The driver qualifications regulations, which are found in Part 391 of the FMCSA regulations, apply to all interstate drivers and most intrastate drivers that operate a commercial motor vehicle – no matter whether your company employs one driver or 1,000.

The only thing that “changes” is who is responsible for making sure the driver is qualified (including the paperwork).

The qualification requirements

As far as the basic qualification requirements are concerned, Part 391 requires that the driver:

  • Be at least 21 years old (18 in some states for intrastate drivers),
  • Be able to read and speak English well enough to converse with the public and law enforcement,
  • Be medically qualified — this means a driver will need to undergo a physical every 2 years, or sooner, depending on the length of the current certification,
  • Has a valid driver's license of the correct class for the vehicle being driven,
  • Completes the necessary paperwork (DOT driver's application, certificate of violations, etc.),
  • Has undergone a Safety Performance History background check (including checking with the driver's previous DOT-regulated employers),
  • Has the necessary training and/or experience to safely operate the equipment, and
  • Has passed a road test.

The regulations also require that proof of all of the above, as well as proof of an annual review of the driver's motor vehicle record and performance, be kept on file at the company for which the driver is operating. This “proof” is referred to as the Driver's Qualification, or DQ, file. Documents that must be in the DQ file include:

  • Driver’s application
  • Records of the background check conducted by the company. This needs to show that you verified employment with any DOT-regulated employer the driver worked for during the previous three years, including dates of employment, drug and alcohol testing, and accidents, and the driver’s motor vehicle record (MVR) from all states where he or she held a license in during the three years previous to hire.
  • Road test and copy of the road test certificate (which is issued to the driver after he/she passes the road test), or an acceptable equivalent (such as a road test certificate issued by another carrier within the last three years or a copy of a valid CDL)
  • Annual (that is, every 12 months) review record for all annual reviews conducted over the last three years, including:
    • An annual MVR from all states in which the driver had a license over the previous 12 months,
    • The annual “Certificate of Violations” completed by the driver,
    • A record of management review of driver safety performance, and
  • Copies of medical certificates (cards) for all physicals taken over the last three years. The driver must pass a physical before the one that is on file expires.

The application, background check records (MVRs and SPH), and road test records must be kept the entire time the driver is employed with that carrier, plus three years.

Who is responsible for maintaining the DQ file?

If the driver is an owner-operator operating under his/her own DOT number, then the owner-operator is responsible for making sure he/she meets the qualification requirements and remains qualified. The owner-operator must maintain his/her DQ file.

As far as the qualification process and DQ file is concerned, the only thing an owner-operator needs outside assistance to accomplish is the road test (unless an acceptable equivalent is used, such as a CDL). An owner-operator needs to find someone who is competent at evaluating drivers operating a CMV on the road and have this individual conduct and document the road test.

Owner-operators are allowed to self-manage and administer their application, the background checks, the medical certificate, and conducting annual reviews. In effect, the owner-operator is both the driver and the company.

If the owner-operator leases onto a carrier, then the carrier he/she is leased to becomes responsible for the driver’s DQ file and ongoing qualifications, such as making sure the owner-operator’s credentials (license and medical card) stay current and for conducting annual reviews. In this case the owner-operator is responsible for maintaining his/her personal qualifications (license and medical card) and the company is responsible for overseeing the owner-operator and maintaining the DQ file.

Thomas Bray is an editor in the Transportation Publishing Department of the Editorial Resource Unit at J.J. Keller & Associates, Inc., specializing in motor carrier safety and operations management.