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Could your DOT safety program use some help?

Trucksafe Consulting, LLC is a full-service transportation safety consulting company, offering both one-on-one consulting services and a library of on-demand training resources and compliance documents. Let us help you build and manage a robust safety program!

About the Authors

Trucksafe's President Brandon Wiseman and Vice President Jerad Childress are transportation attorneys who have represented and advised hundreds of motor carriers (both large and small) on DOT regulatory compliance. Brandon and Jerad are regular speakers at industry events and routinely contribute to industry publications. They are devoted to helping carriers develop state-of-the-art safety programs, through personalized consulting services and relevant training resources. 


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The case for mock DOT audits

Click here to download a copy of our Mock DOT Audits whitepaper, which offers details on the process as well as helpful FMCSA data on real audits.

A few years back, we were asked to conduct a mock DOT audit of a large carrier as part of its annual risk assessment. As is typically the case, we conducted that audit using the same methodology as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), looking for so-called "critical" and "acute" violations across six factor areas: general compliance, driver, operational, vehicle, hazmat, and accidents.

In our review of the operational factor, which primarily covers hours-of-service, we requested a sample of driver logs and supporting documents. And while we discovered only a handful of violations of the actual hours-of-service limits, suggesting the carrier had sufficient safety control measures in place to combat those types of violations, we uncovered a fair number of log falsifications. In particular, we observed that some drivers were routinely mis-logging time as off-duty personal conveyance when that time should have been logged as on-duty driving. Had the time been appropriately logged, these drivers would have exceeded their 14-hour time window for the day. The log falsification rate exceeded 10% of the records reviewed, which, had this been an actual audit, would have resulted in a "critical" violation in the operational factor and an overall conditional safety rating. At the close of the audit, we issued our report, which included recommendations that the carrier take appropriate remedial action with the drivers that had falsified their logs and then take a more proactive approach to weeding out false logs going forward.

Fast forward a few months, and that same carrier was involved in a catastrophic accident that triggered an actual DOT audit. Part of the audit included a review of the carrier's hour-of-service compliance, and coincidentally, the investigator requested records from a few of the same drivers we had selected during our audit. Fortunately, this carrier had heeded our advice in the intervening months and had adequately addressed the log falsification issue. Had it not, the carrier very likely would have received a conditional safety rating following that review, which, if that rating ultimately took effect, would have caused tremendous operational issues, including lost business and increased insurance premiums.

This is just one of many examples of when a carrier's decision to engage in proactive self-critical analysis paid off big time. Unfortunately, our experience is that carriers like this are much more the exception than the rule. Too often carriers are content to don their gear and fight fires as they arise rather than taking deliberate steps ahead of time to prevent--or at least mitigate--those fires. Frankly, this isn't that surprising. Often, a carrier's safety managers, particularly for small- to mid-size carriers, wear many hats and are pulled in several directions. There's just not enough time in the day to sit down and look critically at the company's existing safety protocol and procedures, let alone devote an entire week to conducting a mock audit. So, they pick their battles and fight them as they come.

But this approach is clearly short-sighted. The head-in-the-sand mindset in this industry ignores the reality of regulatory enforcement and nuclear verdicts. Just look around and you'll see countless examples of unaddressed deficiencies in a carrier's safety management controls being exploited in highway accident litigation, leading to multi-million dollar jury verdicts. So what's the solution?

We'd suggest that a small investment of time, energy, and money in conducting self-critical analysis today will inevitably save you thousands, if not millions, of dollars and serious operational headaches in the future. In the same way that routine health checkups are critical to identify issues before they become life-threatening, so too are periodic self audits of a carrier's safety program. If you're still not convinced, here are just a few of the major benefits of periodic self-audits.

Self-audits reveal regulatory gaps and help minimize enforcement

In another article, we highlighted the recent uptick in FMCSA audits. When the FMCSA or its state partners come in to conduct a compliance review, they are looking primarily at the carrier's driver files, hours-of-service records, maintenance files, drug/alcohol testing records, and hazmat paperwork (as applicable). They are combing these files for so-called critical and acute violations (click here to download a list of critical and acute regulations). Previously, we discussed exactly how the agency calculates a carrier's safety rating based on the number and types of violations discovered during an audit. In addition, violations can also lead to hefty civil penalties.

With this process in mind, one key benefit of a carrier self-audit is that it will identify any regulatory gaps ahead of time before they become major issues during an audit and, more importantly, to hopefully keep you out of the DOT's crosshairs to begin with. By identifying these gaps, carriers can take appropriate remedial action to close them and then develop and implement the necessary policies and procedures to prevent them from reoccurring in the future.

Whether conducted internally or by a third-party, the first of these self audits will inevitably reveal a number of gaps or deficiencies that need corrected; however, carriers who routinely conduct these audits will find the number and severity of gaps will tend to decrease over time, which is the goal. Indeed, self audits are a crucial part of the safety management cycle that we preach to anyone willing to listen! In the same way routine health checkups are critical to catching medical issues before they develop into serious problems, self audits help carriers identify and fix problem areas before they create major regulatory issues or cause an accident.

Safety Management Process

Self-audits can reduce insurance premiums

According to a 2020 study of the impact of so-called "nuclear jury verdicts" on motor carrier operations, the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) found that large verdicts against motor carriers, typically due, at least in part, to gaps in their safety programs, has led to skyrocketing insurance premiums over the past few years. One carrier reported a 100% increase in premium from $340,000 to $700,000 year over year. According to the same study, the rising insurance premiums are forcing many small- to mid-size carriers out of business.

While there are several factors that go into the insurance underwriting process, a carrier's susceptibility to large jury verdicts and regulatory enforcement certainly play a big part. In this regard, a carrier's safety program often takes center stage when it comes to determining whether the carrier is insurable and setting its premium. That in mind, and recognizing that some hikes are market driven and inevitable, the best way for carriers to keep their premiums as low as possible is to be proactive with their safety programs and to work to close gaps to the satisfaction of the insurer. Minimizing exposure--something that can't be done without self-critical examination--is the name of the game.

Self-audits can protect against nuclear verdicts

As explained in the ATRI study, nuclear verdicts rarely result from the facts of the particular accident at hand; rather, they stem from a jury that is bent on punishing a carrier for a less-than-stellar safety history. The meteoric rise in these cases over the past decade can be attributed, in part, to information-sharing within the plaintiff's bar. Indeed, there are books, articles, and entire conferences devoted to teaching plaintiff's attorneys how to attack a motor carrier's reputation in highway-accident litigation. As you might expect, this includes exploiting gaps in the carrier's safety program and inflaming the minds of the jury.

Cases with verdicts over $1 million (ATRI)

While nuclear verdicts can be blamed largely on abusive litigation tactics, the carriers who succumb to such verdicts are not faultless. Had they spent the time and effort necessary to identify and resolve the underlying safety issues, then perhaps they wouldn't have been so susceptible in the first place. Did they deserve a multi-million dollar verdict that really had nothing to do with the underlying accident? No...but they did deserve to be called out on their regulatory gaps and safety deficiencies. Ideally, this would be dealt with through FMCSA enforcement rather than private litigation, but this is the world we're living in.


Simply put, self-audits offer many important benefits. Too many carriers ignore these benefits because they don't want to spend the time, money, or effort to do these audits themselves or hire them out. But the stakes are simply too high in this industry to take the head-in-the-sand approach.

If you have questions about the mock audit process or the auditing services that Trucksafe provides, please contact us. And be sure to download a copy of our Mock DOT Audits whitepaper to read more on the process.



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