When Is A Driver Required To Obtain A CDL License?

Knowing whether or not you need to obtain a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) is very important if you are driving a vehicle any larger than a normal car, truck or SUV.  Perhaps, it is because CDL testing was not standardized in the United States until less than 30 years ago,

but there is a considerable amount of confusion from the general public as to whether or not they need a CDL license.

If you are driving a semi truck, it’s obvious that you’ll need to obtain a CDL. However, for people looking to drive farm equipment, a church van or a motorhome/RV, the requirements aren’t quite as clear.

In general, the determining factors in needing a CDL comes down to 1) the weight of the trailer 2) the combined weight of all attached vehicles 3) and the number of passengers that can transported.

Below, we will go into further detail of the requirements that determine when you need to obtain a CDL.

Quick History of CDL Requirements

Believe it or not, driver licenses have been around since 1903 in the United States.  Massachusetts and Missouri were the first states to require that drivers have a permit to travel on the highways.  The first commercial license was issued in 1907 by Massachusetts when that state instituted a chauffeur exam.   Many states were late to the party in issuing driver licenses, the last being South Dakota in 1954.

For those driving commercial equipment, there were no federal standards, and states had various requirements about who could drive, and what equipment could be driven.    In fact, there were many commercial vehicles operated by drivers that may not have been properly trained or qualified to drive said vehicles. In some areas, if you could successfully park a truck in a dock, you had a job.

But in 1986, Congress changed everything.   The Commercial Vehicle Safety Act of 1986 established and issued requirements for state testing and licensing of professional drivers.    The act deemed that every state had to meet these federal requirements to issue one of three classes of license.    States also had the option of adding additional requirements (those requirements mostly pertain to school buses).    The act went into effect for all commercial drivers on April 1, 1992.

Federal Law Requirements

In addition to creating a standardize set of requirements and testing for obtaining a CDL, the Commercial Vehicle Safety Act (FMCSA) also created 3 classifications that a CDL can fall into. This further allows specialized training to take place depending on the type of vehicle you will be operating. The FMCSA describes the classes as follows:

Pursuant to Federal standards, States issue CDLs (Commercial Driver Licenses) and CLPs  (Commercial Learners Permits) to drivers according to the following license classifications:

Class A: Any combination of vehicles which has a gross combination weight rating or gross combination weight of 11,794 kilograms or more (26,001 pounds or more) whichever is greater, inclusive of a towed unit(s) with a gross vehicle weight rating or gross vehicle weight of more than 4,536 kilograms (10,000 pounds) whichever is greater.

Class B: Any single vehicle which has a gross vehicle weight rating or gross vehicle weight of 11,794 or more kilograms (26,001 pounds or more), or any such vehicle towing a vehicle with a gross vehicle weight rating or gross vehicle weight that does not exceed  4,536 kilograms (10,000 pounds).

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 transporting material that has been designated as hazardous under 49 U.S.C. 5103 and is required to be placarded under subpart F of 49 CFR Part 172 or is transporting any quantity of a material listed as a select agent or toxin in 42 CFR Part 73. (Source)

To assist in determining if you need a CDL, I put together this decision map. Variations of this same map have been used since the CDL laws were regulated in 1992.

Do I need a CDL License?

As you’ve probably guessed, most commercial licenses fall into the Class A and Class B classification.   To add to the confusion around a CDL, there are also several endorsements that can be added to a commercial license that will allow the driver to carry passengers, have double or triple trailers, pull tankers, and carry hazardous materials.

To put it in a simpler vain, an 18-wheel truck requires a Class A license.  A large box truck or a passenger bus such as a Greyhound, or one of the hundreds of charter buses requires a Class B.  A smaller bus, such as a church van, would require a Class C.

On the federal level, commercial licenses are not required for military drivers operating military equipment, firefighters operating firefighting equipment, and drivers of motor homes, and vehicles pulling travel trailers.

State Requirements

Now that we have touched on the federal standards around a CDL, we have to look at the requirements each state has put into place.

One example of how vastly differences can exist between the state and federal laws is related to firefighters. As we mentioned above, the FMCSA does not require firefighters to obtain a CDL. However, Many states do have requirements for firefighters to have commercial licenses, especially in non-emergency situations, such as parades, or returning to base after an emergency calls.  

RV Operators

When it comes to RV owners the state requirements can become confusing. Most states will require you to obtain a CDL license if your RV weighs over 26,000 lbs or the combined weight of your RV and anything being towed weigh over 26,000 lbs. Other states will only require that you obtain a special license that isn’t as difficult to obtain as a CDL.

The only state that I can find that has CDL requirements for something other than weight for RV’s is Wisconsin. There, you will be required to get a CDL if your RV is more than 45 feet long.

Ultimately, you’ll want to check with your state’s DMV to determine if your situation will require a special license to operate your RV. At the bottom of this article is a link to every state’s DMV to make it easy to find the information that you need.

Farm and Construction Equipment

This is  another area that is largely at the discretion of the state.   In most cases, the FMCSA rules do not require a commercial license for harvesting equipment, but some states do have requirements.   If a driver is wanting to operate farm equipment on the public roadway, its best to check with the state agency for their specific requirements.

