Commercial driver's licenses (CDL) are required for the operation of many different types of large vehicles you see on the road every day. But did you know the vehicle a driver is permitted to operate is determined by the type of CDL they have?
From Class A to Class B to Class C, we're here to break down the differences between each CDL and the various related endorsements that allow more types of vehicles to be operated.
What is a Commercial Driver's License (CDL)?
A CDL is required for the operation of specialized vehicles such as heavy trucks and buses. For example, heavy, oversized vehicles that move bulk commodities and large equipment or carry multiple passengers, like a school bus, require specific types of CDLs.
Additional endorsements can be added to a CDL that permit drivers to transport hazardous materials like chemicals, explosives, flammable liquids, or radioactive substances. Other endorsements allow drivers to operate specialized equipment like double and triple combination tractor-trailer units or transport bulk liquids in tanker trailers.
A CDL is required for the operation of specialized vehicles such as heavy trucks and buses.
Every truck driver you see must have a CDL appropriate to the Class of vehicle they're driving and the type of cargo they're transporting.
The requirements for obtaining a CDL may vary from state to state. However, the federal government firmly established the guidelines governing what a driver can and can't do with their level of CDL.
What about a CLP?
A CLP is a commercial learner’s permit that works a lot like the learner’s permit for your standard automobile. To obtain a CLP, the student truck driver must first successfully complete the written exam portion of the CDL testing. Then, they are issued their CLP, enabling them to practice operating a heavy truck on public roads as long as they have someone with a CDL sitting next to them. Typically, the CLP holder will practice in the type of vehicle matching the class of CDL they are applying for.
Types of CDL Licenses or CDL Classifications
The most commonly held CDL is Class A. This CDL enables truck drivers to operate the full range of commercial vehicles, making it easier to find driving jobs. It also helps eliminate the need to return to a truck driving school or trucking company for additional training. Furthermore, with the Class A CDL, you're permitted to operate any vehicle covered under either a Class B or Class C and to drive a Class 8 tractor.
...with the Class A CDL you’re permitted to operate any type of vehicle covered under either a Class B or Class C
Class A CDL
Drivers operating a classic big rig with the truck and trailer that we commonly think of when we think of truck drivers are required to hold a Class A CDL. This class of CDL is the highest level of licensure, permitting the driver to operate any type of vehicle covered by lower level CDL classes. A driver with a Class A CDL can also operate combination vehicles (tractor-trailer units) with a gross combination weight rating of 26,001 lbs or more, as well as a towed unit with a gross vehicle weight of 10,000 lbs or more.
Vehicles requiring a Class A CDL include:
- Truck and trailer combinations (same as above)
- Tank vehicles
- Livestock carriers
Class B CDL
Class B CDL holders are permitted to operate single vehicles with a gross weight rating of 26,001 lbs or more, or a vehicle towing another vehicle with a gross weight less than 10,000 lbs. They are not permitted to operate Class A vehicles including tractor-trailer combination units, but they are permitted to operate Class C vehicles.
Some of the vehicles operated by Class B CDL holders include:
- Straight trucks
- Large passenger buses
- Segmented buses
- Box trucks
- Dump trucks with small trailers
- Certain combination vehicles as long as they are not considered Class A
Class C CDL
A Class C CDL is required for vehicles that do not meet the criteria of Class A or Class B and meet the following criteria:
- Are used to transport sixteen or more passengers
- Transport hazardous materials as defined by 49 USC 5103 requiring placards or any material designated as a select agent or toxin under 42 CFR Part 73.
- Combination vehicles that are below the limits set for Class A or B
CDL Demographics and Statistics
Some relevant CDL demographics and statistics include the following items:
- 1,198,085 CDL Class A drivers are presently employed in the U.S.
- 6.8% of CDL Class A identify as female. 93.2% identify as men.
- The average age of a CDL Class A driver is 48 years old.
- The most common ethnicities of CDL Class A drivers is: White (63.9%), followed by Hispanic or Latino (17.8%), Black or African American (12.3%) and Asian (3.1%).
- CDL Class A drivers are in high demand with market turnover peaks reaching 95%.
According to the data, neary 1.2 million drivers are currently employed and of those, 93.2% are male. The gender gap in trucking has been narrowing and many companies are refocusing their recruitment efforts toward women to bring more female drivers into the industry. The age average at 48 means there are a lot of drivers nearing retirement age and within the next two decades the truck driver shortage may worsen as a result. However, this also means many job opportunities for younger drivers. The ethnicity of drivers is predominately White, and that coupled with the overall driver shortage means that minorities have a lot of opportunities available to them in trucking. And with driver turnover reaching upward of 95%, obtaining a job as a CDL Class A driver is quicker and easier than in other industries.
How Much Does It Cost To Get a CDL?
The cost of a CDL is mainly dependent on your state of residence. To determine the exact cost for your state, please visit your state's Department of Motor Vehicles or the Department of Revenue website. That being said, here is a breakdown of the average prices:
- Permits (CLP) for new truck drivers can cost up to $90.
- Application fees range between $0 - $43.
- Endorsements cost between $5 to $10 (this does not include testing fees).
- Written tests can cost up to $125 each.
