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Commercial Driver License

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Since April 1, 1992, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has required drivers to possess a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) to operate commercial motor vehicles (CMV).

A driver must take the CDL test in his/her home state and cannot hold more than one commercial driver’s license. The CDL replaced and invalidated previously issued chauffeur licenses.

Driving CMV’s requires special skills and knowledge. Prior to implementation of the CDL Program, in a number of states and the District of Columbia, any person licensed to drive an automobile could also legally drive a tractor-trailer or a bus.

Even in many of the states that did have a classified licensing system, a person was not skills tested in a representative vehicle. Many drivers were operating motor vehicles that they may not have been qualified to drive, and were able to obtain driver’s licenses from more than one state and hide or spread convictions among several driving records and continue to drive.

The Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986 was signed into law on October 27, 1986, with the goal to improve highway safety by ensuring that drivers of large trucks and buses are qualified to operate those vehicles and to remove unsafe and unqualified drivers from the highways. The Act retained the state’s right to issue a driver’s license, but established minimum national standards which states must meet when licensing CMV drivers.

The Act corrects the situation existing prior to 1986 by making it illegal to hold more than one license and by requiring states to adopt testing and licensing standards for truck and bus drivers to check a person’s ability to operate the type of vehicle (s)he plans to operate.

The Act does not require drivers to obtain a separate Federal license. It merely required states to upgrade their existing testing and licensing programs, if necessary, to conform with the Federal minimum standards.

The CDL places requirements on the CMV driver, the employing motor carrier and the states. The FHWA has developed and issued standards for testing and licensing CMV drivers.

Among other things, the standards require States to issue CDL’s to their CMV drivers only after a driver passes knowledge and skills tests administered by the state related to the type of vehicle to be operated. Drivers need CDL’s if they are in interstate, intrastate, or foreign commerce and drive a vehicle that meets one of the following definitions of a CMV. The Federal standard requires states to issue a CDL to drivers according to the following licensing classifications:

Class A – Any combination of vehicles with a GCWR of 26,001 or more pounds provided the GVWR of the vehicle(s) being towed is in excess of 10,000 pounds.

Class B – Any single vehicle with a GVWR of 26,001 or more pounds, or any such vehicle towing a vehicle not in excess of 10,000 pounds GVWR.

Class C – 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 placarded for hazardous materials. Endorsements and Restrictions: Drivers who operate special types of CMV’s also need to pass additional tests to obtain any of the following endorsements on their CDL:

T-Double/Triple Trailers


N-Tank Vehicle

. H-Hazardous Materials

X-Combination of Tank Vehicle

and Hazardous Materials

Endorsements T, N and H require a knowledge test only, endorsement P requires knowledge and skills tests.

If a driver either fails the air brake component of the general knowledge test or performs the skills test in a vehicle not equipped with air brakes, the driver is issued an air brake restriction, restricting the driver from operating a CMV equipped with air brakes.

Knowledge and Skills Tests: States develop their own tests which must be at least as stringent as the Federal standards. The FMCSA has prepared model driver and examiner manuals and tests and distributed them to the states to use, if they wish.

The general knowledge test must contain at least 30 questions.

To pass the knowledge tests (general and endorsement), applicants must correctly answer at least 80 percent of the questions. To pass the skills test, applicants must successfully perform all the required skills (listed in 49 CFR 383.113). The skills test must be taken in a vehicle representative of the type of vehicle that the applicant operates or expects to operate. Other States, employers, training facilities, governmental departments and agencies, and private institutions can serve as third party skills testers for the State under the following criteria:

Tests must be the same as those given by the State.

Examiners must meet the same qualifications as State examiners.

States must conduct an on-site inspection at least once a year.

At least annually, State employees must evaluate the programs by taking third party tests as if they were test applicants, or by testing a sample of drivers tested by the third party and then comparing pass/fail rates. The State’s agreement with the third party skills tester must allow the FHWA and the State to conduct random examinations, inspections, and audits without prior notice.

The states determine the license fee, the renewal cycle, most renewal procedures, and continue to decide the age, medical and other driver qualifications of their intrastate commercial drivers. Interstate drivers must meet the longstanding Federal driver qualifications (49 CFR 391).

All CLD’s must contain the following information:

The words “Commercial Driver’s License” or “CDL.” The driver’s full name, signature, and address. The driver’s date of birth, sex and height. Color photograph or digitalized image of the driver. The driver’s state license number. The name of the issuing state. The date of issuance and the date of the expiration of the license. The class(es) of vehicle that the driver is authorized to operate. Notation of the “air brake” restriction, if issued. The endorsement(s) for which the driver has qualified. States may issue learner’s permits for behind-the-wheel training on public highways as long as learner’s permit holders are required to be accompanied by someone with a valid CDL appropriate for that vehicle and the learner’s permits are issued for limited time periods.

CDL holders are subject to the following penalties, disqualifications and standards. Violations may result in civil or criminal penalties and the loss of the CDL


Penalties: The Federal penalty to a driver who violates the CDL requirements is a civil penalty of up to $2,500 or, in aggravated cases, criminal penalties of up to $5,000 in fines and/or up to 90 days in prison. An employer is also subject to a penalty of up to $10,000, if (s)he knowingly uses a driver to operate a CMV without a valid CDL


Disqualifications: For conviction while driving a CMV, drivers must be disqualified and lose their privilege to drive for 60 to 120 days for two or more serious traffic violations within a three-year period. These include excessive speeding, reckless driving, improper or erratic lane changes, following the vehicle ahead too closely, and traffic offenses in connection with fatal traffic accidents 90 days to five years, and one or more violations of an out-of-service order within a ten-year period.

Drivers must be disqualified and lose their privilege to drive for one year for driving under the influence of a controlled substance or alcohol, or leaving the scene of an accident, or using a CMV to commit a felony.

Drivers must be disqualified and lose their privilege to drive for three years for committing any of the one-year offenses while operating a CMV that is placarded for hazardous materials.

Drivers must be disqualified and lose their privilege to drive for lifetime.