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Saturday, December 02, 2023

TOPIC: What are the dos and don’ts for a DOT audit? What tips would you give to someone facing their first audit? How do you prepare?

Randy Allen Chances are that it is most likely too late if you have received a DOT audit notice and are just now starting to prepare. DOT compliance is a big, complicated task without clear answers or guidelines at times.

If you have been doing the basics correctly (hours of service (HOS), vehicle pre- and post-inspection procedures, driver logs, and drug testing), then most DOT inspectors will be happy and not be sticklers for every little detail. Have all your DOT documents pulled and readily available for the inspectors when they arrive. Plan on allocating two full days side by side with the inspectors to answer questions and provide information.

Keep in mind that even if you have done almost everything right, you can still be hit with “small” fines—in the DOT’s perspective—of several thousand dollars.

Randy Allen, Co-Owner/VP of Sales and Marketing
James Limousine Service in Richmond, Va.

Gary Day Preparing for a DOT audit is a lot of work. For us, it’s a multifaceted process dependent upon three different pieces: driver logs, fleet, and accountable record-keeping. We advise drivers to keep clear and legible notes in their logs to account for all the time they have spent in the vehicles. Also, logs should be reviewed every quarter.

Obviously, it’s also important that you are up to date on all applicable laws. The one time we failed an audit was after we purchased a brand-new limousine and immediately sent it to Washington, D.C. We assumed that a new vehicle with 15 miles on the odometer wouldn’t require DOT inspection; unfortunately, we were wrong and got hit with a $7,000 fine as a consequence—and it took a year to get a revised rating.

We hire an outside consultant to come twice a year to do surprise “inspections.” It keeps everyone in the company safe, alert, and prepared.

Gary Day, CEO
American Limousines in Baltimore, Md.

Joan Edmondson The first thing I learned as a compliance manager was to have a good attitude about the process and stay organized. I make every effort to keep my files current by reviewing them on a monthly basis, which makes me more comfortable when the auditor arrives.

My suggestion for the best way to be prepared is to seek outside advice. Consultants are great assets in helping to stay on track and organized.

Among the approaches I do not recommend are rushing to get things organized, falsifying any documents, or delaying the audit for any reason. Auditors are only there to make sure the organization is running safely and efficiently.

Joan Edmondson, Operations & Compliance Manager
SilverFox Chauffeured Transportation in Charlotte, N.C.

Joe Guinn While we advocate always being audit-ready, for most companies, this simply isn’t always possible. Take a hard look at driver qualification files, records or logs of status, driver vehicle inspection reports (DVIRs), and your maintenance files. Regulations are available online for a self-review or a good consultant can do one for you.

A compliance review can be a business-altering occurrence, so take it seriously. Have your information organized and readily available, providing only what is requested. Review any violations presented and make sure they truly apply. Too often, companies are cited with inaccurate or non-applicable violations. Lastly, nothing is more important than prevention. Build a good compliance program and follow it. Do your research, be safe, and be smart.

As far as what not to do, the worst thing that I have ever heard when an auditor shows up is “Come back when you have a warrant.”

Joe Guinn, Co-Owner
Limo & Bus Compliance in San Antonio, Texas

Vicki Sanders DOT audits can be a scary thing, as you are being put under the microscope. The best preparation you can have is to make sure you are in compliance all the time and not just when you may be selected for an audit.

Prior to the audit date, the auditor should provide you with a list of what they will be looking at when they come to your business. Make sure you have everything they request ready and easily accessible. The last thing you want to do is look unorganized or confused. Have one knowledgeable person from your organization take the lead with the audit. Familiarity with the rules and your procedures will show the auditor you are confident in how your organization stays in compliance.

Don’t panic! Be courteous and always answer questions truthfully. Most auditors are not the monsters you might imagine. They are auditing you only to make sure you are doing all things correctly, and they are more than happy to answer your questions to help you. Get to know your state DOT representatives and build a relationship with them, as they are your greatest resource when it comes to understanding the rules and staying in compliance.

Vicki Sanders, Manager of Compliance
Best Transportation of St. Louis in St. Louis, Mo.