- The skills testing, which includes road tests, pre-trip inspection tests, and basic vehicle control tests, can cost up to $250.
- The CDL itself can cost up to $120.
How Hard Is It To Get a CDL?
Each state provides a comprehensive Commercial Driver's License training manual, available online or at your local testing center. Some time spent studying this training manual will provide you with all the information you need to pass the written exams (including endorsement exams). As a result, most folks find written exams easy to pass. In addition to studying ahead of time, here are our suggestions to maximize your chances of passing your written exams:
- Read the exam questions and the available answers carefully.
- On your exam day, ensure you are well-rested and hydrated.
- Use additional study aids available online if you need help understanding any of the concepts presented in the training manual.
That covers the written portion of the testing. What about the skills test where your actual driving abilities are evaluated? The key to smooth and successful skills testing is practice. The more you practice ahead of time, the more comfortable you will be on test day, and the better you'll score. Here are a few tips for the skills exams:
- Practice the pre-trip inspection several times a day until you know every step of the inspection and every part of the truck and trailer, like the back of your hand.
- Depending on your selected method for training, you can gain extra practice for the backing portions of the testing.
When Do You Need a CDL?
Federal regulations require a CDL if you meet any of the following criteria:
- Operate a vehicle with a gross combination weight of 26,001 pounds or more
- Transport sixteen passengers or more
- Transport hazardous materials across state lines.
However, suppose you do not intend to operate a commercial vehicle outside of your home state. In that case, you will need to visit your state's .gov website and/or to determine whether or not you qualify for any exemptions.
Which CDL has the highest earning potential?
The higher level of training and requirements of a Class A CDL are reflected in the higher pay enjoyed by Class A holders over their Class B and Class C counterparts. The Class A CDL allows individuals to operate in the most lucrative sector of the trucking industry, over-the-road trucking (OTR).
The highest paying trucking jobs in general include:
- Hazardous materials haulers
- Oversized loads (such as large industrial equipment, windmill components, etc.)
- Luxury car hauling
- Private fleet drivers for large corporations
- Private fleet drivers for race teams
- Ice road trucking
CDL Endorsements & Restrictions
Endorsements cover skills for hauling certain types of cargo or using specialized equipment that require additional training and testing. With endorsements, drivers can expand their earnings potential and job prospects.
4 Ways to Get a CDL
- Large freight companies. Most large carriers (trucking companies) offer year-round opportunities for individuals to enter their apprenticeship programs. Typically, they start a new training rotation every week, so it’s a simple matter of meeting their basic qualifications and showing up on time for your training cycle. However, they usually require you to work for them for one to two years or pay back the cost of your training if you decide to drive for another company.
- Private CDL schools. Through these schools that specialize in CDL training, the price, quality, and time it takes to obtain your CDL through a specialized school is highly varied. Scammers have been known to operate in this aspect of the industry, so it’s important to investigate a private CDL school before handing over your hard earned money.
- Community colleges. Some community colleges and technical schools offer CDL training programs with the added benefit of obtaining financial aid to cover your up-front training costs. If you decide to get your CDL with this method, be sure to search for State grants, scholarships, and companies that offer tuition reimbursement.
- Military Skills Test Waiver Program. This is a provision in the FMCSA licensing requirements that enables military veterans with two years of safe heavy vehicle operation to obtain their CDL without taking the driving test (skills test). To qualify, they must be currently licensed and have operated a military vehicle similar to a heavy commercial vehicle in the past 12 months. More than 40,000 veterans have obtained their CDLs through the program.
Not all truck drivers are required to hold a CDL. Each state makes provisions for various exemptions. To determine whether you qualify for an exemption we recommend visiting your state’s government website for the most accurate information.
Some of the more common exemptions include:
- Non-commercial transportation of personal property, animals, vehicles, etc. to events like shows and fairs. The rules regarding this type of exemption are usually rather strict, as compensation for the transport is prohibited and the driver is prohibited from involvement in related business ventures, like racing teams.
- Vehicles less than 10,000 lbs do not require a CDL. However, it is important to consult your state’s website to determine if a chauffeur’s license is required.
- In some states, farming operations may be granted CDL exemptions. As always, consult your state’s guidelines to ensure you are compliant with all applicable laws and regulations.
Because heavy vehicles are inherently more dangerous to operate, CDL holders are held to a higher standard than the average driver. Penalties for traffic offenses are higher, more restrictive, and apply whether the driver is in their personal vehicle or on the job in their commercial truck.
Furthermore, CDL drivers are tracked and scored on a safety rating system governed by the US Department of Transportation, FMCSA, and Commercial Vehicle Safety Association (CVSA). The CVSA usually handles the tracking of safety issues. Suppose a driver accumulates too many safety violations. In that case, they can be hit with penalties that range from fines and short-term suspensions to permanent disqualification.
Federal law is the ultimate authority in all things trucking, and CDLs fall well within the federal government’s jurisdiction. Therefore, CDLs are required nationally for operating large/heavy vehicles over 10,000 lbs for the purpose of conducting business. If you are remaining within your state and conducting non-business related transportation, you may be exempt from federal laws and some state laws. As always, consult with both the federal and state websites to ensure you are compliant with the laws and regulations in the area you will be operating your vehicle.