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Passing The CDL Road Test: What Are CDL Examiners Looking For?

by Brett Aquila

So you're getting ready to take the road test portion of your CDL exam and you're scared to death. You know you have what it takes to pass but you're afraid you'll screw it up. Will you forget to check your mirrors? Will you bump a curb? Miss a shift? Who knows??? But the scariest part may be not knowing exactly what the CDL Examiner is looking for in the first place. How good do you have to be? What will he be watching for? What's an automatic failure? Here is some advice to help you see things from the standpoint of the CDL Examiner and get through your road test with flying colors.

Automatic Failures

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There are several things which may be considered an automatic failure on a road test. Some are obvious like don't get in a wreck or run a red light. But some aren't so obvious. Smaller things like hitting a curb, forgetting your turn signal, rolling backward before taking off from a stop, or not checking your mirrors properly before changing lanes.

These type of mistakes are often considered automatic failures because they're mistakes that have potentially serious consequences and you simply can't let them happen no matter how little driving experience you have. They're safety-related items that a driver must always be aware of and execute properly every time. So any serious safety violations will often times be an automatic failure.

Acceptable Mistakes

Hey, we're all human, ya know? We all make mistakes. For instance, missing a shift. Even after 15 years of driving I would still miss shifts sometimes. Every single driver in America does. It's not normally a serious safety hazard to grind a gear or need a second try to find the right RPM to get it into gear. As long as you seem somewhat proficient at shifting, a few ground gears or missed shifts will not fail you. Just keep your composure, take your time, and find a gear. No big deal.

Another acceptable mistake is taking a turn too wide. Running over a curb could do serious damage, but swinging a bit too wide usually does nothing but create a bigger safety margin. However, if you don't seem to be able to judge turns well at all and you're swinging waaaaay too wide all the time they're going to consider failing you so you can get more work in. But when in doubt, swing a little wider than necessary. A few inches too tight and you hit the curb and fail. A bit wide is no big deal.

As long as you're not creating any serious concerns about safety, the little mistakes like missed shifts and swinging a bit wide are no big deal.

Non-Driving Considerations

Believe it or not, one of the main factors that could push the examiner one way or the other at the end of the exam is something completely outside the realm of physically driving the truck - your demeanor. Trucking is a very high-pressure occupation. You're in heavy traffic, terrible weather, and surrounded by minivans full of children in an 80,000 pound rig on a regular basis. We all understand the consequences of even one brief moment of inattention. But equally as devastating is the inability to maintain your composure under pressure.

Taking the CDL road test will be the most pressure you've been under so far in a tractor trailer. It feels like your life, your career, your everything depends upon whether or not you can pass this exam and get your CDL. And the CDL Examiners want it that way. They want to see if you can handle the pressure. Will you freeze up when someone is critiquing your driving? Will you panic if you miss a shift? Will your eyes lock on the road straight ahead instead of scanning your mirrors when you're feeling the pressure?

These exams are meant to be a pressure cooker. If a person cracks under pressure, it's best to find out sooner than later. No matter how good your driving skills, you're a serious danger to everyone if you can't perform under pressure.

Even though you're obviously going to be very nervous about the road test, it's critically important to maintain your composure and at least be able to act as if you're calm and confident. And I'm dead serious about this - no matter how nervous you are, pretend you're relaxed and confident. Talk a little bit to the CDL Examiner like you would with one of your friends - just casual and relaxed. Feel free to ask a few questions before you get started. If you do make a mistake, don't panic. Just relax, recover, and even talk to the examiner about it.

For instance, if you try to get rolling from a stop and realize you're in too high of a gear, simply relax, push in the clutch, put it in the proper gear, get rollin, and say "We're a little too heavy to start out in that gear." No big deal.

Another example would be making a turn too wide. It's no big deal. Just stay relaxed, smile, and say, "Well, nobody had to run for cover with a turn that wide. I could have cut that a little closer."

Be Confident - Or At Least Act Like You Are

Seriously, your demeanor will go a long way towards helping you pass the exam. It may not overcome an automatic failure, but it may help overcome a few smaller mistakes. Why? Because these CDL Examiners know you're brand new to truck driving. They know your training isn't complete when you get your license...you still have training on the road with your first company. The examiners expect you to make some small mistakes on the road test. Those are perfectly fine.

What isn't fine is making big, safety-related mistakes or losing your composure at any time. So if you have to - fake it. Pretend you're calm, relaxed, and simply enjoying a short drive down the road. Act like you've done it a million times before. Smile a lot. Talk a little bit, but not too much - just some casual remarks here and there. Keep your head moving around to show you have situational awareness. Keep scanning your mirrors and gauges.

Everyone makes mistakes on their road exam. The difference between passing and failing will come down to whether or not the CDL Examiner believes you're capable of handling that rig safely, and whether or not you can keep your composure under pressure.

by Brett Aquila

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TruckingTruth was founded by Brett Aquila (that's me!), a 15 year truck driving veteran, in January 2007. After 15 years on the road I wanted to help people understand the trucking industry and everything that came with the career and lifestyle of an over the road trucker. We'll help you make the right choices and prepare you for a great start to your trucking career.