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What prompts a DOT compliance audit?

Updated: Sep 1, 2022


Highway transportation is one of the heaviest regulated industries in the U.S., and it should come as no surprise that regulators keep a pretty close watch on those operating in this industry. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)--a subagency of the USDOT--is the federal agency charged with regulating highway transportation safety. For years, its primary enforcement mechanism for ensuring that regulated carriers comply with the multitude of safety-related regulations has been the compliance review or safety audit.



As we've addressed in a prior article, 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. DOT audits come in many forms--new entrant, focused, comprehensive, on-site, and off-site.


The FMCSA is a relatively small agency, though it is tasked with regulating nearly 600,000 carriers and millions of commercial drivers across the country. This in mind, the agency lacks the personnel to audit a significant percentage of regulated carriers at any regular interval. Accordingly, it has to prioritize carriers for audit. Understanding what factors the agency uses to prioritize carriers for audit is important for all carriers to understand so they can do their best to keep out of the crosshairs. What follows is a list of the most common triggers for a DOT compliance review. While this list is not exhaustive, the following issues lead to the vast majority of DOT audits.

Number of Audits by Reason

High CSA scores can prompt an audit.

Since 2010, the FMCSA has relied primarily on its Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) program, and more specifically, its Safety Measurement System (SMS), to prioritize carriers for audit. SMS is a system that scores all regulated motor carriers using data gathered through roadside inspections, crashes, and investigations occurring within the past 24 months. Violations discovered through inspections and/or investigations are assigned to one of seven categories known as BASICs, and then weighted based, in part, on their severity and how recently they occurred. Each carrier's performance is then evaluated against similarly-situated motor carriers in each BASIC, and the carrier is assigned a percentile score in each BASIC.


In another article, we took an in-depth look at the agency's SMS scoring methodology. Ultimately, carriers who perform worse than a certain percentage of their peers and exceed certain "intervention thresholds" in one or more BASICs on a given month will be higher on the agency's list for a potential audit.

In our experience, carriers with two or more BASICs in "alert status" are much more likely to be targeted for an audit. In 2021, high CSA scores triggered nearly 7,500 carrier audits, which accounts for nearly 75% of all audits conducted that year. Thus, it's imperative that carrier's closely track their scores and take deliberate steps to keep them in check. And here are some other performance metrics carriers should also be tracking to minimize their exposure to an audit.


Serious accidents can prompt an audit.

If the purpose of federal and state motor carrier safety regulations is to reduce highway accidents and resulting injuries, it should come as no surprise that accidents tend to trigger DOT audit. But not just any accidents. In our experience, it's typically the more serious accidents (e.g., fatalities) that prompt the FMCSA to take a closer look. This is particularly true in areas of the country where DOT auditors have more capacity to conduct audits.


Something to keep in mind with accident-related audits is that they tend to start out as more focused in nature. For example, the agency may only request compliance documents for the driver involved in the accident. However, don't let this lure you into a false sense of security. These types of audits routinely transform into more comprehensive audits, particularly when the accidents garner publicity.


Safety complaints can trigger an audit.

Yet another common trigger for a DOT audit is a complaint made against the motor carrier. The FMCSA explicitly solicits safety-related complaints on its website, and it tends to take them seriously. Unfortunately for carriers, it's not uncommon for disgruntled employees to file these complaints and prompt a DOT audit, even when their complaints have no real basis in fact. Regardless, carriers should take care to thoroughly investigate any internal complaints they receive before they blossom into a full-blown DOT audit.


Conclusion

Once you're in the midst of a DOT audit, what prompted it in the first place is really beside the point. But until then, carriers should understand the most common triggers so that they can avoid them at all costs. To this end, we recommend carriers be proactive in evaluating their safety programs and working to close gaps before they become gaping holes. Carriers should consider conducting or commissioning a mock DOT audit as a way to prepare them for a real one.


For more information about how Trucksafe Consulting can help you avoid or navigate a DOT audit, please feel free to contact us. And for in-depth video courses on DOT compliance issues for drivers and safety managers, check out our Trucksafe Academy.


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