CDL Requirements

tractor trailer cdl requirements

Drivers have been required to have a commercial driver's license (CDL) in order to drive certain commercial motor vehicles (CMVs) since April 1, 1992. The types of vehicles and operations requiring a CDL are outlined below. In order to obtain a CDL there are a list of requirements that must be met, and getting your CDL involves several steps. There are medical requirements and residency requirements, along with knowledge and skills requirements.

Requirements For Getting a CDL License:

  • You must be at least 18 years old to hold a CDL and drive a commercial vehicle within your home state.
  • You must be at least age 21 to drive a commercial motor vehicle across state lines, carry hazardous materials, or transport any passengers.
  • You must not have more than one driver’s license, and your driving privileges must not be suspended, revoked, canceled or disqualified.
  • You must meet the medical requirements of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.
  • You must have one or two years of driving experience, depending on your state's requirements.
  • You must pass a set of written exams to obtain your commercial learner's permit. You can study for these exams using our High Road CDL Training Program.
  • You must prove citizenship or permission to work in the United States using legitimate personal identification which may include a Social Security Card, a Birth Certificate, or a Green Card
  • You must certify that you are not subject to any of the CDL disqualifications for drivers (listed below)
  • Must be able to speak and read the English language

Below we will list more specific requirements, qualifications, disqualifications, and restrictions along with links to pages specific to each state.

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Knowledge And Skills Test Requirements For Getting A CDL

States develop their own knowledge and skills tests, which must meet the minimum Federal standards in Subpart G and H of 49 CFR Part 383. Model driver and examiner manuals and tests have been prepared and distributed to the States to use, if they wish.

Each basic knowledge test covers the 20 general areas outlined in 49 CFR 383.111(a). The knowledge test shall contain at least 30 items. A separate test for drivers seeking to operate CMV's with air brakes must cover the 7 areas outlined in 49 CFR 383.111(b).

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 through 49 CFR 383.123). The skills test must be taken in a vehicle representative of the type of vehicle that the applicant operates or expects to operate.

Federal standards require States to issue CDLs to certain commercial motor vehicle drivers only after the driver passes the knowledge and skills tests administered by the State. The vehicle you take the CDL test in must also relate to the type of vehicle the driver expects to operate.

Restrictions are placed on a CDL when a driver takes the Skills Test in a vehicle which lacks critical equipment present in particular types of CMVs. Examples of these restrictions are listed below. Therefore, to avoid restrictions, drivers should take the Skills Test in the same type of vehicle for which they are seeking a CDL to operate.

Drivers are required to obtain and hold a CDL if they operate in interstate, intrastate, or foreign commerce and drive a vehicle that meets one or more of the classifications of a CMV are also described below.

Knowledge Requirements For Obtaining A CDL

All CMV Operators Must Have Knowledge Of The Following 20 Areas:

  1. Safe operations regulations. Driver-related elements of the regulations contained in parts 391, 392, 393, 395, 396, and 397 of this subchapter, such as:

