Commercial Driver’s License Background Checks: An Overview After The New FMCSA-DOT Rule

July 30, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

Two weeks ago, a Department of Transportation (DOT) Inspector General audit found that states fail too often when it comes to transmitting driver electronic conviction notifications in a timely manner to federal regulators, Transport Topics reported. What does that imply when it comes to commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs)?

According to federal regulations, states have to disqualify the CDLs of drivers who have been convicted of major offenses and serious traffic violations, as well as other offenses, as expeditiously as possible. Federal policies also require that states notify other states about convictions within 10 days. What happens when states do not transmit conviction notifications as soon as they can to federal regulators, though? It could mean individuals with records of major offenses and serious traffic violations may unintentionally — due to delays in the process — be allowed to operate vehicles for longer than they perhaps ought to be.

For instance, the DOT Inspector General audit listed an example from June 2019 wherein a commercial driver licensed in Massachusetts had his driving privileges suspended for refusing to take a chemical drug test but continued to drive thereafter. Less than six weeks after his suspension, the commercial driver was involved in a crash that killed seven motorcyclists in New Hampshire. An internal investigation conducted after the collision showed that his CDL would have been revoked before the crash if the Registry of Motor Vehicles had followed its own procedures for processing out-of-state driver notifications.

FMCSA-DOT’s new rule

In response to the audit, on July 23, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and the DOT brought out a rule codifying the statutory requirement that state driver licensing agencies (SDLAs) implement a system and practices for the exclusively electronic exchange of driver history record (DHR) information through the Commercial Driver’s License Information System (CDLIS), including the posting of convictions, withdrawals, and disqualifications.

The CDLIS is the system that is used to notify the state where the driver is licensed. And the new rule, which the FMCSA and DOT says will be effective Aug. 23, is a way to address gaps in the way information on CDL disqualifications is collected. It also aligns with existing statutory requirements in the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21).

Provisions of the rule require that states ensure CDL and commercial learner’s permit (CLP) holders who are convicted of serious traffic violations are prohibited from operating a commercial motor vehicle for specific periods of time, depending on the violation. The rule, which is final, is based on the general authority of 49 U.S.C. Chapter 313, the Federal Register notice says. According to the FMCSA, states must achieve “substantial compliance with this requirement as soon as practicable, but not later than three years after the effective date of the final rule.”

What happens in a typical CDL record check?

What typically happens when an individual applies for a CDL or tries to renew one? According to the FMCSA, the state first performs a check of its databases, the CDLIS, and the National Driver Registry (NDR) to ensure that the driver is not disqualified in that state or any other jurisdiction, or that he/she does not possess a commercial license from more than one jurisdiction. If the driver possesses a license from another jurisdiction, the state must require the CDL applicant to surrender his/her driver’s license issued by that jurisdiction before issuing a new license.

The state is also required to request the complete driving record of the applicant from all jurisdictions where the driver was previously licensed in the past 10 years. The current licensing state also has to consider other aspects such as asking the driver to certify the type of operation they expect to conduct; obtain a medical certificate documenting that the driver is physically qualified to operate a commercial motor vehicle; and post the medical certification information within 10 business days to the CDLIS driver record. The state has to update said driver record to include information from the FMCSA regarding issuance or renewal of a medical variance for a driver, once again, within 10 days of receiving the information.

Then there are other, more specific rules. For instance, if a driver is applying for a hazardous materials endorsement, the state must require compliance with the standards for such an endorsement as specified in Transportation Security Administration requirements, and provide proof of citizenship or immigration status, the FMCSA says.

What happens if a state determines that the applicant has falsified information or any of the required certifications?

At a minimum, the state can disqualify the person’s CDL or his/her pending application from operating a commercial motor vehicle for a period of at least 60 consecutive days. This can be done at any point: either after a state’s check of an applicant’s license status and records before issuing a CDL, or anytime after the CDL is issued.

If the person is convicted of fraud related to this issuance, the state must record this withdrawal in his/her driving record and they may not reapply for at least one year. If a state receives credible information that a CLP/CDL holder is suspected, but not convicted of fraud related to the issuance of their license, the state must require the license holder to retake the questionable test. If the driver does not retake the test within 30 days the state is required to disqualify the driver.

For more on the FMCSA-DOT rule, click here.

For more information on CDLs per the FMCSA in general, click here.