Preparing for a DOT Audit

Published On: December 22, 2023By Categories: Safety, Safety Matters

Knowing what goes into an audit can help companies get the rating they want and keep employees safe.

By Jerome E. Spear, CIH, CSP, FAIHA, and Georg Marcum

Whether a company includes a fleet of trucks or has just one commercial vehicle, the anticipation of a U.S. Department of Transportation safety compliance audit can be a nerve-wracking experience—that is, if you’re not prepared.

The best way to pass a DOT audit is to be certain you are in compliance in the first place. And secondly, the company’s management team understands the regulations they are subject to and what records the DOT expects to see.

Staying on top of those regulations is more important than ever since the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) came out with an updated enforcement and compliance model. It targets the safety problems of motor carriers and their drivers in an attempt to reduce commercial motor vehicle crashes and fatalities.

Comprehensive Safety Analysis 2010 establishes a nationwide system for making the roads safer for motor carriers and the public alike. It also creates a new Safety Measurement System (SMS) that measures the previous two years of roadside violations and crash data.

With SMS, every inspection counts, not just out-of-service violations, and both driver and carrier safety performance are monitored. These investigations are examinations carried out by a certified Safety Investigator on individual motor carriers. The goal of these investigations is to evaluate compliance with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations and Hazardous Materials Regulations.

The SMS considers the:

  • Number of safety violations and inspections
  • Severity of applicable violations or accidents
  • Surrounding time frame
  • Number of vehicles a carrier operates, and number of miles traveled.

Added to these, acute and critical violations found during FMCSA investigations are used to organize the SMS data into seven behavior analysis and safety improvement categories, called BASICs:

  • Unsafe driving
  • Crash indicator
  • Hours-of-service
  • Vehicle maintenance
  • Controlled substance/alcohol
  • Hazardous materials compliance
  • Driver fitness.

BASIC Intervention Thresholds

The SMS groups carriers by BASICs with other carriers that have a similar number of safety events (crashes, inspections, or violations). It then ranks carriers and assigns a percentage from 0 to 100 (the higher the percentage, the worse the performance or level of noncompliance) to prioritize them for interventions.

A following on-site audit will be required to determine if the proposed unsatisfactory safety rating becomes final. However, the FMCSA is more focused on off-site audits, making it more critical that companies shift to using electronic files.

Motor Carrier Safety Rating

The motor carrier safety rating is an evaluation given to an interstate commercial motor carrier. A safety rating is determined by a DOT audit, which may be triggered in response to a request to change a safety rating, to investigate regulations by motor carriers, or to investigate complaints or other potential safety violations.

One of three safety ratings will be issued following a DOT audit: satisfactory, conditional, or unsatisfactory.

A satisfactory rating means a motor carrier has in place and functioning adequate safety management controls to meet the safety fitness standard (49 CFR §385.5)

A conditional rating means a motor carrier does not have adequate safety management controls in place to ensure compliance with the safety fitness standard.

An unsatisfactory rating means a motor carrier does not have the safety management controls in place to ensure compliance with the safety fitness standard.

The results of routine roadside truck inspections can also result in a conditional or unsatisfactory rating. When the roadside inspections result in an “out-of-service finding of more than 34%,” the carrier receives an unsatisfactory rating. Any HAZMAT deficiencies found during a roadside inspection also results in an unsatisfactory rating.

Generally, once a carrier receives an unsatisfactory motor carrier safety rating, the company has 60 days to write a safety management plan that addresses the deficiencies identified in the audit and explain what is being done to improve its fleet safety operations.

A subsequent on-site audit will be required to determine if the proposed unsatisfactory safety rating becomes final. If an unsatisfactory rating becomes final, the carrier will be required to cease interstate motor carrier operations.

An onsite DOT audit evaluates the company’s safety performance and confirms proper and complete recordkeeping. The review also determines if the company has adequate management controls in place to ensure compliance with Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.

A DOT audit covers four main factors—drug and alcohol testing, driver qualifications, hours-of-service, and vehicle maintenance.

Drug and Alcohol Testing

The DOT’s substance abuse testing requirements include pre-employment drug testing (§382.301), post-accident drug and alcohol testing (§382.303), random drug and alcohol testing (§382.305), and reasonable suspicion (§382.307).

A written drug and alcohol testing policy is required and is reviewed during an audit to ensure it contains all required components that are covered in the policy. The policy must be distributed to CDL drivers and a signed receipt from each driver must be on file and available for inspection.

The DOT auditor reviews records to determine if testing complied with regulations, tests were conducted on federal custody and control forms, and training for supervisors on “reasonable suspicion” testing was completed.

To gauge whether the company’s pre-employment drug testing is sufficient, inspectors will pull the records on newly hired drivers to make sure there is proper documentation on approved DOT testing forms. If documentation cannot be provided that new drivers are being tested according to DOT regulations, the audit results will be impacted.

