Before 1986, many people who just had regular driver’s licenses were able to operate buses and tractor-trailers without additional specialized training. It was also possible to hold driver’s licenses in different states; this meant that people with a long list of traffic violations could apply for a license in another state and obscure their previous record.
The Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986 sought to change those two issues to make the nation’s roads safer for everyone. There is no federal driver’s license program, but the act did institute certain standard policies about driver’s licenses. Since 1986, it has been illegal to hold a driver’s license from more than one state at a time. You can only legally hold one kind of license issued by your home state. For that reason, if you apply for a CDL, you have to turn in your regular driver’s license. Every state now requires both general knowledge and skills testing before you can get a CDL.
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You will need to get a CDL if you intend to drive a vehicle with a combined GVW of 26,001 pounds or greater, if the vehicle being towed weighs more than 10,000 pounds. CDLs are also required for straight trucks and buses over 26,001 pounds and for smaller vehicles that carry hazardous materials to support a business.
Before applying for a CDL, you will need to get a physical to be sure you don’t have any medical conditions that make it unsafe for you to operate a large vehicle, like diabetes or epilepsy.
When you apply for a CDL, the state will check its own database, the Commercial Driver’s License Information System, and the National Driver Register to make sure you aren’t disqualified and that you don’t have another license from another state. If you do hold another state’s license, you will have to give it up to get your CDL. You will also have to submit your complete driving record for the past 10 years.
There are some infractions that will keep you from getting a CDL. If you have ever been convicted of using a commercial motor vehicle to manufacture, transport or distribute illegal drugs, you never be able to have a CDL. Some other violations will cause you to lose your license for a set period of time. For example, leaving the scene of an accident, or driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
To start training on commercial vehicles, you first have to get a permit. Go to your local DMV and take the general knowledge test. You may be able to find a free study guide online through your state DMV website. You have to pass the general knowledge test with at least 80 percent correct in order to get your permit.
You can go through a driver training school to get hands-on experience and instruction in operating a tractor-trailer. You might also do on-the-job training with your employer. If you grew up on a farm and have lots of experience with tractors and trailers, you might be able to pass the skills test without any other training. At the end of your training period, you can return to the DMV to take the skills test in the same type of vehicle you want to drive.
In addition to the CDL, certain types of vehicles require special endorsements. There is an additional knowledge test for the double/triple trailer endorsement, and the tank vehicle endorsement. Both knowledge and skills tests are required for the passenger and school bus endorsements. The hazmat and hazmat/tank endorsement require a knowledge test and a TSA threat assessment. In the threat assessment, the state DMV forwards your file (including fingerprints) to TSA. The TSA then decides whether you are likely to pose a significant risk to national security.