DOT Compliance and Safety Ratings to Know

The freight market is growing, despite some setbacks for companies in sections of the market that are more turbulent. Overall new carriers for hire are up across the board, and companies, from FreightWaves to individual logistics service providers, like ITS Logistics, have already released their forecasts for 2024. There are many things to know in maintaining proper selection practices for your carriers and ensuring that your chosen carriers are in compliance with DOT requirements. But they can be confusing. DOT compliance reviews, licensing and insurance verification, and many other data checks come to mind. It’s confusing at best and downright risk-laden at worst. Let’s take a closer look at what a DOT Safety Rating really means and why it’s another core aspect to consider before and after selecting a motor carrier for your freight. 

What Does a DOT Safety Rating Mean?

The DOT Safety Rating refers to the FMCSA’s rating designation of a motor carrier based on compliance reviews performed by the FMCSA.  Not all carriers have had a safety review.  An unrated carrier, one that does not have a safety rating, has simply not had a compliance review. But what really goes into a DOT compliance review?

DOT Compliance for carriers

The Truth of DOT Compliance Reviews

A compliance review is a safety audit performed by the FMCSA at the place of business of the motor carrier, but the word audit seems to evoke some fear of repercussion. Here’s what the FMCSA says DOT Safety Ratings are: “A safety rating is an evaluation of a motor carrier’s compliance with the safety fitness standard; the process is described in 49 CFR 385, Appendix B. FMCSA may issue one of three safety ratings (Satisfactory, Conditional, Unsatisfactory) after a Rated Investigation (compliance review). Not all investigations result in a safety rating. A compliance review may be conducted to investigate potential violations of safety regulations or complaints about motor carriers, among other reasons.” A compliance review looks at two main areas: regulatory compliance and safety performance.  There are two types of compliance reviews performed: a full compliance review and a focused compliance review:

The Full Compliance Review is a comprehensive investigation.  A team will be sent out to perform a full review of a carrier’s facilities including equipment and management controls.  They may also interview employees to ensure safety practices are in use, not just preached. ELD logs could be audited. When a carrier has a full compliance review conducted, the rating results will be Satisfactory, Conditional, or Unsatisfactory.  Of note, a carrier can receive a Satisfactory safety rating ONLY if that carrier has had a full compliance review sometime in their history.  The Safety Measurement System BASICs data factors included in a compliance review include the drivers’ hours of service, crash indicators, unsafe driving practices, vehicle maintenance and inspection records, driver qualifications—particularly those involving controlled substances of alcohol, CDL requirements, financial responsibility documentation, hazardous materials, and other transportation safety records. 

The compliance review may be conducted in response to a request to change a safety rating or following complaints or evidence of safety violations. If the review identifies risky behaviors or potentially negligent practices, additional enforcement action may occur. 

The other type of DOT compliance review, a Focused Compliance Review, targets one or more areas of focus within the Safety Management System Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories (BASICs) percentile rank, where the BASIC category will align with an associated Factor from the full compliance review model. Since this isn’t a full review the carrier cannot receive a Satisfactory rating following a Focused Compliance Review. Rather, they can only receive a Conditional or Unsatisfactory rating or no rating at all.  

Triggers for a Full or Focused Compliance Review

Any company may request a Full or Focused Compliance Review, but there are a few other triggers that may lead to a new review without the carrier actively requesting it. These include:

  • Poor BASICs Scores.
  • Major Accidents and severe violations.
  • A complaint filed with the FMCSA against a carrier.
  • Inspections resulting in Out of Service violations.
  • Failed New Entrant Safety Audit.

It’s also very important to realize that a Full or Focused Compliance Review is an opportunity to correct problem areas and improve operations. After all, the factors under evaluation during a safety review are designed to help not only safety but to improve the quality of services and capabilities of a given carrier. 

Converting Compliance Review Results Into a Safety Rating

The FMCSA uses the information gathered in the review process to assign a true Safety Rating. This DOT Safety Rating is based on the in-depth examination of the motor carrier’s compliance with identified ‘acute’ or ‘critical’ regulations of the FMCSRs and HMRs.  

For reference, violations that fall under the “critical” scale are those that directly relate to poor  management or operational controls. In other words, these are violations that would seem to suggest a pattern of improper or potentially reckless behaviors.

On the other hand, violations that are classified as acute are those that are deemed “so essential that noncompliance is obvious and requires immediate corrective actions by a motor carrier regardless of its overall safety posture.

These two forms of violations can be further broken down into both primary violations—those actually found during a review—and secondary violations—those violations that support the findings of the primary violation. 

For each instance of noncompliance with an acute regulation or each pattern of noncompliance with a critical regulation during the compliance review, one point will be assessed.  Note that a pattern is more than one violation.  When a number of documents are reviewed, the number of violations required to meet a pattern is equal to at least 10 percent of those examined.

  • Satisfactory – 0 points, records indicate no evidence of substantial non-compliance with safety requirements.
  • Conditional – 1 point, records indicate that the carrier was out of compliance with one or more safety requirements.
  • Unsatisfactory – 2 or more points, records indicate evidence of substantial noncompliance with safety requirements

Rating of Conditional or Unsatisfactory will not take effect for 45 days if a carrier transports hazmat or 60 days if a carrier transports non-hazmat material.  During that time a carrier can take corrective action to violations noted during the review and request an upgrade before the Safety Rating is published. There are a few precautions to this issue:

  • If the proposed rating is Conditional and the carrier did not take corrective action or request an upgrade, they would operate with that rating.
  • If the proposed rating is unsatisfactory and the carrier did not take corrective action and did not receive an upgrade, the carrier would be subjected to an Out of Service (OOS) order.  

Know the DOT Safety Rating of All Carriers With Carrier Details’ Data

It’s clear that carrier data can and does change, especially when a carrier undergoes significant changes to operations or daily activities. Even if everything is going well, a carrier may request a new review to potentially receive a better rating if the assigned rating from a prior review is Conditional. As a result, shippers and brokers can both easily get lost in the maze of what DOT Safety Rating a carrier has at any given time. Carrier Details streamlines the DOT data aggregation process to create an accessible datastream that can keep your systems up to date regardless of how often a carrier’s critical safety data changes. Request a sample dataset to get started today. 

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