An Intro To Big Trucks And Truck Driving School Part III - The CDL Exam

by Brian Laine


So – back to getting the CDL. First you study the state CDL guide and at the department of licensing (DOL) take the tests for the ratings that you want. Combination vehicle , tanker, bus, triples, hazardous materials, air-brakes, etc. The DOL will also set you up with a CDL learner's permit that allows you to drive with an experienced CDL driver in the other seat. Along the way, you go to your doctor and get a DOT physical. At last, you are ready to go to trucking school. At the school we had a combination of class time, lab time, driving time, and observation time. Weekly tests let us know how we were doing.

Interestingly enough, the biggest cause for test failures is the pre-trip inspection of the truck which you perform each day to know that the truck is safe and ready to go. So a significant amount of time is spent in school discussing and learning the proper way to do this inspection. Other time is spent practicing driving in various conditions – town, freeway, backing etc, and trying to figure out how to smoothly shift. This is one of the toughest parts (for me anyway), and even the pro's sometimes run into a bad shift. Time is spent talking about securing loads, installing chains, theory of air-brake systems, using log-books, load distribution, how to deal with weigh stations, and so on.

Taking The CDL Exam

Finally, after logging the 160 hours (or more), it's time to take the test. The testing person was a third-party contractor certified by, and hired by the state. I was as nervous as I was forty-five years ago when I took my original driver's license test. The test entails three parts:

Pre-trip inspection:

Here you need to go through a very complete and detailed check of the truck for safety. It starts with the tests for the air brakes, which involves a number of steps, if you miss any of them, your test is over right away. Then during a walk-around of the vehicle, you check integrity of steering, suspension, wheels and tires, fluid-levels, frame, air and electrical lines, etc. Essentially, it's necessary to memorize the state CDL procedure for this part of the test, and as I mentioned, it's the part of the test causing most failures.

Skills test:

This part of the test demonstrates that you can handle your semi in a loading dock situation. The first part is to back the truck and trailer straight back into a 100' long alley that is 12' wide.The alley is created with cones, but you have to ensure that you don't hit any, and even that the mirrors don't go over top of the cones. At the rear of the alley, you need to stop with the back of the trailer in a 2' long area. Points are deducted of you hit any cones, or need to stop and go forward. And if you forget to check mirrors, beep your horn and turn on flashers before you start backing. I got dinged for forgetting the 4-way flashers. The next part of the test is to pull out of the alley at a 45 degree angle, and then negotiate the truck back into the aisle from this angle. It isn't necessary to go all the way back, the stop-cone zone is further forward during this part of the test.

Road test:

On the road test, you are evaluated as you drive in city, freeway, and side-road conditions. Part of the test involves stopping the rig half-way up a hill, parking it within 12" of the curb, then entering traffic again as you take off up the hill safely and without rolling back. The tester is looking for driving errors such as not checking mirrors, driving over curbs (immediate disqualification), properly negotiating rail road tracks, proper shifting and braking, etc.

Once you pass these tests, you can be issued your CDL for the class truck you have driven and with the endorsements for which you have taken the written tests. Evidently, soon there will be a CDL differentiation for manual vs. automatic transmission. You will need a separate endorsement if you want to be certified for driving a manual transmission.

Thoughts after earning the CDL

When I first found out that the CDL school was required, I thought that it was just another unnecessary state requirement. But after taking the training, I think it was extremely valuable, and a very good idea that it's a requirement. Makes me safer, and also the other people on the road. When I think of all the people out there driving around with motor homes and large trailers, it makes me think that some sort of abbreviated training for those vehicles would be a good idea too. After all, we require special training for motorcycles, yet they seldom do damage to others - driving heavy-weight machines around has a lot of damage potential to others.

After I got my truck, even though it was for personal use, I discovered that I couldn't license it unless I applied for a USDOT number. This requires that you have a sign on the side of your truck with your (or your company) name, home town, and USDOT number. Driving around with your name in big letters on the door makes you a more polite driver. If everybody had to do that, we'd probably have a little less road-rage.

Pre-trip Inspection:

A pre-trip inspection is a thorough inspection of the truck completed before driving for the first time each day.

Federal and state laws require that drivers inspect their vehicles. Federal and state inspectors also may inspect your vehicles. If they judge a vehicle to be unsafe, they will put it “out of service” until it is repaired.


