Regulations, Regulations, and more Regulations. Whether its equipment safety, insurance and risk, driver conduct, or any number of other issues, intrastate and interstate motor carriers, whether carrying persons or property, are among the most heavily regulated industries in the country. Title 49, the Transportation Code of the United States, by itself consists of 10 subtitles, 7 of which affect motor carriers, broken down into 1580 Parts, each of which contain hundreds to thousands of discreet sub-parts-and that is just for the Department of Transportation. That does not include other government agencies that impact motor carriers.
The Transportation Code is the rulebook for the motor carrier telling them, among other things, (1) what to do, (2) what not to do, (3) what paper to keep, and (4) when you can throw things away. Within those reams of paper, that have killed countless trees to create, also lie enforcement provisions, "carrots and sticks" bestowing on the DOT authority to reward good behavior by motor carriers with continued operating authority, and satisfactory safety ratings, and to punish bad actors with civil penalties, conditional and unsatisfactory safety rating, and Out of Service Orders revoking a motor carrier's authority to operate. A necessary component of that enforcement power is the ability to audit motor carriers' operations to ensure compliance with the Regulations.
So what do you do, when you open the letter, or e-mail, that says those scary words, "Hello Ms. Trucking Company, I'm from the government, and I'm here to help"-but they never tell you who they are helping. More literally, the letter will say, "We will be at your facility next Tuesday, to audit your operations. We will need access to: (a) - (zzz)." After you recover from the angina and heart palpitations, you need to start gathering and reviewing the requested documents to prepare for the audit, and to see if there are any problems. But how can we proactively avoid the stress that the Audit Notice brings?
A DOT audit can take many shapes, and how in-depth the review will be is largely dependent upon why the audit is occurring: (1) are you a new motor carrier undergoing a new entrant audit to make sure your business is set up correctly and that you are complying with the regulations, is it a random audit, just because your company happened to draw the short straw, or is it an audit based on a complaint or problematic trend identified by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Any of these situations are serious, and require careful attention because while a good audit doesn't get you a cookie, a bad one can, quite frankly¸ put you out of business.
The Good News is--there are steps you can take before you receive that letter to lessen the stress of the audit process, and ensure a good result. Ben Franklin once said, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Truer words have never been spoken when it comes to surviving a DOT audit.
While we could spend hours and volumes discussing all of the things you can do to prepare for the DOT audit, below are a few key points to consider. Of course, the DOT is not the only agency with oversight over motor carriers. Other federal agencies along with state agencies also potentially have enforcement powers over motor carriers, depending on their operations, and can, and do, periodically audit motor carriers. While these pointers speak directly to DOT audits, these principles are equally applicable to other agency audits:
* Conduct a Self-Audit to ensure you are maintaining all of the required paperwork and records for the applicable required retention period.
* Create or update your policies and procedures to ensure regulatory compliance, and set up job duties for compliance personnel to continually monitor company records for compliance issues.
* Utilize check-lists and databases for each class of required documents for accountability of your employees' compliance with document retention policies.
* Train your drivers and employees on the importance compliance and record retention, test their understanding, and documenting the training and testing.
* Create a progressive disciplinary policy for non-compliance-AND FOLLOW IT.
Remember the Golden Rule of Compliance: If it's not in WRITING...if it's not SIGNED...if it's not DATED...if you CAN'T FIND IT...IT DIDN'T HAPPEN.
Spend the time and resources now to prepare for that audit long before it happens so that when that call does come in, EMS is not hauling you out on a gurney. Taking a systematic approach to reviewing your records to ensure compliance, correcting any deficiencies with updated or new policies and procedures, and performing periodic reviews will give you the peace of mind knowing what the auditor will find, before he ever comes knocking on your door.