Options for DOT Audit
With new leadership in Washington and — dare I say it? — the end of the pandemic in sight, there is speculation that FMCSA enforcement will be increasing in coming months and years. In short, the sheriff may be back in town.
The trend was already building, however. The amount of money the agency collected in fines in 2020, at nearly $28 million, was up over 10 percent from 2019. And even though 33 percent fewer motor carriers were audited last year, the average settlement those carriers paid reached $11,000, up 65 percent.
You have choices in a DOT audit
If you’re the target of a DOT audit and a resulting fine (about 1 in 3 audits results in a fine), it’s important to know what your options are. Sure, you can pay the fine and be done with it, but there are other ways to proceed, and they could save you a lot of money.
For example, a small Vermont-based manufacturer was recently hit with a big fine for hours-of-service violations. The company allowed its drivers to use paper logs for five months while they transitioned to a new e-log system. On top of that, there was little oversight or training, so some drivers failed to use any logs at all.
Needless to say, an auditor found the violations and hit the company with a $14,100 bill. Company leaders knew they made a mistake, but it was too late.
Pay, dispute, or arbitrate a DOT audit
The company’s next step was key. It could have paid the fine, or it could have tried to dispute the violations before a judge. Instead, it chose a third option: arbitration. That’s where the DOT and the motor carrier agree to let an independent judge decide on the penalty amount.
The arbitrator recognized the efforts the company had made to comply and gave them a huge break. He reduced the penalty three-fold, to $4,700.
The lesson here is that if you’re audited and hit with a fine, there are ways to reduce the cost — as long as you play by the rules. This means meeting all deadlines with your paperwork (for example, you have only 30 days to answer the initial Notice of Claim informing you of a fine). You would also need to take immediate steps to prevent future violations (that “good faith effort” you’ve probably heard about).
Of course, you can dispute the violations if you weren’t at fault. But if you’re ready to admit guilt and want to seek a lower penalty, arbitration may be your best option.
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