What Is A DOT Compliance Review, And How Do You Pass?

The transportation industry is heavily regulated, which means trucking companies have a lot of compliance tasks to keep up with. For instance:

  • Within the first 12 months of operation, every carrier must pass a New Entrant Safety Audit with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).
  • Fleet owners must maintain Driver Qualification Files for every driver they employ.
  • Carriers must enroll their drivers in the FMCSA’s Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse.
  • Drivers have to share inspection, maintenance, and repair records with their employers.
  • Carriers must make those mechanical upkeep records available to state and federal Departments of Transportation (the latter through the FMCSA, a division of the USDOT).

These are all routine compliance requirements, but a safety review from the FMCSA is something else entirely. If the DOT or a state official reaches out for a safety review, that means something’s gone wrong. So what is a DOT compliance review? More importantly, how can you be sure you’ll get a satisfactory rating if the FMCSA inspectors come calling? The answers may go deeper than you think; ultimately, compliance depends on your entire approach to safety and business operation on a day-to-day level. Here’s what you need to know about DOT compliance reviews, whether you’re an owner-operator or running a fleet of just about any size.

A failed DOT compliance review is an existential threat. Even if the state doesn’t shut you down, insurers may refuse coverage—forcing closure.

What is a DOT compliance review?

The FMCSA, a division of the USDOT, has a mission to “prevent commercial motor vehicle-related fatalities and injuries.” To achieve that mission, it ensures carriers are following safety regulations. That’s mostly accomplished through regular reporting, but when things go wrong, the FMCSA may ask for an audit or, on a more serious level, a comprehensive review.

The DOT compliance review is a top-to-bottom look at how well a carrier meets FMCSA safety requirements. It’s typically a question of reporting—the FMCSA will ask the owner of the trucking business to provide documentation like driver qualification files, maintenance receipts, hours of duty records, proof of ELD partnership, and more. An FMCSA inspector may or may not conduct a live review of your depot (if you have a depot) or your vehicles.

After the review, the FMCSA will issue a DOT compliance report with one of three ratings:

  • A satisfactory safety rating means the carrier is compliant with all relevant FMCSA safety regulations; this is the grade you’re after.
  • A conditional rating means the carrier is compliant with many safety protocols, but not all of them. The FMCSA will offer guidance on how to bring operations into compliance.
  • An unsatisfactory rating is a failing grade. However, the FMCSA gives carriers 45 days (if they transport hazardous materials or passengers) or 60 days (for other types of freight) to address the safety issues. If you make a good-faith effort to fix the problems, the FMCSA may give you up to 120 days to complete improvements.

The FMCSA typically does work with carriers to bring them into compliance. However, if a business fails to address safety issues within its time frame, the FMCSA may issue an out-of-service order, effectively barring your trucks from interstate commerce. That’s the worst-case scenario.

Compliance depends on your entire approach to safety and business operation on a day-to-day level.

How do you get a satisfactory rating on a DOT compliance review?

The key word in “DOT compliance review” is “compliance.” Ironically, everything you do to help ensure a passing grade on such a test will also reduce the likelihood that you’ll face an official review in the first place. To understand how to simultaneously pass and prevent DOT compliance reviews, you need to know the conditions that trigger them in the first place.

The FMCSA tracks Compliance, Safety, and Accountability (CSA) data through an online platform called the Safety Measurement System (SMS). Every month, the SMS updates your file with CSA information from roadside inspections, accident reports, investigation data, and more. The SMS then organizes data into seven Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories (BASICs), which include:

  • Controlled Substances/Alcohol. Scores go down with each instance of driver use or possession of controlled substances or alcohol.
  • Crash Indicator. Accidents reduce safety scores for obvious reasons. Serious accidents may trigger a compliance review even if the carrier is doing well otherwise.
  • Driver Fitness. If drivers operate commercial vehicles while medically unfit, or without the proper paperwork, this category score may go down.
  • Hazardous Materials Compliance. Documented violations of hazardous material regulations definitely affect CSA BASIC scores. They could be anything from improper labeling on the truck to leaky containers.
  • Hours-of-Service Compliance. Drivers can only remain on duty for 14 consecutive hours, only drive 11 total hours after 10 hours off duty, and only stay on duty for 60 hours out of every seven days, or 70 hours out of each eight-day period. Drivers must log these hours through the truck’s Electronic Logging Device (ELD). Violations of these rules reduce CSA BASIC scores.
  • Vehicle Maintenance. Inspectors at weigh stations report maintenance violations, from broken taillights to balding brake pads. These all play into safety scoring.
  • Unsafe Driving. There’s a whole range of driving violations: speeding, inattention, forgetting the seatbelt. Every driver’s documented infractions end up in the carrier’s safety record.

The SMS takes all this data, measures it against the total number of trucks a carrier operates and weighs it against other carriers with similar scores in each BASIC area. Altogether, this generates a percentile score. A higher score is worse. Once you hit a certain threshold, the FMCSA may initiate a compliance review. But during that review, the FMCSA inspectors—as well as insurers (see sidebar)—will look at the same safety regulations that influence the CSA BASIC system.

CSA BASIC Scores and Trucking Insurance

Regulators aren’t the only ones tracking your safety record. High scores in any of the CSA BASIC categories can send your insurance rates through the roof, even doubling them if things get out of control. If your score on a compliance review is unsatisfactory, or even conditional, insurers may deny coverage—and you can’t operate without insurance. That’s all the more reason to stay on top of compliance and avoid DOT compliance reviews in the first place.

In other words, by keeping violations low across the board—and staying on top of compliance reporting on a day-to-day basis—you’ll avoid DOT compliance reviews as well as trouble with your insurer. Trust us: It’s a lot easier to submit hours-of-service records and driver qualification files as a regular part of your workweek than it is to scramble for documents on request. But if you end up getting hit with a review, that’s a signal that your CSA procedures need some work. Think of DOT audits and compliance reviews as a helpful wake-up call, not a punishment. The FMCSA will provide guidance on exactly what you need to do to get back into Satisfactory territory.

What if you need extra help with DOT compliance?

Still nervous about a DOT compliance review? Even if you do get a review order, you don’t have to handle the task alone. As we’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, outsourcing administration duties is a great way for owner-operators and small fleet owners to keep their back office running while they focus on the actual work of hauling freight. Search the internet for “CSA compliance consultants” and you’ll find pages of third-party companies that can help improve your overall safety record.

And if you need to free up your cash flow to pay for consulting services—or anything else—try factoring with Bobtail. When you bill shippers and brokers directly, they may take up to 60 days to pay. Bobtail offers same-day funding for all invoices submitted before 11 a.m., and next-day payment after that. Just download the Bobtail app, upload your rate confirmation and bills of lading, and get funded. There’s no contract required, and no hidden fees. Try Bobtail today with a free one-month trial, and get the funding you need to respond to DOT compliance reviews—or any other business roadblock in your way.