSA expects each motor carrier to systematically inspect, repair, and maintain all CMVs that have been under its control for 30 days or more, and keep a record of each maintenance action. This includes leased or borrowed vechicles.

Carriers are allowed to outsource this process (and, often do for leased trucks), but the responsibility to ensure compliance rests with the company using the vehicles, not the owner.

Vehicle List

Having a current vehicle list is just as important as having a current driver list. A vehicle list should have:

  • Type of Vehicle/Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR)
  • Year/Make/Model
  • Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)
  • License Plate Number

DOT Annual Inspections

At least every 12 months, each CMV must be inspected by a trained and/or certified inspector, and documentation of the inspection must be kept on the vehicle. A schedule of other periodic inspections, including type and due date must also be readily available upon request from a safety investigator.

Post-Trip Inspection Reports

All CMV drivers must perform a written or electronic post-trip inspection report at the end of each driving day. This inspection should cover, at a minimum:

  • Service Brakes (including trailer brake connections)
  • Parking Brake
  • Steering Mechanism
  • Lights and Reflectors
  • Tires
  • Horn
  • Windshield Wipers
  • Rearview Mirrors
  • Coupling Devices
  • Wheels and Rims
  • Emergency Equipment

Signed post-trip inspection reports must be kept for three (3) months.

To review all the regulations for vehicle maintenance, see Part 396.


Hazardous materials are substances or materials that the Secretary of Transportation has determined is capable of posing an unreasonable risk to health, safety, and property when transported in commerce. There are many regulations covering who can ship HazMat, where they can ship it, and how.
Suffice it to say, HazMat compliance is a large topic that deserves its own post, so we will stick to the basics here and just cover shipping papers.

Shipping Papers

Companies shipping or hauling hazardous materials must be registered with the DOT and have appropriate documentation on the vehicle. HazMat shipping papers should have:

  • The identification number, identified in the Hazardous Materials Table
  • The proper shipping name, identified in the Hazardous Materials Table
  • The hazard class
  • The packing group, identified in Roman numerals, when required
  • The total quantity of hazardous materials
  • The number and type of packages holding the hazardous contents
  • Any additional description requirements per 49 CFR Section 172.203

Emergency response information must also be included with each HazMat shipment.


All motor carriers are responsible for having adequate financial assurance. It should be able to cover potential costs due to accidents resulting in bodily injury, property damage, and environmental restoration from toxic or environmentally harmful materials discharge.

A carrier may have insurance, surety bonds, or written authorization from FMCSA to be self-insured. The minimum amount is $750,000, but can range up to $5M based on seating capacity for passenger CMVs, gross vehicle weight, and/or commodity type.

For more information on insurance requirements, see our FAQ page.

Accident Register

DOT-recordable accident information must be recorded on an accident register that capture the following information:

  • Date of accident
  • City or town, or most near, where the accident occurred and the State where the accident occurred
  • Driver name
  • Number of injuries
  • Number of fatalities
  • Whether hazardous materials, other than fuel spilled from the fuel tanks of motor vehicle involved in the accident, were released

A DOT-recordable accident is defined as one in which:

  • A fatality occurred
  • One or more vehicles involved in the accident were towed from the scene
  • One or more people involved in the accident were transported from the scene to a hospital

Wrap Up

Getting started with FMCSA compliance can be a daunting endeavor, but hopefully, this post has gotten you started on the right foot and given you some direction on what regulatory areas you need to focus on first. Building a solid compliance program takes time, but putting the right processes in place is a necessary step to ensure a profitable future.

As always, if you would like to know more about how TivaCloud can get you up to speed on FMCSA compliance, request a demo or explore our solutions. We help companies just like you every day in their efforts to become safer, more compliant, and more successful.

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