    • Motor vehicle inspection, repair, and maintenance requirements
    • Procedures for safe vehicle operations
    • The effects of fatigue, poor vision, hearing impairment, and general health upon safe commercial motor vehicle operation
    • The types of motor vehicles and cargoes
    • The effects of alcohol and drug use upon safe commercial motor vehicle operations.
  2. Safe vehicle control systems. The purpose and function of the controls and instruments commonly found on CMVs.
  3. CMV safety control systems.
    • Proper use of the motor vehicle's safety system, including lights, horns, side and rear-view mirrors, proper mirror adjustments, fire extinguishers, symptoms of improper operation revealed through instruments, motor vehicle operation characteristics, and diagnosing malfunctions.
    • CMV drivers must have knowledge of the correct procedures needed to use these safety systems in an emergency situation, e.g., skids and loss of brakes.
  4. Basic control. The proper procedures for performing various basic maneuvers, including:
    • Starting, warming up, and shutting down the engine;
    • Putting the vehicle in motion and stopping;
    • Backing in a straight line; and
    • Turning the vehicle, e.g., basic rules, off tracking, right/left turns and right curves.
  5. Shifting. The basic shifting rules and terms for common transmissions, including:
    • Key elements of shifting, e.g., controls, when to shift, and double clutching;
    • Shift patterns and procedures
    • Consequences of improper shifting
  6. Backing. The procedures and rules for various backing maneuvers, including:
    • Backing principles and rules
    • Basic backing maneuvers, e.g., straight-line backing, and backing on a curved path.
  7. Visual search. The importance of proper visual search, and proper visual search methods, including:
    • Seeing ahead and to the sides;
    • Use of mirrors; and
    • Seeing to the rear.
  8. Communication. The principles and procedures for proper communications and the hazards of failure to signal properly, including:
    • Signaling intent, e.g., signaling when changing direction in traffic;
    • Communicating presence, e.g., using horn or lights to signal presence; and
    • Misuse of communications.
  9. Speed management. The importance of understanding the effects of speed, including:
    • Speed and stopping distance;
    • Speed and surface conditions;
    • Speed and the shape of the road;
    • Speed and visibility; and
    • Speed and traffic flow.
  10. Space management. The procedures and techniques for controlling the space around the vehicle, including:
    • The importance of space management;
    • Space cushions, e.g., controlling space ahead/to the rear;
    • Space to the sides; and
    • Space for traffic gaps.
  11. Night operation. Preparations and procedures for night driving, including:
    • Night driving factors, e.g., driver factors (vision, glare, fatigue, inexperience);
    • Roadway factors (low illumination, variation in illumination, unfamiliarity with roads, other road users, especially drivers exhibiting erratic or improper driving
    • Vehicle factors (headlights, auxiliary lights, turn signals, windshields and mirrors).
  12. Extreme driving conditions. The basic information on operating in extreme driving conditions and the hazards encountered in such conditions, including:
    • Bad weather, e.g., snow, ice, sleet, high wind;
    • Hot weather; and
    • Mountain driving.
  13. Hazard perceptions. The basic information on hazard perception and clues for recognition of hazards, including:
    • Road characteristics; and
    • Road user activities.
  14. Emergency maneuvers. The basic information concerning when and how to make emergency maneuvers, including:
    • Evasive steering;
    • Emergency stop;
    • Off road recovery;
    • Brake failure; and
    • Blowouts.
  15. Skid control and recovery. The information on the causes and major types of skids, as well as the procedures for recovering from skids.
  16. Relationship of cargo to vehicle control. The principles and procedures for the proper handling of cargo, including:
    • Consequences of improperly secured cargo, drivers' responsibilities, and Federal/State and local regulations;
    • Principles of weight distribution; and
    • Principles and methods of cargo securement.
  17. Vehicle inspections. The objectives and proper procedures for performing vehicle safety inspections, as follows:
    • The importance of periodic inspection and repair to vehicle safety.
    • The effect of undiscovered malfunctions upon safety.
    • What safety-related parts to look for when inspecting vehicles, e.g., fluid leaks, interference with visibility, bad tires, wheel and rim defects, braking system defects, steering system defects, suspension system defects, exhaust system defects, coupling system defects, and cargo
    • problems.
    • Pre-trip/enroute/post-trip inspection procedures.
    • Reporting findings.
  18. Hazardous materials. Knowledge of the following:
    • What constitutes hazardous material requiring an endorsement to transport;
    • Classes of hazardous materials;
    • Labeling/placarding requirements; and
    • Need for specialized training as a prerequisite to receiving the endorsement and transporting hazardous cargoes.
  19. Mountain driving. Practices that are important when driving upgrade and downgrade, including:
    • Selecting a safe speed;
    • Selecting the right gear; and
    • Proper braking techniques.
  20. Fatigue and awareness. Practices that are important to staying alert and safe while driving, including;
    • Being prepared to drive;
    • What to do when driving to avoid fatigue;
    • What to do when sleepy while driving; and
    • What to do when becoming ill while driving.