Commercial Driver's License (CDL)

A CDL is required to drive any of the following vehicles:

  • Any combination of vehicles with a gross combined weight rating (GCWR) of 26,001 or more pounds, providing the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of the vehicle being towed is in excess of 10,000 pounds.
  • Any single vehicle with a GVWR of 26,001 or more pounds, or any such vehicle towing another not in excess of 10,000 pounds.
  • Any vehicle, regardless of size, designed to transport 16 or more persons, including the driver.
  • Any vehicle required by federal regulations to be placarded while transporting hazardous materials.

Combination Vehicle:

A vehicle with two separate parts - the power unit (tractor) and the trailer. Tractor-trailers are considered combination vehicles.


Department Of Transportation

A department of the federal executive branch responsible for the national highways and for railroad and airline safety. It also manages Amtrak, the national railroad system, and the Coast Guard.

State and Federal DOT Officers are responsible for commercial vehicle enforcement. "The truck police" you could call them.


Hours Of Service

HOS refers to the logbook hours of service regulations.
by Brett Aquila

Related Articles:

Randy At Truck Driving School - Day 1

by rbradyjohnsen

Well, I spoke to Randy for nearly an hour last night about his first full day at truck driving school, and it was a 12-hour marathon starting at 7 am.

Trucking School Part III - Boot Camp

by Rick Huffman

Backing up a truck and learning to shift are two key elements at truck driving school, but some patient instructors are helping our class immensely.

Truck Driving School Part IV - Taking The CDL Exam

by Rick Huffman

It was time to take the CDL exam and all of us were very nervous. Most of us failed our first attempt and the pressure was on to pass and get our CDL.

An Intro To Big Trucks And Truck Driving School Part II

by Brian Laine

In part I of Intro to Truck Driving we talked about some mechanical aspects of big rigs. Now we'll cover a little more and take one for a drive.

More Boot Camp Stories From My Time In A Company-Sponsored CDL Training Program

by SharBear

Going through a company-sponsored CDL training program is no bed of roses. Here are some of my experiences and some challenges you can expect to face.

The Completion Of CDL Training (After A Lot Of Stress!)

by Philosopher Paul

I've completed my CDL training and I now have my CDL but there was plenty of stress and some rough teachers to deal with along the way - here's the story

What You Need To Know Before Choosing A Truck Driving School

by Tanya Bons

Choosing a truck driving school is not difficult when you know the right factors to consider. Here is a great article to help you choose your CDL training

4 Mistakes That Cause Students To Fail CDL Training And How They Can Be Prevented

by Driver Solutions

CDL training is certainly not easy. Here are four main reasons why people tend to fail their training at truck driving school and how to prevent them.

What Causes People To Fail CDL School?

by TruckerMike

Most people get through truck driving school, but others do not. Here's some great advice that will help you pass truck driving school with flying colors.

The Backing Range At Trucking Driving School - It's Like Clown Soup For The Soul

by Brett Aquila

Learning to back up a rig is clumsy at best. Nothing about it is easy. Having fun with it helps make learning easier, but prepare to embarrass yourself!

Join Us!

We have an awesome set of tools that will help you understand the trucking industry and prepare for a great start to your trucking career. Not only that, but everything we offer here at TruckingTruth is 100% free - no strings attached! Sign up now and get instant access to our member's section:
High Road Training Program Logo
  • The High Road Training Program
  • The High Road Article Series
  • The Friendliest Trucker's Forum Ever!
  • Email Updates When New Articles Are Posted

Apply For Paid CDL Training Through TruckingTruth

Did you know you can fill out one quick form here on TruckingTruth and apply to several companies at once for paid CDL training? Seriously! The application only takes one minute. You will speak with recruiters today. There is no obligation whatsoever. Learn more and apply here:

Apply For Paid CDL Training

About Us

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 for a great start to your trucking career.

Read More

Becoming A Truck Driver

Becoming A Truck Driver is a dream we've all pondered at some point in our lives. We've all wondered if the adventure and challenges of life on the open road would suit us better than the ordinary day to day lives we've always known. At TruckingTruth we'll help you decide if trucking is right for you and help you get your career off to a great start.

Learn More