Blue flatbed truck on the road

What Is a Commercial Driver’s License?

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Before 1986, a major cause of fatal accidents on American roads was unqualified vehicle operators. At the time, several of the drivers were able to escape liability for irresponsible driving since they held multiple driver’s licenses issued by different states.

The Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986 was passed for this very reason. It established a nationwide system that would standardize the issuance of driver’s licenses in all states and hold interstate truck drivers accountable for breaking the law and subject them to more stringent punishments they previously escaped.

What is a CDL license, and how does it work? This article explores everything you need to know.

What Is a CDL License?

A commercial driver’s license or CDL license for short is a special type of driver’s license that authorizes drivers to operate large heavy or hazardous material vehicles in the United States. There are several different types of vehicles that would be classified as commercial motor vehicles (CMV). Vehicles like buses, tank tracks, and hazmat vehicles can only be operated by drivers who hold CDL licenses with proper endorsements authorizing them to operate these categories of CMVs.

For instance, to operate a vehicle fairing radioactive substances, explosives, or flammable liquids, you need to apply for a CDL and receive the relevant endorsements of a rising you to drive these CMVs.

  • To get an endorsement, drivers must pass a specialized driving skills test and a specialized knowledge exam to obtain endorsements. Some of these endorsements include:
  • Passenger (P) endorsement that allows you to drive passenger vehicles
  • Tank (T) endorsement that allows you to drive transferring liquid cargo
  • Hazardous materials (H) endorsement that allows you to drive trucks fairing radioactive substances, explosives, flammable liquids, or any other substance classified as hazmat.
  • School bus (S) endorsement that allows you to drive buses carrying school-going children

To obtain any of these endorsements, you will need to successfully complete a training program from any FMCSA-approved training provider. Drivers applying for an S endorsement are also required to undergo a thorough background check in addition to completing the training program.

Types of CDL Licenses

Below is an overview of the various types of commercial driver’s licenses you can get in the US.

CDL Class A License

A Class A CDL license allows licensed drivers to operate any combined group of vehicles with a cumulative combined weight rating, also known as Gross Combination/Combined Weight Rating (GVWR) of 26,001 lbs. or more. Drivers with a CDL Class A license can drive:

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

Drivers with Class A CDL licenses that receive proper endorsements can also drive various Class B and Class C vehicles.

CDL Class B License

A Class B CDL license allows licensed drivers to operate single vehicles with a Gross Combination/Combined Weight Rating of 26,001 lbs. or more. They can also tow a vehicle that weighs no more than 10,000 lbs. Drivers with Class B CDL licenses that receive proper endorsements may drive any of the following vehicles:

  • Box trucks
  • Dump trucks with small trailers
  • Large passenger buses
  • Segmented buses
  • Straight trucks
  • Tractor-trailers

Drivers with Class B CDL licenses with proper endorsements can also drive some Class C vehicles.

CDL Class C License

A Class C CDL license allows license holders to operate vehicles designed to transport a minimum of 16 occupants, including the driver. They are also authorized to transport hazardous materials as defined by federal law. Drivers with Class C CDL licenses with proper endorsements can operate any of the following types of vehicles:

  • Combination vehicles that don’t fall under Class A or Class B
  • Passenger vans
  • Small hazardous materials (hazmat) vehicles

The Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986

The Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act (CMVSA) was enacted in 1986 to address the then rampant issues caused by unqualified and irresponsible truck and bus drivers. These drivers, who at the time were licensed without undergoing adequate testing in most of the states, were found to be the root cause of fatal accidents and ongoing threats to other highway users.

More often than not, culpable drivers sought to escape liability for their actions on the road by holding multiple driver’s licenses issued by different states. As a result, they would spread the traffic violations and result in convictions among these licenses, therefore, sidestepping license suspensions and revocations.

In 1986, Congress passed the CMVSA Act to counteract these abuses by adopting a nationwide information system prohibiting drivers from holding multiple driver’s licenses. The new law also allowed different states across the country to exchange information on traffic violations and convictions, making it easier to remove errant problematic drivers from the roads. Drivers who are found in violation of this law were also subject to tougher penalties.

Additionally, the CMVSA required states to adopt a uniform testing standard that all commercial drivers would have to undergo prior to licensing. Serious traffic violators would also be sanctioned to ensure that commercial drivers are held accountable for traffic violations.

Drivers Required to Obtain a CDL License

Drivers operating any of the following vehicles are required by law to hold a CDL.

  • Any vehicle combination with a Gross Combination/Combined Weight Rating (GCWR) of 26,001 lbs. or more provided that the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of the vehicle in tow weighs 10,000 lbs. or more
  • Any singular vehicle with a GVWR of 26,001 lbs. or more or any singular vehicle towing another that weighs no more than 10,000 lbs.
  • Any vehicle designed to transport a minimum of 16 people (driver included)
  • Any vehicle that’s required by law to be placarded when transporting hazardous materials

Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) Definition

A vehicle’s GVWR refers to the maximum loaded weight or registered gross weight of a vehicle combination or that of a singular vehicle as specified by the manufacturer.

Gross Combination/Combined Weight Rating (GCWR) Definition

A vehicle’s GVWR refers to the GVWR or combined registered weight of the power unit and towed unit(s).

