CDL Licence Requirements: Federal & State Info.

Prior to getting into a trucking career, it’s important to know and understand the requirements for obtaining a CDL – commercial drivers’ license.  

The Federal CDL requirements apply to all states within the US – before you even apply for your CDL, you will have to secure a CLP – commercial learner’s permit – which will grant you the opportunity to begin training.  

Asides from the Federal CDL requirements applicable to all of America, there are also a number of other requirements that differ depending on the state.

You will need to understand your own states regulations if you want to earn your CDL.

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Minimum Requirement to Apply for a Commercial Learner’s Permit (CLP) or a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL)

  • Have a valid driver’s license ( regular, non-commercial) and be at least 18 years of age (this applies in most states)
  • Be at least 21 years of age:
    • To drive interstate – operate a commercial vehicle across state lines
    • To drive a commercial vehicle containing any hazardous substances or materials
  • Hold one or two years, at the least, of driving experience – may vary with states
  • Applicants must be able to provide proof of US citizenship or legal permanent residency as per 49 CFR 383.71. Proof includes:
    • Presenting a social security card, or evidence of the number 
    • A green card or birth certificate
  • Be successful and pass all background screening checks
  • Applicants must readily provide all names of states where they have been licensed to operate any type of motor vehicle within the past ten years
  • Hold no active or current license suspensions or seizures in any US state
  • Once the CDL is earned, an applicant’s regular state driver’s license must be handed over
  • The applicant is permitted to certify that they are not “subject to any disqualification” on the complete list of disqualifications listed under FMSCA 383.51
  • They must also confirm that they have incurred no disqualification under state law, and they hold no more than one drivers’ license from just one state or jurisdiction
  • Must be fluent in English with a good grasp of both speaking and reading – exams will also be given in English.

New Federal CDL Requirements

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMSCA) has made plenty of changes in recent years with regards to compliance requirements.

The FMSCA is in place to monitor and assess the safety of road use within the commercial trucking industry, and so many changes are often made to minimize risk to drivers and other road users.

Here are a few recent changes:

  • 1986 saw the introduction of the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which prohibited drivers from holding a CDL in more than one state. This was implemented to put a stop to drivers obtaining multiple licenses in a bid to obscure any bad records from a previous state
  • There are new Hazardous Materials Endorsement Requirements to be earned
  • As of 2013, all states began to enforce the texting prohibition 
  • Commercial drivers, as of 2014, have had to begin self-certifying their medical information. They are also only permitted to work with “authorized” medical practitioners listed on the National Medical Registry.

For more information on these changes, you can read on the FMSCA website.

Medical and Physical Requirements

Different types of driving jobs require different levels of physical capability, but overall, a driver must be physically able to operate a commercial motor vehicle and display an ability to keep up with other non-trucking duties.

The role requires long periods of time spent driving and will often result in a driver developing irregular sleeping patterns and will severely restrict their schedule – this in itself could cause a great deal of work-related stress.

Certain aspects of the job will also require that the driver partake in heavy lifting while loading or unloading the vehicle – this involves a great deal of physical activity and will require a certain level of fitness.

To become a truck driver, you must hold a valid DOT card (a Medical Examiners Certificate) or at the very least, a valid photographic copy of it.

This document is one of the Federal requirements of holding a CDL or CLP as it certifies that you have met and satisfied all mental and physical standards required for the role of operating a commercial motor vehicle.

You must always have this document (or a photocopy) on your person.

CDL Self Certification

As previously noted, a regulation was implemented in 2014 whereby all commercial drivers must self-certify their medical information and may only use medical practitioners who are listed on the NMR (National Medical Registry)

All truck drivers are now permitted to self-certify the kind of vehicle they will be operating from the following categories:

  • Non-Excepted Interstate: This requires that you fulfill the Federal DOT medical card criteria and operate across state lines
  • Excepted Interstate: You are not required to fulfill the Federal DOT medical card requirements and operate across state lines
  • Non-Excepted Intrastate: The Federal DOT medical card requirements must be met and you will only operate in and around your own home state
  • Excepted Intrastate: You will not need to meet the Federal DOT medical card criteria and operate in your home state only

Basic Physical Qualifications for Commercial Drivers

Medical examiners test fitness for the role using an FMSCA form known as the Medical Examination Report for Commercial Driver Fitness Determination.

This form is indicative of the kind of medical qualifications required for commercial drivers.

Regulations now require that you obtain a Medical Examiners Certificate that will serve as proof of your physical and mental capability to operate a commercial motor vehicle.

A list of certain medical requirements is to follow:

  • Standard: Driver must have at least 20/40 Snellen (acuity) in each eye – this can be with a correction or without. Must have at least 70 degrees peripheral vision in each eye. Drivers who use glasses or contact lenses are permitted to practice, but the Medical Examiners Certificate should make note of any use of corrective lenses.
  • An insulin-dependent (via needle) diabetic would not be licensed (with the exception of certain cases)
  • Hearing: Must be able to hear a forced whisper from over a 5ft range without any use of a hearing aid or have an average level of hearing loss in the better ear
  • Blood Pressure: Must have no current diagnosis of any blood pressure related issues that are likely to disrupt and hinder their ability to drive a truck safely
  • Elevated Blood Sugar Levels: Levels of 200 and above are considered to be in the ‘dangerous’ range. However, despite numerous reports on the internet that state a blood sugar level of 200 or more is grounds for disqualification, there does not seem to be any evidence to support this.
  • Conditions such as sleep apnea might be a reason for disqualification

Written and Knowledge Exams

It is vital that you pass your knowledge and skills tests if you want to obtain your CDL.

There’s a CDL manual that can be studied prior to an exam, but it should not be used for the purpose of replacing a formal training program – it is more a complementary study alongside your training.

Formal training actually happens to be one of the best ways to learn the requirements of the role – there are many specialized skills that a truck driver requires, these can be learned in training and implemented on the job from the moment you start.

A general knowledge test must also be sat and passed by an applicant.

Skill and Road Testing

When sitting your road and skills test, you are required to use the same class of commercial vehicle that you are aiming to be licensed for.

The driving test is divided into three sections consisting of:

  • Pre-Trip Vehicle Inspection: The lesson in this is that you must be confident and sure that your vehicle is safe to operate. The CDL Manual has sections 11,12 and 13 to outline what you need to inspect and why
  • Basic Vehicle Control: This section is designed to test you on your control of the vehicle and will require you to maneuver backward and forwards within a marked zone
  • On-Road Driving Exam: This section will be testing your ability to operate the vehicle safely in various different traffic environments including railroad crossings, curved roads, and emergency stops

Military Waiver

The CDL has a slightly different approach with ex-military commercial drivers and grants them a waiver whereby they are allowed to bypass the skills test.

This waiver is only applicable to military drivers who submit the waiver form within one year of their separation from duty.

The waiver may be used by any service members – former or current – who are already licensed to operate a commercial motor vehicle (or the military equivalent) and are currently, or have in the past 90 days, been employed as the driver of this military equivalent.

Although the skills test can be waived, the knowledge test is mandatory.

The use of School Bus or Passenger endorsements under this waiver is strictly forbidden.

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