DOT Inspections: What You Need to Know

DOT truck inspections

What is a DOT inspection?

To help increase roadway safety, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) performs inspections on commercial motor vehicles (CMVs) and ensures all parts and components are in good working condition. As a truck driver, you’re probably familiar with this process. But, do you know the specifics of each inspection level or the most common violations? Learn how to prepare yourself and your equipment by gaining a better understanding of what to expect from DOT inspections.

Who plays a role in truck inspections?

While each state’s DOT conducts these safety check-ups, other groups and organizations play a role. The following groups work together to ensure carriers and drivers adhere to CMV laws and regulations:

  • State troopers. State troopers are a designated group of officers for each state who also have the authority to perform inspections.
  • The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). A department under the DOT that provides funding for and oversees all inspections.
  • The Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA). A nonprofit organization that created the criteria for the North American Standard Inspection program, which includes CMV inspections.

The six levels of truck inspections

The North American Standard Inspection Program consists of six levels of inspections that officials can perform on a vehicle or driver to make sure certain laws and regulations are met. Levels one, two, three and five are common, but level one is performed most frequently. Drivers won’t know which level the officer will execute until they get stopped, so it’s best to be familiar with all six.

Level I: North American Standard Inspection
This is the most thorough inspection because the officer looks at the entire vehicle (tractor and trailer) for worn-out or damaged parts. They examine the braking system, lighting, tires, battery, securement of cargo, and more. The officer also will talk with the driver and check for signs of alcohol and drug consumption, seat belt use and proper documentation. If violations are found, the officer can place the CMV out of service (OOS).

Level II: Walk-Around Driver/Vehicle Inspection
Level two inspections are similar to level one, except the official doesn’t check components that require them to get underneath the vehicle. Instead, the officer only walks around to look for anything operating incorrectly, and then checks the driver’s paperwork and credentials.

Level III: Driver-Only Inspection
This level focuses solely on the driver’s credentials and paperwork. Because of this, it’s crucial to keep the following records current:

  • License
  • Electronic logging device (ELD)
  • Record of Duty Status (RODS)
  • Hours of Service (HOS)
  • Driver Vehicle Inspection Report (DVIR)

Level IV: Special Inspections
Level four inspections are rare and are usually conducted as a one-time examination of a particular item (such as driver documentation or the vehicle’s engine) for research purposes.

Level V: Vehicle-Only Inspection
A vehicle-only inspection uses the same criteria as a level one, but no driver is present. This typically occurs at the carrier’s location during a compliance review.

Level VI: Enhanced NAS Inspection for Radioactive Shipments
This inspection is specific to CMVs hauling highway route controlled quantities (HRCQ) of radiological shipments — meaning the vehicle could be transporting hazardous freight, medical waste or nuclear material. This level includes inspection procedures, enhanced OOS criteria, radiological requirements and improvements to a level one inspection.

What to expect during a roadside check

A DOT officer or state trooper can pull you over anywhere, including weigh stations, truck stops or on the side of the road. As a driver, it’s your responsibility to act in a professional manner throughout the process. From the moment you open the driver’s side door and begin a conversation, the officer is alert. The way you handle yourself and how well you maintain the inside of the truck cab can indicate to which level of inspection you’ll be subject. And, keep in mind that while most officers pull over commercial drivers for a reason, one isn’t required — which means you should always be prepared.

What happens after?

There are three possible outcomes of truck inspections:

  1. No violations are found. If there are no violations, the official places a CVSA decal (valid for up to three months) on the vehicle — this indicates the driver and equipment passed the inspection. A CMV displaying a valid decal generally won’t be pulled over for another inspection unless there is a noticeable problem.
  2. Violations are found but aren’t serious. This means the officer found something the driver or vehicle is in violation of, but the problem isn’t severe enough to place either OOS. Even though the vehicle can still operate, the violations count against the carrier (or possibly the driver) and can impact Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) scores. Repairs must be fixed within 15 days of the inspection, and the carrier must sign and send a report to the FMCSA declaring all repairs were completed within the specified timeframe.
  3. Vehicle or driver is placed OOS. This indicates a serious violation that poses a danger to other motorists. An OOS vehicle or driver can’t operate again until all violations have been corrected and documented. 

The most common violations

Violations are cause for a driver or CMV to be placed out of service. If a driver is placed OOS, another driver would need to come and take over the truck. If the vehicle is in violation, it can either be repaired on site or towed. Knowing the most common violations can help drivers and carriers better maintain the equipment and keep the necessary documentation on hand.

For drivers.
Common violations against drivers include:

  • Logging violations
  • No medical card, or it’s expired
  • Invalid or expired license
  • Not wearing a seat belt
  • Exceeding HOS laws 

For vehicles.
Common violations against CMVs include:

  • Inoperable lights
  • Tire tread depth below 2/32 of an inch
  • Oil, grease, transmission fluid or fuel leaks
  • No current annual inspection on file
  • Improperly loaded cargo
  • Discharged or unsecured fire extinguisher

How to prepare for DOT inspections

DOT inspections typically last less than an hour when commercial motor vehicles have been properly maintained. Both drivers and carriers can use the following tips to prepare for inspections:

  • Clean the equipment (inside and out)
  • Implement a regular preventive maintenance program to keep vehicles in good condition
  • Perform pre-trip, en route and post-trip inspections to check for problems
  • Have company name and USDOT number visibly printed on the truck
  • Understand inspection procedures
  • Secure shipments properly

The CVSA international road check event 

Every summer, the CVSA implements a 72-hour period of intense truck inspections — a period of three days when DOT officers and state troopers stop and examine hundreds of vehicles and drivers for violations. Its purpose is to encourage and promote commercial driver and CMV operation safety. Since the event began, more than 1.5 million roadside checks have occurred in North America. Get prepared by learning more about this year’s road check event.


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