Trucking is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the United States. With its robust safety guidelines and numerous checks and balances, the Department of Transportation (DOT) uses every resource at its disposal to keep trucking companies in line when it comes to operational and road safety.

One of the most significant measurements of safety for any trucking company is its motor carrier safety rating. This rating is assigned by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and plays a major part in the viability and success of any motor carrier.

Whether you’re awaiting inspection or have just been assigned a disappointing safety rating, this article explains how DOT safety ratings work, how they are determined, why it’s important to get the best rating for your business, and how to do so in a cost-effective way.

What DOT Ratings are Possible?

The FMCSA assigns one of three safety ratings after each inspection. A safety rating of satisfactory indicates that the motor carrier has implemented the necessary safety management controls to meet the legal standards set by the FMCSA. A rating of conditional indicates that the motor carrier has not met the standards but is still allowed to operate normally. Recommendations for improvement will be made and follow-up inspections are likely. Finally, a safety rating of unsatisfactory indicates that the motor carrier has not implemented the proper safety management controls to ensure legal compliance. When unsatisfactory ratings are assigned, the motor carrier is no longer allowed to operate commercial vehicles until the issues are corrected.

How are DOT Ratings Calculated?

DOT safety ratings are determined based on an on-site evaluation of a motor carrier’s safety management procedures. Audits like this can be stressful, but they can be relatively painless if the motor carriers involved maintain good records and understand what will be inspected.

FMCSA auditors examine the following in their inspection:

· Drivers’ Hours of Service Logs
· Maintenance and Inspection Records
· Driver Qualification Files
· Commercial Drivers’ License Requirements
· Financial Reports
· Accident Records
· Hazardous Materials Documentation
· Other Safety and Transportation Records

The DOT conducts compliance reviews annually and in response to requests for reevaluation. Companies that receive conditional or unsatisfactory ratings can petition to have an auditor review their updated practices and change their DOT safety rating by contacting the FMCSA. A compliance review can also be initiated to investigate any reports of unsafe practices or poor standards at your motor carrier, or to investigate safety complaints or other evidence of safety violations.

Importantly, anyone at your organization can initiate a potentially costly compliance audit. This means that employees of your motor carrier who are affected by poor safety management practices can be the ones reporting you to the DOT, so it’s important to maintain high standards all the time.

The Best Ways to Improve your DOT Rating

The following are three simple strategies you can use improve your DOT rating for your next inspection:

Get Back to Basics – The simplest safety regulations to follow are also the most routine. Get your drivers in the habit of submitting their hours of service and inspection logs on time, and ensure that your system for managing those records is working perfectly. Review driver qualification and license requirements in your DQ files and get everything up-to-date. Develop a system for keeping it that way. Letting these basic responsibilities fall by the wayside is a sure way to self-sabotage your next compliance audit.

Know the Top Violations – Many conditional and unsatisfactory ratings are doled out due to poor vehicle maintenance and a lazy approach to vehicle maintenance. The most common vehicle safety violations are operating with a damaged or discolored windshield, leaky or constricted brake lines, discharged or unsecured fire extinguishers, and inoperative turn signals. Items like these should be identified by drivers in their regular inspections and fixed promptly by the motor carrier to ensure that vehicles are audit-ready at all times.

Improve Corporate Culture & Train Staff – Creating a corporate culture that prioritizes safety and encourages all employees to find and report safety violations is a very effective way to keep your motor carrier compliant with regulations. Some motor carriers may discourage employees from reporting regulatory violations because they want to save money on repairs—make your motor carrier one of the most compliant by encouraging your drivers, managers, and office staff to speak out when they see something unsafe and to demand high standards for safety management within your business. Once your employees are brought in, additional safety training will make them even better at spotting potential violations and helping to correct them before your next audit.

The Takeaway

There are no shortcuts when it comes to getting your business ready for your FMCSA compliance review. Auditors are thorough and highly specific in terms of their expectations, but all the information you need about compliance is available online through the FMCSA website. Maintaining standards at your motor carrier may require a short-term investment in maintaining equipment and training staff but will save you a lot of time and money when audit time rolls around.