Updated: Oct 13, 2022
No matter the nature of your motor carrier operations (i.e., private, for-hire, passenger, hazmat, household goods), there's really nothing more crucial to your business from a regulatory perspective than your DOT safety rating. It dictates whether or not you are authorized to operate in interstate or intrastate commerce and can also have significant influence on your customer relationships and your auto-liability insurance premiums. Your DOT safety rating is a critical company asset that must be protected at all costs. Failing to do so can result in increased insurance costs, lost business, and even a company-wide out-of-service order.
In this article, we will break down DOT safety ratings and explore (1) what is a DOT safety rating, (2) how to check your DOT safety rating, (3) how the FMCSA determines your safety rating, (4) what happens if you receive a less-than-satisfactory safety rating, and (5) how to improve your safety rating.
What is a DOT safety rating?
First thing's first...what is a DOT safety rating? According to the FMCSA--the federal agency responsible for regulating interstate motor carrier operations--a safety rating is an evaluation of a carrier's compliance with the agency's safety fitness standards, which appear in 49 C.F.R. Part 385. To meet those standards, motor carriers must demonstrate that they have adequate and effective safety management controls in place to comply with the federal motor carrier safety regulations (FMCSRs) and hazardous materials regulations (HMRs) (if applicable). In particular, carriers that meet the agency's safety fitness standards have sufficient controls in place to avoid the following violations/issues:
(a) Commercial driver's license standard violations (part 383 of the FMCSRs),
(b) Inadequate levels of financial responsibility (part 387 of the FMCSRs),
(c) The use of unqualified drivers (part 391 of the FMCSRs),
(d) Improper use and driving of motor vehicles (part 392 of the FMCSRs),
(e) Unsafe vehicles operating on the highways (part 393 of the FMCSRs),
(f) Failure to maintain accident registers and copies of accident reports (part 390 of the FMCSRs),
(g) The use of fatigued drivers (part 395 of the FMCSRs),
(h) Inadequate inspection, repair, and maintenance of vehicles (part 396 of the FMCSRs),
(i) Transportation of hazardous materials, driving and parking rule violations (part 397 of the FMCSRs),
(j) Violation of hazardous materials regulations (parts 170-177 of the HMRs), and
(k) Motor vehicle accidents and hazardous materials incidents.
For carriers whose compliance the FMCSA has specifically evaluated through an on- or offsite audit, there are three possible safety ratings:
Satisfactory. The highest rating available, a satisfactory safety rating means the carrier has adequate safety management controls in place to ensure that its operations are conducted in compliance with the FMCSRs and HMRs (as applicable).
Conditional. A conditional safety rating means the carrier lacks adequate safety management controls to ensure compliance with the FMCSRs and/or HMRs, which could result in one or more of the safety fitness standard issues listed above.
Unsatisfactory. An unsatisfactory safety rating means the carrier lacks adequate safety management controls to ensure compliance with the FMCSRs and/or HMRs, which has resulted in one or more of the safety fitness standard issues listed above.
If you have not yet undergone an FMCSA audit, then you will be "unrated," which is the status of the vast majority of motor carriers currently operating in the U.S.
How do I check my DOT safety rating?
Checking your DOT safety rating is a simple process that can be done online through the FMCSA's Safety and Fitness Electronic Records (SAFER) database, which houses DOT registration information for all regulated motor carriers. To check your safety rating, navigate to the SAFER database and search for your records using your USDOT number, MC number, or company name. Note that searching by company name can sometimes be finicky, so it is best to search by your USDOT number.
FMCSA SAFER Database
Once you locate your SAFER records, you will see the following screen, which lists your basic carrier registration details such as contact information, number of power units, number of drivers, and the type(s) of cargo that you haul.
Sample SAFER Record
If you scroll to the very bottom of the SAFER page, you will see the following data. If you have a DOT safety rating, it will be listed here. If you don't, your rating will be shown as "NONE." Note that this section of SAFER also lists the date (if any) that you received your safety rating.
Sample Carrier Safety Rating
How does the FMCSA determine my safety rating?
The FMCSA determines a carrier's safety rating in accordance with the detailed safety rating methodology contained in Appendix B to 49 C.F.R. Part 385. As a preliminary matter, the FMCSA only issues safety ratings to carriers that have undergone a comprehensive on- or offsite compliance review (a/k/a safety audit). These audits are conducted by either the FMCSA or one of its state enforcement partners. Motor carriers are prioritized for these audits based, in part, on their roadside performance relative to their peers through a system known as the Safety Measurement System (SMS). Carriers with relatively high SMS scores in one or more of the seven measured categories are at an increased risk of an FMCSA audit.
