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Updated Feb 14, 2024

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

If you employ drivers to operate commercial vehicles, follow this guide to remain in compliance with DOT background check requirements.

Danielle Fallon O'Leary
Written By: Danielle Fallon-O’LearySenior Writer & Expert on Business Operations
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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 all businesses conduct background checks 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, it is important to have a comprehensive understanding of what these background checks entail, as well as what’s required of you and your drivers, so you are both well prepared.

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 the Department of Transportation?

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 include (but are 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

What is a DOT background check?

DOT background checks are designed to assess the fitness and driving records of operators of commercial vehicles (large trucks, buses, etc.). DOT background checks are mandatory for all commercial drivers within the U.S. DOT background checks benefit employers, too, as they reduce 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 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 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:

  • Class A CDL: This permits drivers to operate any combination of vehicles with a GVWR of 26,001 or more pounds, provided that 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, they 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 certain 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 maintenance of an active CDL license.)
TipBottom line
Motor carriers are required by 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 (i.e., 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 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 5 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 the applicant fails any aspect of the check, the results are shared with the employer, which must then share the information in writing with the applicant.

Laws governing DOT background checks

As the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is one of the main governing bodies for employment background checks, there are several laws in place to protect commercial vehicle operators and drivers, including the following: 

  • Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA): The FCRA dictates what employers should do if a background check reveals a negative alert about an applicant.
  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, enforced by the EEOC, prohibits employers from discriminating against applicants based on their protected characteristics, such as race, ethnicity and gender.
  • Fair Chance to Compete for Jobs Act: The Fair Chance to Compete for Jobs Act requires that federal agencies and contractors wait to complete an applicant’s background check until they extend a contingent offer of employment.
  • 49 CFR part 391: 49 CFR part 391 (which encompasses both § 391.23 and § 391.15) requires transportation companies to verify a commercial driver’s motor vehicle records within 30 days of the driver beginning work.
  • 49 CFR part 40: 49 CFR part 40 stipulates that all applicants for DOT-regulated safety-sensitive positions must take a preemployment DOT drug test before they can work.
  • Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA): The DPPA states that employers must have an applicant’s signed consent to access their driving record.
FYIDid you know
Remember to check your state’s laws and regulations that govern DOT-regulated employers to understand all requirements.

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. Find a background check service. You are best served by hiring a top background check service to conduct the screenings for you. There are a lot of moving parts to these checks. Because the results must be approved by the federal government, it’s essential to ensure the work is done properly.
  2. See what it covers. Verify that the background check service will cover all aspects of the screening that need to be completed. Review what the DOT is asking of you as the employer so you don’t waste time and money on an incomplete background check.
  3. Check for a medical review officer. Make sure the background check service you use has a certified medical review officer who will 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.
  4. Share the results. 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.

DOT background check FAQs

Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions about DOT background checks to help you navigate the process:
DOT background checks can help ensure you hire the most qualified and safest drivers. Doing so will also mitigate your company’s risk regarding accidents, lawsuits, fines and other potential issues.
The time frame for completing a DOT background check ranges from several business days to several weeks. To expedite the process, encourage applicants to schedule their drug screening promptly and be as thorough as possible when providing previous employment and other pertinent background details.
If an applicant’s DOT background check returns some alerts, they may not be the right person for the job. However, you must inform the applicant of the results and give them time to respond and possibly dispute the findings, usually between five and 10 business days. Always comply with the FCRA, EEOC guidance, local laws and your company’s hiring practices. Consult with your legal team to determine next steps. [Learn more about creating your own fleet safety and compliance guidelines.]
In addition to tracking vehicles and their locations, GPS fleet management software can help businesses monitor their drivers’ routes, driving habits and behaviors, including unauthorized use of company vehicles, speeding and unexpected events, like remaining idle too long. [Learn more about some of the best GPS fleet management services.]

Patrick Proctor contributed to this article. 

Danielle Fallon O'Leary
Written By: Danielle Fallon-O’LearySenior Writer & Expert on Business Operations
Danielle Fallon-O'Leary is a longtime marketer with a passion for helping clients strengthen their online brands. She has managed clients' social media accounts, developed marketing campaigns and compiled key data for analytics reports. Other projects have included newsletter curation, workflow management and search engine optimization. Along with her marketing responsibilities, Fallon-O'Leary has had an up-close look at other aspects of small business operations, including invoicing and accounting, employee recruitment and training.
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