Skills Requirements For Obtaining A CDL

All applicants must meet the following skills requirements to obtain a CDL:

  1. Pre-trip vehicle inspection skills. Applicants for a CDL must possess the following basic pre-trip vehicle inspection skills for the vehicle class that the driver operates or expects to operate:

    A) All test vehicles. Applicants must be able to identify each safety-related part on the vehicle and explain what needs to be inspected to ensure a safe operating condition of each part, including:

    • Engine compartment;
    • Cab/engine start;
    • Steering;
    • Suspension;
    • Brakes;
    • Wheels;
    • Side of vehicle;
    • Rear of vehicle; and
    • Special features of tractor trailer, school bus, or coach/transit bus, if this type of vehicle is being used for the test.

    B) Air brake equipped test vehicles. Applicants must demonstrate the following skills with respect to inspection and operation of air brakes:

    • Locate and verbally identify air brake operating controls and monitoring devices;
    • Determine the motor vehicle's brake system condition for proper adjustments and that air system connections between motor vehicles have been properly made and secured;
    • Inspect the low pressure warning device(s) to ensure that they will activate in emergency situations;
    • With the engine running, make sure that the system maintains an adequate supply of compressed air;
    • Determine that required minimum air pressure build up time is within acceptable limits and that required alarms and emergency devices automatically deactivate at the proper pressure level; and
    • Operationally check the brake system for proper performance.
  2. Basic vehicle control skills. All applicants for a CDL must possess and demonstrate the following basic motor vehicle control skills for the vehicle class that the driver operates or expects to operate:
    • Ability to start, warm up, and shut down the engine;
    • Ability to put the motor vehicle in motion and accelerate smoothly, forward and backward;
    • Ability to bring the motor vehicle to a smooth stop;
    • Ability to back the motor vehicle in a straight line, and check path and clearance while backing;
    • Ability to position the motor vehicle to negotiate safely and then make left and right turns;
    • Ability to shift as required and select appropriate gear for speed and highway conditions; and
    • Ability to back along a curved path.
  3. Safe on-road driving skills. All applicants for a CDL must possess and demonstrate the following safe on-road driving skills for their vehicle class:
    • Ability to use proper visual search methods;
    • Ability to signal appropriately when changing direction in traffic;
    • Ability to adjust speed to the configuration and condition of the roadway, weather and visibility conditions, traffic conditions, and motor vehicle, cargo and driver conditions;
    • Ability to choose a safe gap for changing lanes, passing other vehicles, as well as for crossing or entering traffic;
    • Ability to position the motor vehicle correctly before and during a turn to prevent other vehicles from passing on the wrong side, as well as to prevent problems caused by off-tracking;
    • Ability to maintain a safe following distance depending on the condition of the road, visibility, and vehicle weight;
    • Ability to adjust operation of the motor vehicle to prevailing weather conditions including speed selection, braking, direction changes, and following distance to maintain control; and
    • Ability to observe the road and the behavior of other motor vehicles, particularly before changing speed and direction.

Medical Requirements For Obtaining A CDL License

All commercial drivers of vehicles in interstate commerce with a maximum gross vehicle weight rating of over 10,000 pounds are required to obtain and maintain a valid Medical Examiner's Certificate (ME Certificate). CDL holders must provide their SDLA with a copy of their ME Certificate.

Self Certification

All CDL holders must declare to their State Driver Licensing Agency (SDLA) that they only operate or expect to operate commercially in 1 of 4 possible categories with their CDL. This process is called self-certification. The four categories are:

  • Interstate non-excepted: You are an Interstate non-excepted driver and must meet the Federal DOT medical card requirements (e.g. – you are "not excepted").
  • Interstate excepted: You are an Interstate excepted driver and do not have to meet the Federal DOT medical card requirements.
  • Intrastate non-excepted: You are an Intrastate non-excepted driver and are required to meet the medical requirements for your State.
  • Intrastate excepted: You are an Intrastate excepted driver and do not have to meet the medical requirements for your State.

Hearing Requirements

A person is physically qualified to drive a CMV if that person: First perceives a forced whispered voice in the better ear at not less than five feet with or without the use of a hearing aid or if tested by use of an audiometric device, does not have an average hearing loss in the better ear greater than 40 decibels at 500Hz, 1000HZ and 2,000 Hz with or without a hearing aid when the audiometric device is calibrated to the American National Standard Z24.5-1951.

