What is a CDL … When is a CDL license required …
A person wishing to drive a tractor trailer (a.k.a. “semi” or “big rig”) is required to hold a valid Class A commercial driver’s license commonly referred to as a CDL. The CDL was created by an act of Congress known as The Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986 which was signed into law on October 27, 1986.
The primary intent of the Act was to improve highway safety by ensuring that truck drivers and drivers of tractor trailers and buses are qualified to drive Commercial Motor Vehicles (CMVs), and to remove drivers that are unsafe and unqualified from the highways. The Act continued to give states the right to issue CDLs, but the federal government established minimum requirements that must be met when issuing a CDL.
The CDL ensures that truck drivers meet the minimum requirements for the safe operation of a tractor trailer through testing and licensing standards. Although the Act is a Federal law, each state retained the right to license drivers with the adoption of the standards. A CDL has been required to drive a tractor trailer since April 1, 1992. To obtain a CDL, the truck driver must pass a knowledge and driving skills test administered by his state. The skills test must be the type of vehicle which the driver intends to be licensed.
Truck drivers need a Class A CDL license in order to drive a tractor trailer. The Class A vehicle type has been designated as “any combination of vehicles with a GVWR of 26,001 or more pounds provided the GVWR of the vehicle(s) being towed is in excess of 10,000 pounds.” (Federal Highway Administration-FHWA).
While each state issues a CDL, the U.S Department of Transportation sets the guidelines and requires drivers to obtain a CDL permit by:
- first passing a written CDL exam
- passing a DOT physical and drug screen
- completing a CDL skills test which includes both a CDL pre-trip inspection and basic vehicle control test.
The pre-trip inspection is based on federal guidelines from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Act and the Commercial Driver’s License Manual. These guidelines apply to every state’s CDL testing.
The pre-trip inspection can seem overwhelming; so many things to learn and generally in a short amount of time – and how do you know what’s included on the test?
The Class A CDL Pre-Trip Inspection includes around 100 items that fall into categories such as:
- the front of the vehicle
- engine compartment
- side of the tractor
- between tractor and trailer
- trailer front
- drive axles
- coupling system
- rear of tractor
- and much more …
The best way to prepare for the Pre-Trip Inspection Test is to watch a video that was prepared by trucking industry training experts, and one with an instructor performing an entire inspection. There are plenty of them and we recommend you try Youtube.com first, although there are others that have been prepared for specific trucking industry websites. A video like this will give you a huge advantage because you will have seen each item of the inspection demonstrated, and when possible, will have been able to practice.
Each state is able to issue CDLs only after a written and practical test have been administered by a State or third-party approved testing facility.
Additional testing is required to obtain any of the following endorsements on the CDL. These can only be obtained after a CDL has been issued to the driver:
- T – Double/Triple Trailers (Knowledge Test only)
- P – Passenger (Knowledge and Skills Tests)
- N – Tank Vehicle (Knowledge Test only)
- H – Hazardous Materials (Knowledge Test only) **
- X – Combination of Tank Vehicle and Hazardous Materials
A hazmat, or hazardous material, endorsement in the U.S. is a special endorsement that can be attached to a commercial driver’s license. A hazmat endorsement is required to transport certain materials. The following applies to the hazmat endorsement:
- Hazardous materials that require a hazmat endorsement are defined by the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act and range from highly toxic chemicals to explosive or inflammable substances
- To apply for a hazmat endorsement, a driver already holding a cdl license must take and pass a written test on his or her knowledge of hazardous materials and safety precautions
- A driver applying for a hazmat endorsement must also undergo a background check that examines criminal records, immigration records and any other federal records to determine if he or she would pose a security risk
- To be eligible for a hazmat endorsement, a driver must also have their fingerprints on file with the Transportation Security Administration
If you are considering getting a CDL Class A license, there are numerous resources that you can use to prepare yourself for the training and testing ahead:
- Take a test drive of the best CDL sample tests on the web
- There are demos of the most commonly used online CDL practice tests and study guides
- Get a copy of your state’s CDL Manual and prepare for the permit test
- Research online CDL training
- Research online videos of interactive practice tests and Pre-Trip Inspection training courses
- Research getting your Hazmat and/or Tanker endorsement