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Navigating the modern driver hiring process

Truck driving is one of the largest professions in the U.S., with 3.5 million people strong, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But despite this, most trucking companies are constantly searching for experienced and reliable candidates. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there are approximately 259,000 job openings for heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers each year, and everybody in the transportation industry, especially hiring managers, knows filling those positions isn’t easy.

Competition to hire drivers is fierce. With the countless options out there, drivers have the upper hand when choosing an employer, so trucking companies should assume applicants are applying to multiple carriers to weigh their options.

Naturally, it’s in the best interest of hiring managers to quickly extend a job offer before a driver accepts a position from someone else. But the hiring process is far more than a race against other carriers. It must also be thorough and compliant with Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs). 

It is the carrier’s responsibility to ensure both the driver’s application and all FMCSR required documents are in a driver qualification file (DQ) before a driver operates a commercial motor vehicle (CMV). This is a living record containing documents that prove a driver is eligible to operate a CMV.

All employees who drive a CMV must have a DQ file; it’s not just company drivers and independent contractors, but it’s also mechanics who do test runs, yard hostlers operating outside of a gated yard and dispatchers and any other positions who may fill in as temporary drivers.

No matter how urgently a carrier needs to fill a position, taking shortcuts and letting errors slip through during the hiring process results in issues down the line and can even increase risk potential. It’s in the carrier’s best interest to thoroughly vet an applicant’s qualifications to ensure it knows the safety history of the person behind the wheel. Hiring managers should communicate with drivers at every point in the process and use electronic tracking of the hiring checklist to stay organized and ensure no steps are overlooked. 

“Treat every application like it is worth a million dollars,” said Mark Schedler, senior transport editor at J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc., the nation’s leading provider of regulatory, safety and compliance solutions. “An allegation of negligent hiring in post-crash litigation could cost at least that and more.”  

We sat down with J. J. Keller, the transportation industry’s compliance experts, to learn what carriers need to know about the hiring process and how to make it as thorough and efficient as possible.

What’s in a driver qualification file?

Before a driver, CDL or non-CDL, is eligible to operate any CMV on a public roadway in support of a business, the carrier must have the following documents in a DQ file:

  • A driver application meeting the application for employment requirements in section 391.21 of the Federal Code of Regulations. It must be received, reviewed, verified as complete and on file with the driver’s signature.
  • Proof of medical qualification. This includes a medical card or motor vehicle record (MVR) showing the CDL driver’s medical information more than 15 days after each Department of Transportation exam or medical variance paperwork/skills performance evaluation if applicable.
  • Verification that the medical examiner was on the National Registry of Certified Medical Examiners.
  • Road test certificate and evaluation form (or an acceptable equivalent of a copy of a valid CDL or road test certificate less than three years old).
  • Intermittent or first-time driver’s statement of on-duty hours (or logs from the previous employer) for the last seven days on file.

Additional requirements for CDL-required CMVs, in addition to the above requirements, before a driver can operate a CDL-required CMV on a public roadway, the following items must be in their qualification file:

  • Receipt for drug and alcohol policy provided.
  • Verified negative results for the pre-employment drug test.
  • Full pre-employment query of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse that shows no “prohibited” status.

Once a carrier and a driver has completed the above requirements, the driver can begin operating a CMV. However, it doesn’t end there.

Within 30 days of being hired, carriers must complete the following  for all drivers, non-CDL and CDL:

  • Motor Vehicle Record reports (MVRs) received from all licensing authorities through which the driver was licensed over the previous three years.
  • Safety Performance History (SPH) background checks, including requesting dates of employment and DOT crashes with all DOT-regulated previous employers in the past three years or documented good-faith efforts. Prior employers regulated by a DOT agency other than FMCSA will also require verifications of DOT drug and alcohol violations.

Best practices for minimizing liability

Preparing for the worst-case scenario is never something any business wants to do, but it is necessary. Litigation against a motor carrier because of injuries or fatalities in crashes involving a truck driver can devastate a company’s reputation and finances. 

Nuclear verdicts, which are jury awards that exceed $10 million, are becoming more frequent.