Drivers Exempt from Obtaining a CDL License

Under federal and state law, not all drivers are subject to the CDL licensing requirements. According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), drivers exempt from the requirements of the CDL program will not in any way diminish the safe operation of CMVs on the highways.

Below is a list of vehicle operators who are not required to obtain a CDL.

Farm Equipment Operators

Farmers conducting legitimate farm-to-market operations are covered under this exemption. A CDL is not required to operate any vehicle:

  • Not used in the operations of a contract carrier or common carrier
  • Operated and controlled by a farmer, a member of the family, or an employee
  • Used in agricultural or nursery operations
  • Used to transport farm supplies products or equipment to and from the farm (aquaculture and nurseries included)
  • Used within a 150-air-mile radius of the farm

It’s important to note that drivers of truck tractor semi-trailers and members of their families who also operate truck tractor semi-trailers and meet the above criteria are also exempt from the CDL program.

The drivers need to be aged 21 years or older, and the vehicle in question needs to have some plates installed. That said, these drivers are still required to take CDL road, written, and skills tests before licensing.

Fire-Fighting Equipment Operators

Firefighting organizations usually subject their equipment operators to extensive and intensive initial training and retraining requirements. Most states usually wave CDL requirements for operators of firefighting equipment operated or owned by government agencies when responding to or returning from emergencies.

Military Vehicle Operators

Any military vehicle operator or vehicle used for military purposes is exempt from obtaining a CDL.

Recreational Vehicle Operators

Individuals who own or operate an RV primarily for personal use are exempt from obtaining a CDL.

How to Get CDL License

A gray truck on the highway
Image Credit: Unsplash

If you’re interested in pursuing a truck driving career, here’s an overview of the CDL license requirements for licensing.

  • Age requirement: You need to be at least 18 years old to get a CDL license and at least 21 years old to be able to drive across state lines or ferry hazardous materials.
  • Clean driving record: You need to have at least two years’ worth of driving experience before obtaining a CDL license. Your driving record should not have any DUI/DUI reports, traffic violations, failure to appear in court, failure to pay child support, or license suspensions. If you are suspended, you should have refrained from driving for the designated suspension period, completed a defensive driving program, and complied with the required reinstatement fees.
  • English comprehension: You need to be able to speak and read English.
  • Existing driver’s license: Before you can apply for a CDL license, you need to have a valid non-commercial driver’s license.
  • No criminal record: You need to pass a thorough background check before obtaining a CDL.
  • Proof of citizenship: You need to prove that you are a US citizen using a social security card or a birth certificate.
  • Physical and medical examination: you need to provide a valid medical examiner’s certificate indicating that you have acceptable eyesight and are in good general health.

In addition to the screening requirements, you will need to pass a written exam, a skills exam, and a driving exam. The written knowledge exam is a computerized CDL license test that consists of a series of standard multiple-choice questions. You will need to take additional specialized exams if you intend to operate any of the following vehicles:

  • Any vehicle with air brakes
  • Combination vehicles
  • Double or triple trailers
  • Hazmat vehicles
  • Passenger-carrying vehicles
  • School buses
  • Tanker vehicles

Any applicant who fails any CDL exam(s) three times is required to wait at least 30 days from the date of the last failed exam. If you still fail the same exam(s) three more times, meaning you now have six total failures, you will need to wait at least 90 days before taking the same exams again.

Three additional failures of the same exams, meaning nine failures total, results in a one-year waiting period before you can retake the same exams again.

How Long Does It Take To Get a CDL License?

The time it takes to get a CDL license depends on various factors, including:

  • Type of license required: Class A, Class B, and Class C CDL licenses authorize licensees to operate different types of vehicles. Depending on the CDL license training program you take, you can get a Class A license in 20 days.
  • The number of driving hours: Some states require the applicant to acquire a specific number of behind-the-wheel hours before getting a CDL license. The requirements for this vary by state.
  • The required endorsements: If you intend to drive special vehicles like trailers and passes, you will need to obtain additional adjustments in addition to the CDL license.

How Much Does a CDL License Cost?

The precise cost varies by state. The first thing you need to consider is the training cost. Depending on the school you are applying to, the license type, i.e., Class A, Class B, or Class C, and the specific endorsements you want, costs can run anywhere from $2000 to $8000.

These costs include the training program, medical exam, DMV fees, and testing fees. The cost for each endorsement is $10-$50, depending on the state you’re in.

CDL Insurance Requirements

CDL insurance is a must-have for commercial vehicle drivers and is a combination of different types of protection coverage. Here’s a list of what would typically be included in CDL insurance coverage:

  • Liability insurance
  • Physical damage
  • Comprehensive coverage
  • Cargo insurance
  • Collision coverage
  • Combined deductible
  • Earned freight
  • Loading and unloading
  • Loss mitigation
  • Non-trucking liability

The FMCSA requires interstate truck drivers to have specific minimum coverage limit requirements depending on the type of freight.

  • $300,000 for non-hazardous freight hauled in vehicles weighing less than 10,001 lbs.
  • $750,000 for non-hazardous freight hauled in vehicles weighing more than 10,001 lbs.
  • $1,000,000 for flammable liquids moved by private and contracted carriers.
  • $5,000,000 for other hazardous materials used by private and contracted carriers.

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