Becoming a Truck Driver

In many states, you can drive a small truck or a delivery van with a standard driver’s license. If you want to drive the big trucks, you will need to get a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL). You can find your state’s specific CDL requirements through the department of motor vehicles. To qualify for a CDL, you must be at least 21 years old, have a clean driving record and pass several written tests about driving rules and regulations. You must also have a clean bill of health from your physician, including normal use of arms and legs, normal blood pressure, and no epilepsy or diabetes. Your vision must be correctable to at least 20/40, with a 70-degree field of vision in each eye. You have to be able to tell the difference between the colors of traffic lights, so those with severe color blindness are not candidates.

The federal government requires that CDL applicants meet certain legal requirements: you must never have been convicted of a felony involving drugs, driving under the influence, leaving the scene of a crime, or causing a fatality with a motor vehicle. You also have to be able to speak English well enough to take the written tests and communicate with police.

You apply for a CDL in your home state at the department of motor vehicles. Every state has its own tests, but in general, you must first pass a written test that shows a basic understanding of the rules and regulations of driving a big truck. The state provides a commercial driver’s manual which you can study on your own prior to taking the test. In order to pass, you have to get at least 80 percent of the answers right. If you fail, you may be able to retake the test (additional fees apply), but if you fail it several times, you will have to complete the classroom portion of a state-approved driver training school program in order to take the test again. There are different general knowledge tests for different categories of vehicles. All CDL applicants have to take the general and Transporting Cargo sections of the test. If you want to drive a vehicle with air brakes, you will have to take that section of the test, too.

There is also a special endorsement for double trailers. Any additional endorsements like tank vehicle, school bus, passenger vehicle, hazardous materials and double-triple vehicles require another test.

Federal law only allows you to hold one driver’s license at a time, so when you pass the knowledge test, you will have to give up your regular driver’s license to get the CDL instruction permit.

The CDL instruction permit is similar to the learner’s permit you received when you were first learning to drive. With this license, you can only drive the specific vehicle shown on the permit and only when there is a fully licensed CDL driver in the truck with you. Some states will not give you a full CDL until you have had the permit for at least 30 days. During this time, most people choose to take a driver training course. If you have extensive equipment with farm tractors, if your family has a tractor-trailer business, you may already have enough practical experience to pass the skills test.

Your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles may maintain a list of approved training schools. The Professional Truck Driver Institute (PTDI) certifies driver training programs across the country, and has a list of certified schools online. Courses may be held at community colleges, technical schools, and private institutions.

In Focus: Get On Track with a CDL

The amount of time it takes to complete a driver training program depends on how many hours per day you spend in the program and how well you retain the information. Schools arrange their curricula in different ways, but on average, it takes four to six weeks to complete a training program. Some schools may offer two-week programs in which you have a lot more hands-on time each day, but there is a practical limit to how much information you can expect to retain at one time.

According to PTDI, the average cost of a certified driver training program was just under $5,000 in 2015. Some applicants may be able to get trucking school financial aid through loans, work-study programs, the G.I. Bill, and other sources. Some companies will pay the full cost of training for new hires, but this benefit comes with a trade-off: lower pay in the long-term.

In general, the skills segment of the CDL test involves a pre-trip inspection, basic vehicle control and on-road driving. You have to take the practical test in the same type of vehicle in which you want to get your license.

Once you pass the practical segment of the test, you will be able to get your full CDL license and start driving on your own. Even though you have a license, you are still a considered a beginning driver for one year.



Learn More: Downside of Driving Trucks