“From a litigation standpoint, motor carriers should consider FMCSRs as minimum standards that can and should be exceeded. The ability of defense attorneys to document carrier or driver safety activities that exceed FMCSRs carries great weight with juries,” advised the American Transportation Research Institute in a 2020 report.

Trucking companies should take extra steps to do all they can to prevent becoming involved in litigation and a key opportunity is to vet candidates thoroughly upon hire.

Thankfully, hiring managers have ample resources to gather a driver’s background information and history to inform their hiring decision and reduce liability.

For instance, J. J. Keller recommends that before a driver operates a CMV, carriers pull the driver’s current licensing authority MVR to verify it is valid with the required endorsements (CDL vehicle) and that they meet company hiring criteria.

With the driver’s consent, companies can also run a Pre-Employment Screening (PSP) report from the FMCSA. The PSP report lists five years of DOT crashes and three years of violations. According to an FMCSA study, drivers with PSP reports have 17% fewer out-of-service violations and 8% fewer DOT crashes.

As mentioned previously, companies have 30 days after hiring to perform the SPH check, which helps companies screen for possibly unsafe driving history that occurred during the last three years. Schedler recommends completing this sooner rather than later. 

“Consider not using the 30-day window for the SPH as well and do all qualification work upfront so there are no surprises,” Schedler said.

This could help prevent any gap between when a driver gets behind the wheel and when the complete history from a driver’s previous employers is on file.

Avoid these common violations 

If litigation ever occurs, every violation, seemingly no matter how small, could come to light. Each rule broken gives a plaintiff’s attorney more ammo in a case against the carrier, so from the beginning, carriers should work to ensure no violations are overlooked.

These are common violations that can easily be avoided by carriers upfront to prevent exploitation in court cases in the future:

  1. DOT application is missing, partially completed or doesn’t include items in bylaw 391.21(b).
  2. Driver is not told of required inquiries or due process rights.
  3. Date of application is after the first driving date.
  4. New state of residency date is over 30 days with no new license.
  5. Road test certificate is not in the correct format or missing, or the test was done after the first dispatch.
  6. SPH check was not completed within 30 days of hire or one attempt was made with no response.
  7. Clearinghouse pre-employment query was not completed before dispatch.
  8. Initial qualification documents were purged in error, requested late or not at all.
  9. MVR revealed the driver was not correctly licensed after being used to support the business.
  10. Driver was used while not medically qualified or the examiner was not on the registry.
  11. Failure to request an MVR showing the medical status of the CDL vehicle driver.

Use technology to stay organized, efficient and compliant

It is now expected for drivers to be able to apply for a job from across the country and complete the qualification process without ever having stepped foot in the office for a face-to-face meeting. In the last few years, remote hiring tools have made this not only possible but the most likely scenario.

“How carriers manage driver recruiting and vetting processes has changed dramatically in recent years,” Schedler said. “Many carriers are using technology to their advantage — significantly since the COVID-19 pandemic changed procedures out of necessity.”

Changes in electronic recordkeeping laws five years ago paved the way to allow the prevalence of remote hiring now. Carriers should make full use of all the advantages at their disposal to speed up the hiring process while remaining compliant.

In 2018, the FMCSA updated its regulation pertaining to electronic documents and signatures. This change allows carriers the option to “generate, certify, sign, maintain or exchange” electronic records rather than paper. 

Electronic signatures are valid through authentication via either a stylus, mouse or finger-to-screen signatures or carriers can send applicants a private username and password to their accounts as they complete the paperwork. 

These changes help carriers expedite the application process as well as quickly complete background checks and distribute necessary consents and disclosures. Ultimately, it will also help to reduce time spent on filing and hard recordkeeping, save money on office supplies and clear up office space.

At the end of the day, the benefits a motor carrier enjoys because of remote hiring can make a huge impact on its ability to quickly get through the hiring process while staying compliant.

J. J. Keller provides motor carriers with unmatched driver qualification and hiring guidance, plus services with advanced technology solutions to comply with FMCSR requirements during the hiring process and beyond.

To learn more about J. J. Keller, click here.