Every safety and compliance professional remembers that first terrifying letter informing them that they had been selected for a DOT compliance review.
The sweaty palms. The dry mouth. The creeping fear that they had forgotten something critical, something that would sink them and their company for good. Luckily, most safety investigators are not out to get you.
But, they won’t accept ignorance as an excuse, either.
Motor carriers that stay in business year after year do so by staying in the good graces of the DOT, often going well above the minimum requirements set forth at the federal level. They stay ready, so when they do get that “dreaded” call, it’s just another day at the office.
Surviving a DOT compliance audit is all about preparation. You need to know what the expectations are, how to meet them, and how to conduct yourself during the review.
So, buckle up, hunker down, and let’s get you audit-proofed.
Step 1 – Your Response
The DOT will almost never show up at your door unannounced.
Typically, an official letter will be sent to your place of business a week or two ahead of the scheduled review with a request for some preliminary information, or a request to contact the safety investigator for further instructions.
In either case, it is highly recommended that you respond immediately. The investigator may ask for any or all of:
- MCS-90 Form (Insurance Endorsement)
- FEIN Number
- Gross Revenue (Previous Year)
- Current Fiscal Year End Date
- Corporate Officers/Company Official
- Total Commercial Miles Driven (Previous Year)
- Driver List
- Date of Birth
- Date of Hire
- License Number
- License State
- Vehicle List
- Unit Number
- Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)
- License Plate Number
- License Plate State
You may also receive instructions related to specific driver qualification files, hours of service logs or vehicle maintenance files to have on hand for review when the auditor arrives.
Again, whatever the request, make sure you respond in a timely fashion. However, be on the lookout for requests for items that you are not required to have or provide (logs older than six months, for example).
Sometimes, an investigator will make a mistake on the retention requirements for a particular item, but regardless, once they have seen it, all bets are off.
Keep in mind, too, that it is perfectly reasonable and appropriate to ask what triggered the review. Many investigators will be upfront with you, and you can use that information to get an idea of where they will focus their efforts when they arrive.
For instance, if the audit was caused by a driver complaint related to hours of service violations, you can assume they will be digging deep into your logs.
That information can be useful, but under no circumstances should it be used as a justification for doctoring or “losing” required documents. That can get you in very serious trouble with the federal government and simply isn’t worth it in any scenario.
Step 2 – Preparation
Once you have responded to the safety investigator’s requests, it is time to start preparing for the onsite visit.
Whatever has been requested beforehand, once onsite, the safety investigator can ask for anything under the DOT compliance umbrella that you are required to have. It could be anything related to:
- Shipping Documents
- Driver Qualifications
- Hours of Service
- DVIR & Maintenance Records
- DOT Accident Register
- HazMat Placarding
- HazMat Registration
- DOT Alcohol & Controlled Substance Testing
- Safety Management Controls
- Financial Responsibility
- Operations Review
If you haven’t already, now is a good time to conduct your own internal audit in all the categories listed above. Review documentation, check to make sure all your filings are up to date and go over your policies and procedures.
Also, take this opportunity to refamiliarize yourself with the relevant regulations (FMCSRs) for each category. It is always a good refresher, and you never know when you will need to (respectfully) challenge the investigator on a citation or ruling.
By all means, take this opportunity to fix anything that can be fixed, but again, under no circumstances should you try to modify or amend any regulated documentation that cannot be legally changed. It just isn’t worth it, folks.
Step 3 – The Compliance Review
The big day is here, and you are fully at ease, right? If you have responded appropriately to the safety investigator’s requests and followed your preparation steps carefully, you should be ready to rock.
A few things to keep in mind before the investigator arrives:
- If possible, try to reserve a private room for him/her to conduct the audit, preferably a conference room of some kind.
- Do not provide complimentary food or drinks of any kind. They can’t accept, anyway, and it just ends up setting the wrong tone.
- Make sure all your compliance forms, files, and other documentation are on hand, but in another room. As the auditor asks for items, retrieve them from the document room. This protects you from offering more than is necessary or required, which is never a good idea in a compliance review.
- If you keep any non-required documentation in your DQ files, make sure you remove it as part of your preparation. When a safety investigator asks for a DQF, they are asking specifically for the items listed in Part §391.51. Only provide those items for review.
Once there, the investigator will tend to conduct the review in a predictable series of steps:
- The opening interview with the company officials (sometimes, a tour of the facility, as well)
- Financial responsibility review
- Driver qualification file review
- DOT drug & alcohol testing documentation review
- Accident review
- Vehicle maintenance review
- Hazardous materials review
- Hours of service review
- Additional follow-ups with personnel or deeper dives into paperwork, if they find any red flags
The opening interview kicks off the audit and will usually include the company official and any other safety management personnel. Occasionally, corporate officers, presidents or general managers will also be present.
During the opening, the safety investigator will explain the purpose of the visit, answer any initial questions, and possibly ask for a quick tour of the facilities. They will also go through the company compliance records they are planning to review.
Under Part §387 of the federal regulations, motor carriers are required to have minimum amounts of insurance coverage, and coverage must meet the minimum standard for the carrier’s transport types.