The same rule applies to heavy construction equipment.   Since most of this equipment is never on a public roadway, a commercial driver license is not required on the federal level, however state requirements may vary.

Obtaining a CDL

How does one go about obtaining a commercial driver license?   In most cases, the prospective licensee will need to pass a written test, and a driving test, which may include a demonstration of understanding the safety aspects of the commercial vehicle (especially air brakes).  Most states offer study guides for the written test both online and at the local DMV office.   A driver does not need to pass both the written and driving test on the same day.

Passing the written test gives the driver a CLP (Commercial Learner’s Permit) which will allow the driver to train in the truck with a CDL driver present.   The more over-the-road training that a prospective CDL driver can get will be beneficial, both during the road test, and when the driver gets out on the road as a professional driver.   It is not a requirement in most states for a driver trainee to go to a professional school, but it can be very helpful.

For a driver to pass the road test, the driver will need to demonstrate proficiency in maneuvering a safety-inspected commercial vehicle over a road course, which will include left and right turns, lane changes, traffic signals, stop and yield signs, and parallel parking.

CDL Endorsements

Once you have obtained your CDL, you have the option of completing additional tests in order to obtain what is referred to as “endorsements” that can be added to your license. Below is a list of endorsements listed on the FMCSA website:

  • T – Double/Triple Trailers (Knowledge test only)
  • P – Passenger (Knowledge and Skills Tests)
  • N – Tank vehicle (Knowledge test only)
  • H – Hazardous materials (Knowledge test only)
  • X- Combination of tank vehicle and hazardous materials endorsements (Knowledge test only)
  • S – School Bus (Knowledge and Skills Tests)
CDL Restrictions

The FMCSA also has a list of restrictions that are very important to the commercial driver.  It is in the best interest of the commercial driver that these restrictions not be on the commercial license.  The most important may be the “L” restriction.

Since 99% of the commercial trucks and buses on the road today use air brakes, this restriction essentially prevents a driver from earning a living.

A driver will also want to be well versed in a manual transmission, if they plan to take the Class A driving test.   Taking the test with an automatic transmission will also result in a no manual transmission restriction.    Even today, most of your 18-wheel trucks are manual transmissions, so this restriction can also be career limiting.

Remember also that individual states may have a more restrictive category for a particular license class, and/or they may have additional restrictions.   The local DMV office should be able to provide this information to the prospective commercial driver.

Below is a complete list of all CDL restrictions that can be placed on a license which was taken from the FMCSA website:

  • L – If the driver does not pass the Air Brakes Knowledge Test, does not correctly identify the air brake system components, does not properly conduct an air brake systems check, or does not take the Skills test in a vehicle with a full air brake system, the driver must have an “L” no full air brake restriction placed on their license.
  • Z – If the driver takes the test in a vehicle with an air over hydraulic brake system, then they will have a “Z” no full air brake restriction placed on their license. In either case the driver is not authorized to operate a CMV equipped with full air brakes.
  • E – If the driver takes the Skills Test in a vehicle that has an automatic transmission, then an “E” no manual transmission restriction is placed on their license.
  • O – If the driver takes the Skills Test in a Class A vehicle that has a pintle hook or other non-fifth wheel connection, they will have an “O” restriction placed on their license restricting them from driving any Class A vehicle with a fifth wheel connection.
  • M – If a driver possesses a Class A CDL, but obtains his or her passenger or school bus endorsement in a Class B vehicle the State must place an “M” restriction indicating that the driver can only operate Class B and C passenger vehicle or school buses.
  • N – If a driver possesses a Class B CDL, but obtains his or her passenger or school bus endorsement in a Class C vehicle; the State must place an “N” restriction indicating that the driver can only operate Class C passenger vehicle or school buses.
  • V – If the State is notified by the FMCSA that a medical variance has been issued to the driver, the State must indicate the existence of such a medical variance on the CDLIS driving record and the CDL document using a restriction code “V” to indicate that there is information about the medical variance on the CDLIS record.

Related Topics and Questions

Do air brakes require a CDL?  No, having air brakes does not automatically require you to obtain a CDL. The only determining factors for needing a CDL is the weight limit of the vehicles and the number of passengers that can be transported.

Do I need a CDL for personal use?  Unfortunately, this is not an easy answer. States can have different definitions of what they consider a personal vehicle. It’s best to contact the states you will be driving in to determine if you will need a license. Use the links below to find the phone number of your local DOT station.

How long does it take to get a CDL? This can vary depending on the school you attend. On average, you should assume about 8 weeks to complete all your training. Some programs can move faster than others.

How much does an endorsement cost? The cost of obtaining an endorsement for your CDL license is very reasonable. The costs does vary by endorsement and by state. Generally, an endorsement can be earned for anywhere between $15 and $75.

CDL Requirements by State

Below is a link to every state’s Department of Transportation website related to CDL requirements. Simply click on the state’s link to be taken to their site.

CDL Information by State

MontanaNebraskaNevadaNew HampshireNew Jersey
New MexicoNew YorkNorth CarolinaNorth DakotaOhio
OklahomaOregonPennsylvaniaRhode IslandSouth Carolina
South DakotaTennesseeTexasUtahVermont
VirginiaWashingtonWashington D.C.West VirginiaWisconsin

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