What Is a CDL License? Everything You Need to Know

August 25th, 2021

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A CDL license is a commercial driver’s license required in the United States to operate commercial motor vehicles (CMVs) such as large equipment, heavy machinery, semi-trucks, or passenger buses. There are three types of CDL licenses: Class A, B, and C. Each pertains to the specific vehicles that a commercial driver is permitted to drive.

CDL licensed drivers are highly trained and qualified. Understanding the differences between operating a commercial motor vehicle and a standard car is crucial to a safe trucking industry. However, it wasn’t until 1986 that a CDL license was required for commercial truckers. Many states allowed CMV drivers on the road without proper training. This unsafe practice led to the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986. The law now mandates all drivers of commercial vehicles must obtain a commercial driver’s license, improving industry safety significantly.

Now that you understand the importance of a CDL, we’ll explore the license types in depth.

What Is a Class A CDL?

A Class A CDL is required to drive any assortment of vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 26,001 pounds when the vehicle in tow is over 10,000 pounds.

Class A CDLs and the correct endorsements permit drivers to operate these vehicles:

  • Truck/Trailer Combinations
  • Tractor-Trailers
  • Flatbeds
  • Tank Vehicles (some small Tank Trucks may qualify as Class C)
  • Livestock Carriers
  • Some Class B and Class C Vehicles

What Is a Class B CDL?

A Class B CDL is needed to drive a single commercial vehicle that isn’t carrying a trailer. The vehicle may have an attached cargo area with a GVWR of over 26,000 pounds or a detached towed cargo vehicle of fewer than 10,000 pounds. Class B licenses permit drivers to operate vehicles locally. Therefore, drivers must adhere to local rules and regulations.

A Class B CDL allows you to drive the following vehicles with proper endorsements:

  • Straight Trucks
  • Dump Trucks with Small Trailers
  • Large Passenger Buses
  • Segmented Buses
  • Box Trucks
  • Some Class C Vehicles

What Is a Class C CDL?

Drivers must obtain a Class C CDL to drive any vehicle designed to transport 16 or more civilians or to transport materials that are federally classified as hazardous. The driver is included as an occupant in the case of operating passenger vehicles.

Holding a Class C CDL and appropriate endorsements, you may operate the following:

  • HazMat Vehicles 
  • Passenger Vans or Buses
  • Combination Vehicles not described in Class A or B

What Are CDL Endorsements?

To drive specialized vehicles, you must apply for specific endorsements on your CDL. To gain endorsements, you will need to pass additional exams.

The additional endorsements for a CDL license include:

  • Tank (N): To drive trucks with a tank carrying liquid cargo.
  • Hazardous Materials (H): To drive vehicles containing materials like flammable liquids, explosives, or radioactive substances.
  • Passenger (P): To carry passenger vehicles.
  • School Bus (S): To drive a school bus, you must undergo an initial background check.
  • Double and Triple Trailer (T): Needed for operators of vehicles pulling two or three trailers.

Driving trucks with double or triple trailers may also require special endorsements.

6 Jobs You Can Get with a CDL

Earning a CDL opens the door to many profitable career paths. In fact, FTR Transportation Intelligence projects truck loadings will increase approximately 7% in 2021 alone, which is notably faster than average and increases the demand for drivers.

Post-pandemic supply chain demand means that now is the best time to start a career in trucking. Also, important to note is the gender disparity within CDL driver demographics. In 2021, just 9% of CDL holders identify as female, while 88% identify as male. These statistics point to a considerable gap in the industry to be filled.

Here we’ll review some of the in-demand jobs that will put your CDL license to work.

An illustrated clipboard depicts six types of trucking jobs one can get with a CDL license.

1. Long-Haul Cargo Driver

These truckers are in it for the long haul. You’ll facilitate supply chains around the country by delivering essential goods and products. Long-haul drivers often find the work rewarding and versatile.

To start a career as a long-haul cargo driver, you need a Class A CDL. Depending on the cargo, you may need additional endorsements, but a Class A license will set you up for a fruitful career.

2. Local Truck Driver

If you prefer to keep your workdays local, a local trucking job could be the perfect fit. The licensing requirements will vary by the size and weight of the load you’re carrying.

For instance, for a local truck job that requires operating a vehicle or towing weight that is over 10,000 pounds, you will need a Class A license. With a Class C license, you may be able to work from smaller vehicles, including some delivery trucks.

3. Bus Driver

Commercial bus drivers have various options for employment. City transit, private transport, and school buses are all within reach. Any bus driver must obtain a Class B CDL with a “P” passenger endorsement.

However, school bus drivers must earn a school bus driver certificate, a Class B license with a “P” passenger and “S” school bus endorsement, a medical certificate, and a first-aid certificate.

4. Heavy Equipment Hauling

Heavy haulers move heavy equipment and large loads with flatbed trucks and trailers. A Class A CDL is required to satisfy the combined weight of the vehicles, trailers, and cargo.

5. Dispatcher

Regardless of CDL classification,  CDL license holders that prefer staying off the road can apply for a dispatcher position. Trucking dispatchers mainly manage freight on behalf of a carrier. Understanding logistics and customer service is critical as the role heavily relies on communication, tracking, and organizing cargo.

6. Truck Driving School Instructor

Another job for those steering away from truck driving or looking to retire from a hands-on role is a truck driving school instructor. The experience of earning a CDL puts you in a great position to share your training and knowledge with other aspiring commercial drivers.

How Do I Get a Commercial Driver’s License?

You can obtain a commercial driver’s license by completing official CDL training courses and passing a driving test. Let’s review the steps and requirements that go into the process.

First, applicants must be at least 21 years of age (or 18 years of age to drive intrastate). If you’re of age, submit your state’s CDL Application and pay the appropriate fee (fees vary by state).  

You’ll be asked to provide:

  • Identity and social security number verification (check requirements by state)
  • Proof of state and US residency
  • A completed Medical Examination Report Form
  • A Medical Examiner’s Certificate Form

Next, you must pass a vision test. CMV drivers must be able to accurately assess the road in front of them.  

Following the official forms and medical documentation, you will have to pass a knowledge exam provided by an official CDL licensing department. Once you pass, you’ll be issued a Commercial Learner’s Permit (CLP), which is valid for 14 days before you can schedule your CDL driving test.  You can expect the driving examination to be similar to a standard driving test at the DMV. Note that most examination centers will require you to bring your own vehicle.

After passing the exam, pay the fees for your new CDL and get ready to join an industry that keeps the United States economy thriving.

Turn to Hale for Your Semi-Trailer Needs

If you want to become an independent driver, Hale Trailer’s inventory of commercial trailers for sale and commercial trailers for rent will put you on the path to success. As a new CDL license holder, you can rely on the Hale Trailer professionals for industry advice, expert solutions, and high-quality equipment. Contact us or visit us at any of our locations across the country. We’re committed to helping you get the right equipment for a successful trucking career!

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