How to get your Commercial Driver’s License (CDL)
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Whether you want to drive a truck within the area you live or you hear the call of the open road, having a commercial driver’s license (CDL) can be a great way to earn a living.
Since driving a commercial motor vehicle requires a certain skill set and awareness different than operating a regular motor vehicle, all commercial drivers are required to have a CDL to operate a truck. This means you’ll need to pass a general knowledge written test, as well as a series of road skills tests.
CDL requirements are established by the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration (FMCSA). The state you live in may have an additional set of requirements. Your state’s official government and/or Department of Transportation (DOT) website will have the information you need.
- Get a CDL manual. Each state has its own version. Visit your state’s official transportation website for a copy, and check out the specifics for testing in your area.
- Decide what kind of driving you’ll be doing. Licenses are issued depending upon the commercial vehicle and type of driving you’ll be doing, and some drivers will need special endorsements if operating certain types of commercial vehicles. For example, if you’re going to move hazardous materials, you need a hazardous materials endorsement which requires an additional knowledge test. (The full list of endorsements and restrictions is available on the FMCSA’s website.)
- Figure out the class of CDL you’ll need. This determines the type of testing you’ll have to prepare for.
The FMCSA designates three different classes of commercial vehicle. Your CDL is issued according to these classifications:
- Class A: Combination vehicle. Any combination of vehicles which has a gross combination weight rating or gross combination weight of 26,001 pounds or more whichever is greater, inclusive of a towed unit(s) with a gross vehicle weight rating or gross vehicle weight of more than 10,000 pounds whichever is greater.
- Class B: Heavy straight vehicle. Any single vehicle which has a gross vehicle weight rating or gross vehicle weight of 26,001 pounds or more, or any such vehicle towing a vehicle with a gross vehicle weight rating or gross vehicle weight that does not exceed 10,000 pounds.
- Class C: Small vehicle. Any single vehicle, or combination of vehicles, that does not meet the definition of Class A or Class B, but is either designed to transport 16 or more passengers, including the driver, or is transporting material that has been designated as hazardous under 49 U.S.C. 5103 and is required to be placarded under subpart F of 49 CFR Part 172 or is transporting any quantity of a material listed as a select agent or toxin in 42 CFR Part 73.
What you need to know…
You’ll need to get a Commercial Learners Permit (CLP) to practice driving on public roads. This allows you to drive as long as you have someone with a qualified CDL in the cab with you. Review your driving record, know your medical history, and be prepared to pay applicable fees to your state.
CLPs and CDLs are issued by the state you live in according to the standards established by the FMCSA. Those standards are:
- A valid non-commercial driver’s license issued by the state you live in.
- Be at least 18-years old, and 21-years old if driving across state lines and/or transporting hazardous materials.
- Proof of citizenship or lawful permanent residency (social security card, birth certificate, green card, etc.)
- Pass applicable background screenings.
- Provide the names of all the states you’ve been licensed to operate a motor vehicle of any kind over the past 10 years.
- No active driver’s license suspensions or revocations.
- Certify you aren’t subject to any disqualifications under FMCSA regulations or state law.
- Certify you do not have a driver’s license from more than one state or jurisdiction.
- Speak and read English (state exams are in English only).
- Specific to getting your CDL:
- You must have 1-2 years of driving experience (timeframe determined by the state you live in).
- You must surrender your regular driver’s license.
Drivers must be able to meet the physical requirements of operating a commercial vehicle.
This includes long periods behind the wheel, irregular sleep, and being away from family and friends. It may also require heavy lifting when loading and unloading, a certain level of agility, installing chains on truck tires, and more.
Some drivers need a valid Medical Examiner’s (ME) Certificate to operate a commercial vehicle. This certificate must be provided by the Department of Transportation (DOT), and the exam must be administered by someone on the National Registry of Certified Medical Examiners. (This is what the exam includes.)
Drivers must provide a copy of their ME Certificate (DOT medical card) and self-certify to their State Driver Licensing Agency (SDLA) the type of vehicle they expect to operate.
The FMCSA’s website explains the self-certification categories as:
- Interstate non-excepted: You are an Interstate non-excepted driver and must meet the Federal DOT medical card requirements (e.g. you are “not excepted”).
- Interstate excepted: You are an Interstate excepted driver and do not have to meet the Federal DOT medical card requirements.
- Intrastate non-excepted: You are an Intrastate non-excepted driver and are required to meet the medical requirements for your State.
- Intrastate excepted: You are an Intrastate excepted driver and do not have to meet the medical requirements for your state.
Beware! If a commercial driver is caught driving in a category other than the one they self-certified, they are subject to suspension or revocation of their CDL. Update your ME Certificate (DOT medical card) as needed to stay compliant with regulations.
You must pass a series of knowledge and skills tests administered by your state of residence to receive your CDL.
- General knowledge written test. These tests include rules and regulations, traffic laws, driving safely, transporting cargo, etc.
Tip: An internet search will produce a number of practice tests so you can make sure you go into the real test prepared!
- A three-part road and skills test. You must use the same class of commercial vehicle you’ll be driving when you get your CDL. The road test includes a Vehicle Inspection Test, a Basic Controls Test, and the Road Test.
If your state requires training to drive a truck…
Some states require you complete a CDL training. There are typically two ways people are trained to drive a truck:
Attend an independent truck driving school/driver training program.
Independent driving schools are located across the country. Research the training programs available in your area to make an informed decision. Attending an independent training program may be less expensive, but schooling needs to be paid upfront or arranged through a loan (unlike training programs linked to trucking companies). Receiving your training from an independent school means you can work for any company you want when you’re finished because you aren’t attached to a contract.
Contract with a trucking company who will train and hire you.
There are a number of companies that will train you to drive truck if you sign a contract agreeing to work for them for 1-2 years. What’s great about this option is there are no upfront costs, and you can make a decent paycheck when your done with training.
A word of caution: If you decide you don’t like trucking and quit, you will have to reimburse the company the cost of the training, and training costs may be higher than attending an independent training program. You may also be away from home for a period of time depending on there the training is located.
The choice is up to you, and both options have advantages and disadvantages. When deciding which one is right for you, keep in mind what kind of truck you want to drive (flatbed, reefer, etc.), the area you plan to call home base, and the lanes you want to run.
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