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What Is a Department of Transportation (DOT) Background Check?

Updated Oct 30, 2023

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If your business employs drivers to operate commercial vehicles, a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) background check is not something to gloss over. The DOT requires that you conduct a background check for commercial drivers.

A DOT background check is not the same as a standard background check. While DOT background screenings are not overly complicated or time-consuming to conduct, it is important to ensure that you have a comprehensive understanding of what these background checks entail, and what’s required of you, and your drivers, so that you are both well prepared.

What is the Department of Transportation (DOT)?

The U.S. Department of Transportation is responsible for planning and coordinating federal transportation projects and ensuring that only commercial drivers with proper training and safe driving records operate commercial vehicles on the road.

The DOT also sets safety regulations for all major modes of transportation throughout the U.S. The agencies that fall under the DOT includes but is not limited to the following:

  • The Federal Aviation Administration
  • The Federal Highway Administration
  • The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration
  • The Federal Railroad Administration
  • The Federal Transit Administration
  • The Maritime Administration
  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Editor’s note: Looking for the right background check service for your business? Fill out the below questionnaire to have our vendor partners contact you about your needs.

What is a DOT background check?

DOT background checks are designed to assess the fitness and driving record of operators of commercial vehicles (large trucks, buses, etc.). DOT background checks are mandatory for all commercial drivers within the U.S. Conducting DOT background checks benefits employers, too, as it reduces the possibility of driver-related accidents, injuries, and legal issues. [Learn how workers’ compensation insurance could protect you in the event of a work-related accident.]

Did You Know?Did you know

Even if your company already conducts generalized preemployment background checks, a DOT-specific background check is still required.

What types of businesses conduct DOT background checks?

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), which regulates the safety of  commercial-grade motor vehicles, has a specific focus within the DOT, namely to reduce crashes, injuries, and fatalities involving commercial vehicles and buses. 

A company is required to follow all FMCSA regulations if it operates any, or all, of the following categories of commercial motor vehicles that conduct interstate commerce:

  • Gross vehicle weight: A vehicle with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) or gross combination weight rating (whichever is greater) of 4,537 kg (10,001 lbs.) or more.
  • Passenger vehicle: A vehicle designed or used to transport between nine and 15 passengers (including the driver) for compensation, or a vehicle designed or used to transport 15 or more passengers (including the driver) not for compensation.
  • Hazardous material transport: Any size vehicle used to transport hazardous materials as defined by the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act.

In addition to different types of vehicles, there are multiple classes of driver’s licenses. Depending on the types of vehicles your company uses, your drivers may be required to maintain a specific class of driver’s license. There are three classes of commercial driver’s licenses, including:

  • Class A CDL: This permits drivers to operate any combination of vehicles with a GVWR of 26,001 or more pounds, provided the towed vehicle is heavier than 10,000 pounds.
  • Class B CDL: Drivers can operate straight trucks, large buses (city buses, tourist buses, and school buses), segmented buses, box trucks, and dump trucks with small trailers. In addition, holders of a Class B CDL license can drive some Class C vehicles, with the correct endorsements.
  • Class C CDL: This license certifies that drivers can operate double/triple trailers, buses, tank trucks and hazmat vehicles.

Standard DOT background check requirements

A DOT background check is designed to reveal certain data points, or aspects of a driver’s health, fitness, skills, and past history, that the DOT wants a record of before a driver can be cleared to share the roadway with other drivers while operating large, heavy, and potentially dangerous vehicles. These data points include the following:

  • Drug and alcohol testing: A DOT drug panel tests for cocaine, amphetamines, opioids, marijuana and PCP. If a job applicant fails the drug test, he or she cannot legally operate DOT-covered vehicles.
  • Employment history: Employers are required under DOT regulations to provide a three-year employment history of the candidate.
  • Medical certification: Drivers need to have an up-to-date medical certification attesting, by a physician, that the candidate is physically and mentally fit to drive for extended periods of time.
  • Motor vehicle record check: As part of a DOT background check, a candidate’s driving record is checked in all states the applicant has lived in. This information must date back at least three years.
  • Road test: Some companies may have specialized commercial vehicles with special modifications or features. Thus, the DOT requires that all applicants take a road test to ensure their ability to operate a commercial vehicle successfully and safely. (This road skills test is in addition to maintaining an active CDL license.)
TipBottom line

Motor carriers are required by the law to keep track of and maintain a qualification file for each commercial driver they employ. The FMCSA has created a driver qualification file checklist, which you can use to ensure your records are up to date.

What do DOT background checks reveal?

When a candidate undergoes a DOT background check, the results of each of the categories being examined, e.g., the drug and alcohol panel, employment history, medical certification, driving history, and confirmation of a successful road test, will be shared with you. The medical certification will reveal the results of each of the five parts of the exam: vision, hearing, blood pressure and pulse rate, urinalysis, and the findings from the physical exam. There are specific physical requirements a driver must meet to be medically certified. For example, drivers must have at least 20/40 vision, their blood pressure should be less than or equal to 140/90, and they should be able to detect a “forced whisper” from more than five feet away.

Additionally, the background check will confirm the driver’s employment history, driving history, and whether they passed the drug screening and road test. If there are failures on any aspect of the check, the results are shared with the employer, must then share the information in written form with the applicant.

How to run a DOT background check

Here are some key steps to follow as you conduct a DOT background check on your employees:

  1. You are best served hiring a top background check service to conduct the screenings for you. There are a lot of moving parts to these checks. Since the results of the check must be approved by the federal government, making sure the work is done properly is critical.
  1. Once you find a background check service to partner with, verify that it will cover all aspects of the screening that need to be completed. As the employer, study what the DOT is asking of you so you don’t waste time and money on an incomplete background check.
  1. Make sure the background check service you partner has a certified medical review officer verify the results of the drug and alcohol test. It is also important that they take steps to ensure the medical information of those being screened remains private.
  1. After the screening is complete, share the results with the candidate. Be sure to include a copy of “A Summary of Your Rights Under the FCRA.” This document outlines their rights and how they can dispute incomplete or inaccurate information as part of their background check.
Patrick Proctor
Contributing Writer at
Patrick Proctor, SHRM-SCP, is certified as a senior professional in human resources. His more than 15 years of executive level leadership inform his work on inclusive and engaging workplace culture, as well as educating senior leadership teams about human capital management and organizational strategy. Patrick has written dozens of articles on global business, human resources operations, management and leadership, business technology, risk management, and continuity planning
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