How FMCSA determines your safety rating

By: Tom Bray

Publication: Transportation Safety Management Today

Date Posted: 08/20/2019

In this series of articles, we have been looking at the process involved in a carrier audit, correctly known as a “compliance” or “comprehensive” review. In past articles we have looked at how the audit is broken into six compliance areas, called the “Six Factors.” In this article, we will look at how the scores in the factors are determined and then combined to determine the carrier’s final score, referred to as the carrier’s safety rating.

It’s all about the violations discovered in carrier audit

The carrier is scored based on violations of the regulations discovered within each of the individual factors, and regulations are considered either acute or critical. Noncompliance with a single acute regulation is considered a serious violation, requiring immediate corrective actions by the carrier. Each instance of noncompliance with an acute regulation results in one point being assigned to the appropriate factor (1.5 points if the audit is a new-entrant safety audit, a different type of audit).

Critical regulations are identified as those where noncompliance relates to a breakdown in a carrier’s management controls. Critical regulations require a pattern of noncompliance — not a single violation. The number of violations required to meet a pattern of noncompliance is equal to at least ten percent of the documents checked during the audit. A pattern for a critical regulation will result in:

  • One point being assigned to the appropriate factor, or
  • Two points being assigned to Factor 3 if the violations involved a critical hours-of-service regulation.

Scoring, or ‘rating’ the factors in carrier audit

Based on the points assigned due to violations, each factor is then rated as:

  • Satisfactory: acute and/or critical equals 0;
  • Conditional: acute and/or critical equals 1; or
  • Unsatisfactory: acute and/or critical equals 2 or more.

Arriving at the overall safety rating

Once each of the six factors has been separately rated, the total number of conditional and unsatisfactory factors are added to determine the overall safety rating:

Factor Rating Overall Safety Rating
Unsatisfactory Conditional  
0 2 or less Satisfactory
0 More than 2 Conditional
1 2 or more Conditional
1 More than 2 Unsatisfactory
2 or more 0 or more Unsatisfactory

The proposed safety rating will become final 45 days after the carrier receive notice of it.

Not the final word

There are due-process procedures in Part 385 a carrier can undertake to challenge the findings of an audit, if the carrier believes the investigator made errors. Also, a carrier with a conditional or unsatisfactory rating can ask for an upgrade to its safety rating after making changes to its safety management controls (this process is also found in Part 385).

It does make a difference

Your safety rating has the potential to positively or negatively impact your business. Your customers, brokers, insurance providers, and current and prospective drivers all have a vested interest in knowing how “safe” the DOT considers your company. And, of course, a plaintiff’s attorney is going to scrutinize your carrier’s safety rating if you’re ever involved in a lawsuit following a serious crash.

Understanding the steps used to determine a safety rating, and how to end up with a good rating, may be necessary to ensure the continued success of your operation.


Key to remember: A negative safety rating is often the result of more than one area of weakness. To achieve a satisfactory safety rating, you must ensure your safety management controls are effective and cover all areas of compliance.

About the author
Tom Bray - Transportation Editor

Tom has been with J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc. since 2005. He brought with him an extensive background that includes years of experience in DOT compliance, policy development, driver human resources, driver training, training program development, CDL testing, claims management, and accident and injury prevention.

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