The investigator will want to see all policies of insurance, surety bonds, and endorsements required for your operations. They may have already requested your MCS-90, but be prepared to produce your BOC-3 to verify that you have the appropriate service agents, your documents for cargo insurance, or your property broker’s license. See our FAQ section for more information on insurance requirements.
Driver Qualification Files
DQ files are usually next on the list, and they can set the tone for the rest of the compliance review. If your files are orderly and up-to-date, it gives the impression that you run a tight ship, and your other compliance areas will be in similarly good shape.
Disorderly, unkempt DQ files are a red flag to auditors, and they will probably ask to review more than were originally requested to see if a larger pattern exists. They will also dig deeper into other compliance areas, again, looking for a larger pattern of noncompliance.
As mentioned above, make sure your files only contain the items listed in Part §391.51 before handing them over for review. Giving safety investigators items they did not ask for can have major consequences and should be avoided at all costs.
DOT Drug & Alcohol Testing
Next, they will turn to your DOT drug and alcohol program. You will only conduct DOT testing if you utilize motor vehicles requiring a CDL, so not all motor carriers will go through this step.
For those that do, it is best to have all your MIS forms completed as part of your preparation. You do not want to be scrambling for two years worth of testing numbers while the auditor is there, especially if you use a C/TPA that happens to be on vacation that week.
Also, be prepared to provide all negative DOT test results for the previous year, and all positive DOT test results and related paperwork for the previous 5 years. This includes all SAP referrals, recommendations, and return-to-duty/follow-up testing.
Once the investigator has reviewed your accident register for the previous 12 months, they will review your procedures for handling and evaluating accidents. This includes actions the motor carrier may or may not have taken to prevent recurring types of accidents from happening. Think driver retraining, corrective action and the like.
The more documentation you have for these procedures, the better.
Hours of Service
The HOS review will begin with a request for a specific number of logs for specific drivers on specific dates. The auditor may be looking for something in particular, or they may just be picking at random. Either way, provide them exactly what they ask for, and nothing more.
As mentioned above, you are not required to retain or provide hours of service logs older than six months, so be on the lookout for requests that exceed the retention requirements. You cannot be expected to provide those logs, and you cannot be written up for not having them. Remember that.
This review verifies the effectiveness of your maintenance program, including all scheduled repairs and reported issues. This includes all DVIRs, DOT annual inspections, and other related documentation produced over the last 12 months.
It can include actual vehicle inspections, as well, so be prepared for that possibility and have your shop or garage floor ready for visitors.
If you do not haul placardable amounts of hazardous materials, this will not apply to you. For carriers that do fall under HazMat regulations, the auditor will want to review all HazMat shipping papers, material safety data sheets, and hazardous materials incident records.
They will also want to verify current training certifications for all HazMat employees, and they may even check the compliance of a few shipments onsite.
Additional Follow-Ups & Deeper Dives
If there were any areas where you fell short or if the safety investigator found any red flags, expect a deeper dive into that compliance area. If some of your DOT drug test results were missing when requested, for instance, the auditor may dig deeper into your DOT testing program to see if there are any other issues.
This can be amplified when the company officials are caught off-guard and appear to be unaware of an uncovered deficiency. This is why your preparation phase is so important. Make sure you are aware of any problem areas in your program and hit them head-on when asked. Be honest, accept responsibility, and explain your plans for correcting the error moving forward.
To conclude the review, the safety investigator will go through their findings with you and your team. Keep in mind, this is not the time to challenge the findings of the audit. This is simply to go through the report and answer any remaining questions you may have.
If you are confused about anything at this point, now is the time to address it with the investigator. They will usually give you as much information as they are allowed to give, and you can rest assured that you did not leave anything unresolved from your end.
Step 4 – Safety Rating
Within 45-60 days, you will receive your safety rating in the mail from the FMCSA. There are three options:
A Satisfactory rating means that you have adequate safety management controls to meet the safety fitness standard prescribed in §385.5 of the FMCSRs. Safety management controls are adequate if they are appropriate for the size and type of operation of the particular motor carrier.
A Conditional rating means you do not have adequate safety management controls in place to ensure compliance with the safety fitness standard.
This rating will cause an increase in roadside inspections, which usually increases fines and drives up your BASIC scores.
An Unsatisfactory rating means you do not have adequate safety management controls in place, and as a result, violations have occurred. If you are given this rating, your operating authority will be suspended effective 15 days after the service date of the order, and an Operation Out of Service Order will be imposed, prohibiting the carrier from operating any motor vehicle in the US.
If you can produce evidence within 10 days of the service date of the notice that the compliance review contained errors, you can have your rating amended accordingly.
Within 30 days of the Suspension Order, you must take the necessary corrective action detailed in the order, or your provisional operating authority will be revoked. A follow-up review may be necessary to verify that the proper corrective actions are now in place.
Surviving a DOT audit is not rocket science, but you can get yourself into trouble if you do not know how to conduct yourself appropriately. Following the best practices listed above will help you get started on the right foot with the safety investigator and put your company in the best light possible throughout the review.
That said, being audit-proof means having effective safety management controls in place well before you are selected for a site visit. Make DOT compliance a core value of your organization and become one of those elite carriers that never has to worry when they receive an FMCSA notification letter. Better yet, become one of those carriers that never receives a letter in the first place.