Vision Requirements

You must meet the following vision requirements:

  • A distant visual acuity of at least 20/40 (Snellen) in each eye without corrective lenses or visual acuity separately corrected to 20/40 (Snellen) or better with corrective lenses;
  • A distant binocular acuity of at least 20/40 (Snellen) in both eyes with or without corrective lenses;
  • A field of vision of at least 70 degrees in the horizontal Meridian in each eye;
  • The ability to recognize the colors of traffic signals and devices showing standard red, green, and amber.

Blood Pressure Requirements

  1. Your blood pressure needs to be under 140/90.
  2. Stage 1 hypertension, blood pressure between 140/90 - 159/99: 1-year medical certificate, must be renewed every 12 months.
  3. Stage 2 hypertension, blood pressure between 160/100 - 179/109: 3 month medical certification. Full disqualification if not under control after 3 months, until controlled. Will be required to renew every 12 months.
  4. Stage 3 hypertension, blood pressure at or over 180/110: Automatic disqualification, 6 month certification once blood pressure is under control, must be renewed every 6 months.
  5. Blood pressure can be controlled with or without medication.

Urinalysis Testing

Your urine sample will be tested in a lab for blood, sugar, and protein, which might indicate hidden health problems.

Physical Impairments

Drivers with physical impairments, which affect their ability to safely operate CMVs, must obtain a "variance" from their State in order to be approved to drive commercially. The variance document must be carried with the commercial driver whenever they are operating a commercial motor vehicle. A Skill Performance Evaluation (SPE) is a special type of "variance" required for drivers with impaired or missing limbs (e.g., a hand or finger, an arm, foot, or leg). Drivers with missing limbs, if eligible, must obtain an SPE certificate. The commercial driver must always carry the SPE certificate at all times.

About The Skill Performance Evaluation (SPE) Program

The Skill Performance Evaluation program is for CMV drivers who drive in interstate commerce. The SPE certification allows drivers with missing or impaired limbs to drive CMVs across state lines if they have been fitted with (and are wearing) the right prosthetic device, and the driver can demonstrate the ability to drive the truck safely by completing on-and off-road activities. If the driver passes the driving test, he or she will receive a SPE certificate. Over the years, FMCSA has granted more than 3,000 SPE certificates to truck drivers who have shown that they can drive safely on the nation's highways.

Implied Consent to Alcohol Testing

Any person who holds a CDL is considered to have consented to such testing as is required by any State or jurisdiction in the enforcement of being under the influence of a controlled substance or using alcohol, be under the influence of alcohol, or have any measured alcohol concentration or detected presence of alcohol, while on duty, or operating, or in physical control of a commercial motor vehicle. Consent is implied by driving a commercial motor vehicle.

Prescription Drugs

Although the driver has a legal prescription, he/she may be disqualified if the medication could adversely affect the driver's ability to drive a CMV safely.

Military Skills Test Waiver Program

State Driver Licensing Agencies (SDLAs) have the authority to substitute two years of experience safely operating trucks or buses equivalent to civilian commercial vehicles for the skills test portion of the commercial driver license (CDL) test. U.S. Military drivers must apply within one year of leaving a military position requiring operation of a commercial vehicle. Currently every State offers the military skills test waiver. The latest information (February 2017) indicates that more than 19,000 current and former military have taken advantage of the Skills Test Waiver, making them immediately eligible for employment.

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulation 49 CFR 383.77, requires the applicant to certify to an SDLA:

  • His/her safe driving experience;
  • That he or she has not held more than one license (except a U.S. Military driver’s license) in the past two years;
  • Has not had his/her base State issued driver license suspended, revoked or cancelled; and,
  • Has not had convictions in any type of motor vehicle for the disqualifying CDL offenses listed elsewhere in the regulations.

Here you will find the Application for Military Skills Test Waiver form

Who Is Exempt From Getting A CDL?

FMCSA regulations specifically exempt only military personnel with comparable safe-driving experience from getting CDL's. States are authorized to provide exemptions for the rest of the following at their own discretion:

  • Military Vehicle Operators:

    States must exempt individuals who operate vehicles for military purposes from the requirements for CDL drivers. This exemption includes active military, reserves and members of the National Guard. This exception does not apply to U.S. Reserve technicians.

