7 Tips to Make Your DOT/FMCSA Audit Easier

Updated: Mar 6

What are the Intervention Types?

There are a few different types of Audits or investigations that can be performed. The FMCSA has what they call "Early Contact," I have listed all types below with a few details.

  • Warning Letters

  • Targeted Roadside Investigations

  • Safety Audit

  • Offsite Investigation

  • Onsite Focused Investigation

  • Onsite Comprehensive Investigation

Warning Letters - These letters notify motor carriers early on about their safety performance and compliance problems, and the consequences of not improving. This may include either onsite or offsite investigations.

Targeted Roadside Investigations - Conducted at a permanent or temporary roadside inspection location, these inspections are prompted by data that identify a carrier's specific safety problems. When you feel like your drivers get stopped more than they should, it may be because they are required to based on your CSA scores.

Safety Audit - A Safety Audit is a review of a motor carrier’s records designed to verify that a carrier has basic safety management controls in place. This ensures compliance with applicable Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs), Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMRs), and related record-keeping requirements. This is required for all Motor Carriers operating in Interstate Commerce within the first 12 months of operations. It is also known as a "New Entrant Safety Audit." It will also be conducted if a Motor Carrier switches from Intrastate to Interstate authority.

Offsite Investigation - An Investigator requests copies of documents from a carrier for review to identify specific safety performance and compliance problems. You will utilize a special database designed just for your company to upload the requested documents. Most of your communications with the investigator will also go through this platform during the process.

Onsite Focused Investigation - An Investigator focuses on specific safety performance and compliance problems at the carrier’s place of business, and may interview employees and perform vehicle inspections. The will typically only be reviewing the specific "BASIC" that you are flagged in. I rarely see a true Focused Investigation because it seems that they always ask for more than just the Basic that they are there to investigate, but it does happen.

Onsite Comprehensive Investigation - An Investigator reviews the entire safety operation at the carrier’s place of business, and may interview employees and perform vehicle inspections. This is the most comprehensive type of investigation which can take days if not weeks to complete. This type of Investigation will typically lead to one of the 3 safety ratings.

  • Satisfactory

  • Conditional

  • Unsatisfactory

Now as you read through these tips, keep in mind I may switch back and forth from investigator to auditor. Honestly it is not out of disrespect, it is just easier to say Auditor than it is to say Investigator or Special Agent. So with that said, let's get to it!

7 Tips for the Onsite Comprehensive Investigation (Compliance Review)

1. Treat the investigator how you would want to be treated

Just because investigators are not necessarily what you may consider "welcome guests," doesn’t mean that you should treat them like they are there to punish you. In reality, there are a lot more good ones than there are bad ones. Treat them like you would want to be treated if you were in their shoes. That means not putting them in a dark, cold room in hopes they will leave sooner (yes, it happens). In fact, if the auditor does not feel comfortable reviewing the files onsite, they will take them back to their office for further review.

2. Don't leave the investigator alone with a bunch of files

Assign someone to help the auditor with the process. I know what you’re thinking... but trust me, it will make things go smoother and help the auditor get out of there faster. When choosing someone, find someone who is familiar with the processes and knows where things can be found. More importantly, pick someone who knows the rules. In the event that the auditor asks for private or outdated files, they can ensure that the rights of the company are being utilized. Along with keeping things neat and organized, make sure the required forms you will need are easily accessible. In most cases they will give you a complete list before they arrive.

3. Give them adequate facilities to do their job

Set up a space where the investigator will be working. They will need electricity and a bathroom available at the very least. Make sure it is in an area where they will be undisturbed. Remember, they are there to investigate, so if you have drivers or mechanics coming in and out it may not work out so well for you.

4. Have refreshments available

At the least, have coffee and water. You can even offer to have lunch brought in or have donuts or breakfast sandwiches available. Interestingly, most investigators will not take it anyway, but it’s the thought that counts. Being courteous just as you would any other guest is not against the rules as long as it isn't an attempt to bribe or influence their opinions.

5. Be prepared and organized in advance

Prepare all of the documents from the checklist that they provided before arriving, ready and waiting. This is where the person assigned to help the investigator will hand the files or documents over during the review as needed. We never recommend having everything there and then leaving it for the investigator to dig through. When they ask for John Doe’s DQ file the assigned person will hand over that one file or sometimes even specific documents they ask for.

6. Don't assume the investigator wants you to fail

Don’t assume that the investigator is there to “nail” you… most investigators will answer questions you have, try to guide you in more efficient ways to do things, etc. At the end of the day, they are human beings just like you and they must do their their job. That doesn't mean that occasionally you won't get a complete jerk who has what I like to call PCS ("Puffy Chest Syndrome,") but most of them are actually pretty good to work with.

7. Don't lie or falsify any of your files

This is the most important tip of all. In most cases, the investigator already has the answer to most of the questions they ask you. Sometimes they dig a little and see what you will tell them, too. If you messed up just say, “I messed this up, can you tell me how to do it right?” you will be a lot better off than lying about it. Investigators have the right to interview your mechanics, drivers, employees, etc. They will call the doctor’s office to see if that medical card is real or the D&A collection site to see if the date the test was done is accurate. Don’t try to edit or falsify documents or anything of that nature. The penalties for accidentally messing something up is a lot less than knowingly falsifying something.

Bonus Tip: What risk does a bad investigation bring?

If you end up with a conditional or unsatisfactory rating you could lose your insurance coverage. At the very least you will pay higher insurance rates, potentially lose clients, and you will be flagged to get more roadside inspections.

In June of 2016, the fines went up 10 – 105% depending on the violation. In 2015, fines averaged $7802.00 per carrier where penalties were assessed. Some received a $500 fine, others received a $196,000 fine. If you add the increase from 2016 you are looking at an average of $8,582 – $15,994 per carrier.

How to eliminate this risk

DOT audits are no fun for anyone. The most important thing you can do is implement the right procedures as soon as possible. It’s not as hard as to seems. Once you have a solid compliance program in place it’s pretty easy to manage.

There are a ton of resources out there that can help you avoid fines and possible shut-downs. If you need a benchmark of where you stand or know you have an audit coming and don’t feel comfortable representing yourself, contact us.

If you have DOT questions, we’re here to help. If you would like one of our DOT experts to come in and perform a Mock Audit, or represent you for your upcoming audit, contact us. You won’t regret it!

Online Courses

Get the training on Audits and Investigations that you really need. Look, we know that trying to figure everything out needs to be easier. When I started over 20 years ago Google didn’t even exist, there were hardly any resources available, and the FMCSA didn’t help much either. They were great at issuing huge fines though. That is why I made it my mission to help you not make the same mistakes I did.

So to help me in that mission and by a lot of client requests, I created our online training program. Things you will see in the 6 Audit Factors course:

  • Review of the 6 Audit Factors

  • Learn Key Points Investigators Use During a Compliance Review

  • Tips & Tricks Investigators use that you wouldn't think to look for

Bundle Up & Save Of course you can purchase each course individually, but you can also bundle them together for almost 50% off the price you would pay for all courses separately!

CONTACT US if you have questions or to find out about other services we offer. I promise not to be a pushy salesperson or offer anything that won't actually help you!

Tyna Bryan is the CEO of D.O.T. Readiness Group and DOTReady Software. With 20+ years of experience working in the industry, Tyna has owned and managed several companies as well as consulted for hundreds of companies all over the United States. If you get the chance to meet Tyna, she's a spitfire who knows her stuff! She has been consulting and training on DOT compliance and regulations exclusively since 2009.

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