Once a carrier is selected for a comprehensive audit, the investigator evaluates and rates the carrier's compliance in six broad factor areas: (1) general compliance (parts 387 and 390 of the FMCSRs); (2) driver (parts 382, 383, and 391 of the FMCSRs); (3) operational (parts 392 and 395 of the FMCSRs); (4) vehicle (parts 393 and 396 of the FMCSRs); (5) hazardous materials (part 397 of the FMCSRs and parts 171, 177, and 180 of the HMRs); and (6) accidents (based on the carrier's calculated accident rate).
Each individual factor rating depends on the number of "acute" and/or "critical" violations that the investigator uncovers within those factors. "Acute" regulations are those identified as such where noncompliance is so severe as to require immediate corrective actions by a motor carrier regardless of the overall safety posture of the motor carrier. An example is allowing a driver to operate a commercial motor vehicle after having test positive for drugs or alcohol. "Critical" regulations are those identified as such where noncompliance relates to management and/or operational controls. These are indicative of breakdowns in a carrier's management controls.
Whereas a single violation of an acute regulation has the potential to negatively impact a carrier's factor rating, violations of critical regulations require a violation rate of at least 10% of the files checked in order to impact the carrier's ratings. An example is a violation of the 11-hour driving rule. If, for example, an investigator reviews 30 days' worth of driver logs for 2 drivers during the audit (i.e., a total of 60 logs) and discovers 6 11-hour violations, this would amount to a critical violation since 10% of the files checked had that same violation. Click here to download an up-to-date list of all "acute" and "critical" regulations.
Once the investigator completes the audit, he/she will tally the number of acute and/or critical violations in each of the six factor areas. One acute or critical violation in any of the factors will result in a conditional rating in that factor (except in the operational factor, where acute and critical violations are double-weighted and thus result in an automatic unsatisfactory factor rating). Two or more acute or critical violations in any factor will result in an unsatisfactory rating in that factor. And once all factors are tallied, the agency uses the following chart to determine the carrier's overall proposed safety rating:
Safety Rating Table
What happens if I receive a less-than-satisfactory safety rating?
If the FMCSA issues a satisfactory rating following an audit, that rating becomes effective immediately upon its issuance. On the other hand, if the agency intends to issue a less-than-satisfactory rating (i.e., conditional or unsatisfactory) following an audit, the rating will initially be a "proposed" one. For carriers that haul hazardous materials, the rating is "proposed" for a period of 45 days before it becomes final. For non-hazmat carriers, the rating is "proposed" for 60 days before it becomes final.
Proposed conditional or unsatisfactory ratings are subject to change within that time frame based upon either (1) an administrative appeal; or (2) a rating upgrade request premised on the carrier's interim corrective actions. If the carrier files neither an administrative appeal nor an upgrade request, the proposed rating will become final within the listed time frames. If that rating is unsatisfactory, the carrier will become subject to an operational out-of-service order, prohibiting it from operating commercial motor vehicles in interstate or intrastate commerce. If the rating is conditional, the carrier will not be shut down, but very well could experience a significant fall out from that rating in terms of lost business or increased insurance premiums.
How do I improve my DOT safety rating?
If you have either a conditional or unsatisfactory safety rating, you have a couple of options to try and improve that rating. If your final rating was issued within the last 90 days, you can file an administrative appeal of that rating through the FMCSA's headquarters in Washington, D.C. Appeals are appropriate if you believe the investigator has made a legal error in the course of the audit that resulted in the downgraded rating. Appeals are fairly formal in nature and will involve legal briefing and possibly a hearing. If you are considering an administrative appeal, you should consult an attorney.
In addition to or lieu of an administrative appeal, you have the option of correcting the deficiencies that resulted in the downgraded rating, documenting those corrections, and submitting a petition to the FMCSA to upgrade your rating based on your corrective actions. These petitions are jointly handled and reviewed by the FMCSA's applicable state division and regional service center. To prevail on these upgrade requests, it's important that the corrective actions be substantial and well-documented, since it is entirely within the agency's discretion to grant or deny the requests.
Check out our other post where we detail the safety rating upgrade process in even greater detail.
DOT safety ratings are a critical aspect of every regulated motor carrier's operations. To protect your rating, it's imperative that you understand the types of violations that will result in a downgrade, and then take steps to ensure you have no such violations within your files.
If you want to know precisely where you would stand in the event of an actual FMCSA audit, contact us to discuss our mock DOT audit service. And if you would like even more in-depth training on DOT enforcement, including SMS scores and safety ratings, check out our DOT enforcement online training course through Trucksafe Academy.