How to Get a Commercial Driver’s License

Anyone considering starting a trucking business needs to have a CDL. That included the business person with a million dollars to hire drivers to the married couple who has one leased truck to start their in-state transportation business. To give you an idea of what you’re getting into, a CDL is probably about as hard to get as a GED.

Getting a CDL is a combination of self-study, class study, and practical exercises. In CDL terminology, these are called the “knowledge tests” and “skills tests”. There are CDL study manuals available online that will help you get started. You can also opt to just enroll in a truck driving school, or (and this is the best option) you can get hired by a trucking company that pays for the training of their new drivers.

Just in case you were wondering, CDLs have been required only since April 1st of 1992, so some of the old school drivers like to show their experience by saying they were driving before CDLs. You should also know that it is illegal to hold more than one CDL (per person), and that your CDL should be issued from your state of residence.

Who Needs a CDL?

You will need a commercial driver’s license if any of the following will happen in your trucking career:

– you will be driving a vehicle transporting hazardous materials in enough quantity to require a placard

– you will be driving any vehicle with a gross vehicle weight rating, registered weight or actual weight of 26,000 pounds or more

– you will be towing a vehicle with a gross vehicle weight rating, registered weight or actual weight of 10,000 pounds or more – you will be driving a combination of vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating, registered weight of actual weight is over 26,000 pounds, with the towed weight being more than 10,000 pounds

– or if you will ever need to drive a Commercial Motor Vehicle, officially known as a CMV, because all CMV require a CDL to drive them – or if you will ever be driving a vehicle designed or used to transport 15 or more passengers, plus the driver (so a total of 16 people)

So, clearly, even heavy recreational use could get you into these requirements. Driving a school bus of kids to a weekend camping event would require a commercial driver’s license, as would some of the more elaborate RV rigs I see on the road.

Get a Class A CDL

There are different classes of CDLs: Class A, Class B and Class C. The best one, and the one that is most worth having and working for, is the Class A CDL. That’s because you get all the priviledges of class B and C licenses by having your Class A CLD. Also, a Class B CDL has all the priviledges of a Class C CDL, but does not have all the priviledges of a Class A CDL.

Your Class A CDL will allow you to drive any combination of vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating (or GVWR) of 26,001 pounds or more, so long as the towed section is more than 10,000 pounds.

Getting a Commercial Driver’s License — the Knowledge and Skills Tests

The CDL Knowledge Skills Tests
You do the book study parts of your CDL training first, before the practicum. If you do not pass the knowledge skills tests you are not allowed on to the skills tests.

Drivers who will be transporting different things will need different endorsements, and thus will have to study for and pass different knowledge tests. There are at least 30 questions on each exam, and a passing grade is 80%. Licenses are issued at the state level.

Here are the different endorsements offered now:

T – Double/Triple Trailers Endorsement (Knowledge Test only)
P – Passenger Endorsement (Knowledge and Skills Test)
N – Tank Vehicle Endorsement (Knowledge Test only)
H – Hazardous Materials Endorsement (Knowledge Test only)
X – Combination of Tank Vehicle and Hazardous Materials Endorsement
S – School Bus Endorsement (Knowledge and Skills Test)

All CDL candidates must pass the air brake component of the general exam, and do their skills test on a vehicle with air brakes in order to be licensed to drive any CMV vehicle with air brakes.

Here are the different exam knowledge tests :

  • General Knowledge Test, required for all applicants.
  • Passenger Transport Test, required for bus drivers.
  • School Bus Test, required in addition to the Passenger Transport test if you want to drive a school bus.
  • Air Brakes Test, required for people driving vehicles with air brakes, which makes up the bulk of CMVs.
  • Combination Vehicles Test, required to drive combination vehicles like tractor-trailers, doubles and triples.
  • Hazardous Materials Test, required to haul hazardous material or waste in sufficient amounts to require placarding (more than 1kg per month).
  • Tanker Test, required to haul bulk liquids.
  • Doubles/Triples Test, required to pull double or triple trailers.

Skills Test

The skills exam rates your proficiency in these three areas. You must pass all these tests in the kind of vehicle for which you wish to be licensed in order to gain CDL certification. Make sure you get your CDL license instruction permit, or that your program will provide you with one. Otherwise you are not legal to even train to drive in the CMV vehicles. Your CDL license instruction permit is valid for 6 months from the date of issue.

Pre-Trip Vehicle Inspection

: Can you tell if our vehicle is safe to drive or not? The examiner will observe you do a pre-trip inspection and ask you to explain what you are doing and why as you check the different parts of your vehicle.

Basic Vehicle Control

: Can you drive the truck, and manuever it safely doing the challenging moves you’ll have to do on the job, like backing up and parking within inches of your target position. You must demonstrate professional-level control of the vehicle in every direction: forward, backward and turning. Expect to do this part of the exam on a driving course with cones and other barriers, and possibly even people walking around just to keep you on your toes. Your examiner will give you specific instructions on what they want you to do to demonstrate your competence in this section of the exam.

On-Road Driving

: How you handle your vehicle in traffic? How well do you negotiate merging into highway traffic, getting through tight intersections, handling hills and curves, single and multi-lane roads, even residential areas. You and your examiner will bo going out for an extended drive in order for you to show them you can handle all the incredible situations other drivers can put you into.

If you complete the skills test, you will have earned your CDL for the type of vehicles and driving that your tests prepared you for, ie the “endorsements” that you qualified for. Do keep in mind that to retain your CDL going forward, you must tell your employer if you get any kind of traffic violation, even if it is driving your own car to the store to get milk on a Sunday. The good news is that parking tickets don’t count for this rule. You are also required, by law, to tell your new employer if your CDL is ever revoked, and you must hold only one CDL or risk a $5,000 fine, six months in jail, or both.

And you are still not done yet. CDL holders must pass Federal Medical Standards, as defined on the Department of Transportation websites for each state. You will need to get an ID card that shows you’ve passed these standards, and carry it with you at all times.

The Medical Standards include but are not limited to passing a drug test and not having a condition of diabetes that requires insulin injections, or a history of cardiac problems suffientt to cause collapse or other problems. You also have to have 20/40 vision (with or without glasses), no current diagnosis of alcoholism, epilepsy or high blood pressure bad enough to interference with your driving. You must also be able to hear a whispered communication from five feet away. There are other requirements, but these are the highlights. You will have to see a medical examiner to get your Certificate of Physical Examination.


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