Jess Sandhu For your first audit, don’t be afraid to ask the officer which documents you will need. They will typically email you a list. Make sure all your drivers’ files are up to date. I once got into trouble during the audit due to a current driver license copy missing from a file. Even the owner who occasionally drives will still need to maintain a file. Have a separate office or meeting room available for the audit, and be sure to have all the documents and files ready to go. Assign one member of your staff to sit with the officer to observe, as the auditor might have some questions, and it helps to answer them right away. I have heard in some cities you have 30 to 90 days to schedule an appointment.

Jess Sandhu, VP of Operations
A&A Limousine & Bus Service in Seattle, Wash.

Jason Sharenow Prepare, prepare, prepare! Waiting until you are notified of an audit is too late to get it going. If you don’t know what is needed, hire a professional to set up the framework so that you can keep your ducks in a row. The key elements that will be looked at are: driver qualification files (DQ Files), vehicle records, insurance, inspection reports, and driver logs. Having two people on staff with knowledge of the state rules and regulations will save you from many headaches when the call comes in for an audit. You will typically get three days’ notice for a standard audit, but, in the event of a crash, they will show up at your door unannounced.

How do you survive your first and subsequent audits? Be prepared and organized. Do not make the inspector fish for the information. Give them what they ask for quickly. If they see your files are complete, they likely will only take a sampling of your records instead of scrutinizing every single one. If you are missing items right out of the gate, be prepared for the long haul and fines. Fines of $30,000 are not unrealistic!

Be polite, be helpful, be prepared!

Jason Sharenow, Chief Operating Officer
Broadway Elite Chauffeured Services Worldwide in East Hanover, N.J.

Andrew Tighe Depending on the size of your fleet, the number of vehicles that fall under DOT compliance will determine if a company should consider hiring a full-time compliance officer to maintain proper logs, paperwork, and vehicle maintenance records. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR) requires motor carriers to train not only drivers on the applicable regulations, but also any employee who may be involved in regulatory compliance.

If you have done your due diligence updating your logs, ensured your drivers have submitted their necessary paperwork, and maintained your vehicles appropriately, then preparing for the audit should be a simple review and organization of the materials. Key fact: Regardless of the industry, any employer, employee, or vehicle involved in the transportation of property or passengers in interstate commerce with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) or combination weight rating (GCWR) of more than 10,000 lbs. is subject to FMCSR. Companies operating solely in intrastate commerce are subject to applicable state regulations regarding commercial motor vehicles.

Don’t panic. The chances of everything being perfect are slim, but as long as you are not negligently omitting regulations, such as key safety protocols, the auditor will point out the areas where improvement can be made. After being cited, you will have to submit proof that the areas of concern have been addressed, and you should maintain your records in accordance moving forward.

Andrew Tighe, Operations Manager
Tristar Worldwide Chauffeur Services in Boston, Mass.

Brian Whitaker Always have a clean desk available and someone ready to get any records needed; offer the auditor water or coffee, and make them feel comfortable. Some companies have tried making it really cold where the officers are working or they will be rude to them to “get them out quicker.” However, this usually results in the opposite; they stay longer and dig deeper.

When they ask for records, give them what they requested but do not give anything extra. They may ask for a certain trip, and even though you keep all that day’s trip in one folder, just pull the one trip and don’t give them the whole folder. Giving additional material may cause them to find another question that makes them want to see more.

Basically, if you do your best to run by the rules, it will not be as bad as people often make it seem.

Brian Whitaker, Vice President
Chicagoland Transportation Solutions in Barrington, Ill.

Scott Woodruff It is not a matter of preparing for an audit as much as it is being prepared to be audited. If the DOT officer walks in and says the audit starts in two weeks and you don’t have the necessary paperwork where it should be, you will not be ready in two weeks.

A DOT officer once told me that when he inspects a vehicle, he first looks at the front and/or radiator to see how caked it is with bugs and debris. He also looks at the driver area. If these two areas are filthy, he will look a lot harder while doing the inspection. A clean driver’s area means the company takes pride in its vehicles, which equates to pride in its maintenance plans.

Also remember that a pre-arranged arrival trip at the airport in a vehicle that seats more than eight passengers, including the driver, is considered an interstate trip (assuming the flight originated in another state). Also, your drivers’ DQ Files and HOS need to be up to date—always. HOS isn’t just for CDL drivers.

Scott Woodruff, President/CEO
Majestic Limo & Coach in Des Moines, Iowa

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