The inspectors will also examine the previous year’s program and testing to assure that 50% of the company’s drivers have been randomly tested for drugs and 10% for alcohol.

Driver Qualifications

As part of the DOT audit preparation, the company should pull all driver qualification files that contain information such as when a driver’s license will expire. It should also make available safety performance files, which include forms that address a driver’s driving history.

Also present in the files should be documentation of reference checks conducted for all new hires that indicate previous employers were contacted and asked about the new hire’s accident and safety history.

The driver qualification file should also include the driver’s employment application in the driver’s own handwriting. HAZMAT drivers must also clear a background check by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies as well as the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

There should also be evidence that every driver’s motor vehicle records were obtained for the previous three years and examined as well as documentation of any driver training and testing. This includes a driver certificate of violations and annual certifications.

The files should also include each driver’s medical cards showing the results of their last three years of physical exams, which must be conducted by a licensed doctor listed in the national registry according to DOT regulations.

Driver qualification files should indicate all training that the driver received, written tests on traffic regulations, and the results of company-administered road safety tests. This training should include entry-level driver training for employees with less than one year of experience in professional interstate travel.

Driver safety training is generally recommended to be conducted on a regular basis, which may include training at weekly or monthly safety meetings. Conducting a driver safety training class once a year for high-risk drivers or high-volume drivers as well as conducting ride-along observations are also recommended practices.

In short, companies should be proactive about their drivers’ safety performance and continually observe their performance, including providing feedback to their drivers. Insurance carriers have a vested interest in reducing the risk of auto liability claims for their insureds and may offer loss control services, such as driver safety training classes and mock DOT audits to reduce such risks.


Another factor a DOT safety audit will examine is whether the company’s drivers are meeting the hours-of-service requirements and are keeping accurate and complete logbooks. The DOT expects six months of driver logs and supporting documents to be made available during the review. A carrier is expected to maintain a file (electronic or paper) for each regulated driver. The DOT examines these logs for violations of:

  • Form and manner (§395.8[d])
  • Hours-of-service (§395.3)
  • Falsification of logs
  • Unaccounted hours (yard moves).

Form and manner are simply the information required on the driver’s log. Hours-of-service violations occur when a driver exceeds the 11 hours, 14 hours, or 60 hours in seven days or 70 hours in eight days rules. Falsification is checked using supporting documents that may be requested.

A log must be maintained by every driver in accordance with DOT regulations. So, make sure the drivers are filling out their logs completely and not exceeding the maximum hours allowed behind the wheel.

Motor carriers are required to use electronic logging devices (ELDs) when they use drivers logs for eight or more days in a month. To satisfy this requirement, several items must be on hand in a driver’s cab. These include a paper logbook to back up the ELD, an instruction card on how to use the ELD, and the ELD device.

Vehicle Maintenance

Part of the DOT audit will include verifying that every vehicle and trailer a company owns or operates has a written maintenance record that documents the vehicle is in good repair and is regularly inspected, repaired, and maintained. This includes inspections that drivers do themselves as well as annual inspections, vehicle maintenance logs, and the qualifications of those employees conducting the inspections.

Every repair or maintenance activity must be recorded—even changing a tire.

Each vehicle should have a vehicle maintenance file. In addition to containing records of all repairs, inspections, or maintenance performed on that vehicle, the file should clearly detail the following:

  • Company number (or license plate number)
  • Model and year
  • Vehicle identification number (VIN) or serial number
  • Tire size
  • Owner (if not the motor carrier).

Except for annual inspections, maintenance records are required to be kept in the file for 12 months. In addition, 14 months of annual or periodic inspections must be maintained by the carrier. The DOT verifies that annual/periodic inspections are performed by certified inspectors. Certification is also required for anyone performing CMV brake system work.

Roadside inspection documentation should be maintained for at least one year. The DOT examines inspection forms to determine if the carrier has performed required repairs discovered on a vehicle during a roadside inspection and that a signed inspection form was returned to the issuing agency within 15 days of completion of the repair.


Remember that regardless of the rating a company has going into the audit, a successful audit or reaudit can wipe the slate clean. The alternatives are hefty fines, elevated insurance premiums, stoppage of operations, and most important, endangering drivers and the public. These risks can largely be minimized by staying compliant each and every day.

Jerome E. Spear, CIH, CSP, FAIHA, is president and founding partner at forensic consultants Spear & Lancaster, which is located in Magnolia, Texas. They provide expert safety, process safety, and industrial hygiene consulting. He can be reached at



Georg Marcum is owner of Marcum Enterprises LLC in Port Allen, Louisiana. Their services include helping companies improve fleet safety and DOT compliance.

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