    Service members who are or were employed within the past year (12 months) in a military position requiring the operation of a military motor vehicle equivalent to a Commercial Motor Vehicle (CMV) and who want to drive CMV's in civilian life can apply for a Skills Test Waiver to get their CDL.

    See Also: Military Skills Test Waiver

  • Farm Equipment Operators:

    Covering actual farm-to-market operations, not commercial grain haulers. Drivers must be 21 years old, and vehicle must have farm plates. Farm workers are not required to have a CDL to operate vehicles:

    • Controlled and operated by a farmer, a member of his family, or an employee.
    • Used to transport farm products, equipment or supplies to or from a farm.
    • Used within 150 air miles of the farm.
    • Used in a nursery or agricultural operations.
    • Not used in the operations of a contract motor carrier.
  • Firefighting Equipment Operators:

    Those who operate CMV's necessary to preserving life or property, or performing emergency governmental functions, have signals that can be seen and heard, and are not subject to normal traffic laws. These include fire trucks, foam or water transport trucks, police SWAT team vehicles, ambulances and any other emergency vehicles.

  • Recreational Vehicle Operators:

    Drivers operating recreational vehicles (RV's) for their own non-commercial use can be exempted from CDL requirements.

  • Township or Government Workers Exemptions:

    Many states will have specific CDL exemptions that apply to workers in smaller towns or to state and local government employees in general. You will have to check with your specific state regulations.

CDL Disqualifications

The FMCSA regulations specify certain circumstances that will disqualify a driver from legally operating a CMV, temporarily or permanently.

Issues resulting in disqualification apply only to CDL or CLP holders, or those required to have a CLP or CDL in the vehicle they are operating. Tickets, DUI or DWI, and other legal issues that happened before a driver was issued a CDL or CLP, or to non-CDL or CLP holders, who were not required to have one, will affect drivers only as far as company policy, with the exception of getting the Hazmat endorsement.

See Also: TSA Disqualifying Offenses & Factors

In extreme cases, the FMCSA may disqualify drivers deemed to be an "imminent hazard", and remove them from the road.

See Also: Disqualification of drivers determined to constitute an imminent hazard.

Some circumstances will result in a lifetime disqualification from operating CMV's, with some being eligible for reinstatement after 10 years. A driver who uses a CMV in the commission of a felony involving manufacturing, distributing, or dispensing a controlled substance is disqualified for life with no possibility of reinstatement.

Disqualification For Major Offenses

  • Being under the influence of alcohol as prescribed by State law.
  • Being under the influence of a controlled substance.
  • Having an alcohol concentration of 0.04 or greater while operating a CMV.
  • Refusing to take an alcohol test as required by a State or jurisdiction under its implied consent laws or regulations
  • Leaving the scene of an accident.
  • Using the vehicle to commit a felony, other than felony involving manufacturing, distributing, or dispensing a controlled substance.

CDL Driver Disqualification For Serious Traffic Violations:

  • Speeding excessively, involving any speed of 15 mph or more above the regulated or posted speed limit.
  • Driving recklessly, as defined by State or local law or regulation.
  • Making improper or erratic traffic lane changes.
  • Following the vehicle ahead too closely.
  • Violating State or local law relating to motor vehicle traffic control.

CDL Driver Disqualification For Railroad-Highway Grade Crossing Offenses:

  • The driver is not required to always stop, but fails to slow down and check that tracks are clear of an approaching train.
  • The driver is not required to always stop, but fails to stop before reaching the crossing, if the tracks are not clear.
  • The driver is always required to stop, but fails to stop before driving onto the crossing.
  • The driver fails to have sufficient space to drive completely through the crossing without stopping.
  • The driver fails to obey a traffic control device or the directions of an enforcement official at the crossing.
  • The driver fails to negotiate a crossing because of insufficient undercarriage clearance.

CDL Driver Disqualification For Violations Of Out-Of-Service Orders:

An out-of-service order stipulates that a CDL or CLP holder not drive a commercial vehicle for a certain period of time, or until such time as they are re-instated to service.

In addition to disqualification, drivers who violate out-of-service orders will be fined a civil penalty of at least $2,500 for the first offense, and $5,000 for any additional offenses.

Follow this link to learn more about CDL Driver Disqualifications

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