Updated: Oct 29, 2020
Aside from a serious accident, there’s really nothing more nerve-racking for a motor carrier than the prospect of a DOT audit, and for good reason. For one, the stakes couldn’t be higher. A DOT audit can result in significant fines, a downgraded safety rating, and even a company-wide out-of-service order, depending on the nature and extent of regulatory violations uncovered. And for another, when the DOT selects you for an audit, you will typically only have 48 hours to prepare, which can leave you scrambling while also trying to run your business.
Having assisted carriers through these audits for the past decade, I’ve seen firsthand just how important it is to prepare for them well ahead of time. In my experience, carriers who have been deliberate about this have, on average, fared much better than those that haven’t, but that really goes without saying.
More specifically, I’ve observed that carriers who have taken all or some combination of the following steps in advance of a DOT audit are the ones most likely to make it out of those audits unscathed.
1. Know where you stand on the DOT’s intervention prioritization list
The DOT rarely conducts random audits. Instead, it prioritizes carriers for intervention based primarily on their Safety Measurement System (SMS) scores. Through the SMS system, carriers are ranked against their peers in 7 different categories known as the BASICs. Each BASIC score is calculated largely on the number and severity of violations discovered in those categories during roadside inspections. Carriers that perform worse than a certain percentage of their peers (e.g., 65%) in two or more of the BASICs are generally more at risk for a DOT audit. Accordingly, it is imperative that carriers routinely monitor their SMS scores to (1) understand what types of violations are contributing to their scores so that they can take remedial action where necessary to address those violations and minimize their chances for an audit; and (2) predict if they may selected for a DOT audit in the near future and what areas, in particular, the agency may focus on.
2. Keep your driver and vehicle lists up to date
Two of the first things the DOT asks for at the beginning of every audit are up-to-date lists of all drivers and vehicles that have operated under the carrier's USDOT number within the past 12 months. From this list, the DOT will build its sampling for driver and vehicle records. It's important that carriers routinely review and update these lists so that they know the universe of files that will potentially be at issue during an audit, and so that they don't start things off on the wrong foot with the auditor.
3. Implement an intuitive filing system for DOT-mandated records
DOT audits are stressful enough when a carrier's files are organized and up-to-date. Imagine the chaos that ensues when a carrier is having to build and paper files on demand during an audit. As counterintuitive as it may seem, the easier you can make the DOT investigator's job, the better off you are. And there's really no better way to do so than to ensure that each and every file that you turn over to the investigator is well-organized, up-to-date, and contains only the DOT-mandated records. Getting these files in order and keeping them up-to-date is a big job, but it should be done well ahead of a DOT audit.
4. Understand the record-rentention requirements and use them to your advantage
The federal (and related state) safety regulations contain specific retention requirements for each and every DOT-mandated record. For example, all hours of service records (e.g., driver logs, supporting documents) must be maintained for six months. Driver files in general must be kept for the life of the driver's employment plus an additional three years, though certain documents within the files can be purged after three years from the date of creation (e.g., MVRs, medical cards, annual reviews, certificates of violation). Carriers should familiarize themselves with the retention requirements for all DOT-mandated records, and should have policies and procedures in place to ensure that documents are either purged or moved into longer term storage after those retention periods have passed. In my experience, keeping documents in DOT files longer than the applicable retention period(s) unnecessarily opens the door to potential violations and should be avoided.
5. Designate a single point of contact
Carriers should designate a single individual (i.e., typically a safety director) to interact with and respond to the requests of a DOT auditor. Having an auditor work through multiple individuals to obtain documents can more easily lead to miscommunications and mixups. Having a single individual handle all audit-related communications ensures that the carrier is having a consistent dialogue and interaction with the agency.
6. Self-audit your DOT records
Perhaps the single most important step that carriers can take to prepare for an actual DOT audit is to conduct their own mock audit ahead of time. Not only does this ensure that the carrier's files and records are in order and up-to-date, but it also helps pertinent staff understand and prepare for the time constraints and stress that comes with an actual audit. Whether the company conducts them in-house or outsources them to a third-party like Trucksafe, we recommend that mock audits occur at least annually and using the same auditing methodology as the DOT.
7. Practice obtaining critical data from third-party vendors
It is common for carriers to rely on third-party service providers to house and/or manage certain DOT-mandated records on their behalf, such as drug/alcohol testing records, driver or maintenance files, hours of service records, or insurance documents. In the event of an audit, the DOT will expect the carrier to directly provide any requested documents within 48 hours of the request. This means the carrier itself will be responsible for reaching out to any of these third-parties, obtaining the requested documents, and then providing them to the auditor in the form requested. Needless to say, it's important that carriers understand precisely how it will go about doing so in the event of a real audit. If possible, carriers should practice doing so in the context of a mock audit in order to ensure that any such third-parties can provide the requested data in a timely manner and in a format that will work for the carrier.
8. Create an audit game plan and communicate it to your team
With so many things to keep in mind and moving parts to manage when it comes to a DOT audit, carriers are well advised to create a written plan of action for a DOT audit. Such plans might identify the company's single point of contact for the DOT, list the locations and means for accessing any and all DOT-mandated documents, provide the contact information for any third-parties that help manage DOT-mandated records, and detail the precise steps for responding to the DOT's requests and who from the company will be involved in doing so. Carriers should distribute their audit plan to all pertinent staff members and should rehearse those plans in the context of their own mock audits.
For even more in-depth pointers on this topic and other DOT enforcement tools (e.g., civil penalties, SMS), be sure to check out the DOT Enforcement Master Class, a comprehensive online training course offered through our Trucksafe Academy. And if you want to know how you would fare in the event of a real audit, be sure to contact us about our mock audit services.