what is a commercial drivers license (CDL)?

What is a CDL (Commercial Driver’s License)?

If you have hopes of becoming a trucker in the near future, you’ll need to acquire a special license to do so: a commercial driver’s license (CDL).

Before signing up for a training program, it’s important to educate yourself on what a CDL is and the requirements for earning it.

Commercial Driver’s License 101

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A commercial driver’s license, or CDL, is a special license required to operate large or heavy vehicles.

The Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986 established the requirements that must be met when states issue a CDL license. Prior to 1986, each state had its own requirements for obtaining a license to operate commercial motor vehicles.

Prior to the legislation, many drivers were operating vehicles that they were not trained or qualified to drive. Lack of proper training led to a large number of preventable accidents and deaths on the road.

Now, a CDL will be required if the vehicle meets one of the definitions of a commercial motor vehicle.

CDL Classifications (A,B,C)

There are three types of CDLs: A, B and C. Each classification is distinguished by the vehicle’s gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR).

Class A CDL

A Class A CDL is required to operate any vehicle with a GVWR of 26,001 lbs. or more when towing a trailer weighing over 10,000 lbs.

The towing allowance will depend on the endorsements you obtain. With proper endorsements, a driver may be able to operate:

  • Truck and trailer combinations
  • Tractor-trailers
  • Livestock carriers
  • Tanker vehicles
  • Flatbeds
  • Tractor-trailer buses

With the right endorsements, drivers with a CDL A may be able to operate certain Class B and Class C vehicles.

Class B CDL

A Class B CDL is required when operating a single vehicle with a GVWR of 26,001 lbs. or heavier, and/or when operating an above-listed vehicle and towing another vehicle weighing up to 10,000 lbs. (no more).

You may also be required to obtain certain endorsements when operating some vehicles with a Class B license. Some of the vehicles you may be able to operate include:

  • Large buses, such as tourist, city and school buses
  • Straight trucks
  • Segmented buses
  • Dump trucks w/small trailers
  • Box trucks, such as couriers, delivery drivers and furniture drivers

With certain endorsements, you may be able to operate certain Class C vehicles with a Class B license.

Class C CDL

A Class C CDL may be required if:

  • The vehicle does not meet the requirements of Class A or Class B licenses.
  • Is meant to transport either hazardous materials as per federal guidelines or at least 16 passengers.

With a Class C CDL, you may be able to operate the following vehicles with the proper endorsements:

  • Passenger vans
  • Small HAZMAT vehicles
  • Combination vehicles not described in Class A or B

When is a CDL Required?

Depending on the vehicle and its purpose, a CDL may or may not be required.

A CDL is required when a driver is operating any of the following:

  • A single vehicle with a GVWR of 26,001 lbs. or more, or operating a vehicle of this weight while towing another weighing no more than 10,000 lbs.
  • Any vehicle of any size transporting 16 or more persons, including the driver.
  • Any combination of vehicles weighing 26,001 lbs. or more while towing at least 10,000 lbs.
  • Any vehicle required to be placarded while transporting hazardous materials.

But there are certain cases where drivers are exempt from obtaining a CDL.

Farm Equipment Operators

The exemption applies to farm-to-market operations – not commercial grain haulers. A CDL is not required if:

  • The vehicle transports farm products, supplies or equipment to or from the farm.
  • The vehicle is used within 150 miles of the farm.
  • Operated by the farmer, an employee or a member of the farmer’s family.

Other exemptions include:

  • Military Vehicle Operators
  • Firefighting Equipment Operators
  • Recreational Vehicle Operators

CDL Requirements

Each state has its own application process, but all states must adhere to federal requirements as set by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

Basic CDL eligibility requirements, as per federal rules, are as follows:

  • Must be aged 21 years or older to operate a vehicle with hazardous materials or driving across state lines.
  • Must not have any prior disqualifying criminal offenses.

There are also basic federal CDL application requirements that must be met, including:

  • Testing for and obtaining a CLP (commercial learner’s permit)
  • Hold a CLP for 14 days
  • Take the road skills test to obtain a CDL

If you are also applying for endorsements, you may also be required to take additional exams and have additional knowledge.

Before you can apply for a CDL, you must obtain your CPL. Along with state-specific requirements, tests and citizenship documents, you must also provide:

  • 10-year driving history
  • Current driver’s license
  • Medical exam self-certification form

You must also pass a knowledge and skills test and pay the associated fees. Tests will vary from state to state, but tests must have at least 30 questions and you must obtain a score of at least 80%. Also, you must hold your CPL for a minimum of 14 days before applying for your full CDL.

When taking your skills test, you will need to provide the vehicle. The skills test will consist of three parts:

  • Vehicle inspection
  • Basic controls test
  • Road test

CDL Endorsements and Waivers

If you wish to add an endorsement to your CDL, testing applications and security checks may be required. Endorsements include:

  • Passenger vehicles
  • School buses
  • Tank vehicles
  • Carrying hazardous materials

Military veterans with experience operating military vehicles may be able to have the CDL skills test waived. Other drivers may also be exempt from obtaining a CDL. Consult with your local laws to learn more about waivers and exemptions.

Many CDL training programs will walk you through the steps of obtaining your license from start to finish. Even if you only plan to operate a delivery vehicle, you will be required to obtain a commercial driver’s license. Just be sure to do your research beforehand to determine which type of CDL will be required as well as any endorsements you may need.

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