What Is a Commercial Drivers License?

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    Safety Act

    • In 1986 the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act was passed to make highways safer, requiring drivers of large vehicles to meet national standards to obtain a CDL. The act makes it illegal to have more than one license and requires states to implement standards of testing and licensing. The testing ensures the driver is capable of operating the CMV he plans to operate.

    Knowledge Tests

    • States are responsible for developing their own tests, but the tests must meet federal standards. The general knowledge tests must have at least 30 questions and 80 percent of the questions must be correctly answered in order to pass.

    Skills Tests

    • Applicants must demonstrate the ability to safely operate the vehicle as well as perform a safety inspection. States can "grandfather" drivers, giving them their CDLs without performing skills tests if the driver has a current license with a good driving record and has previously passed an acceptable skills test. If the driver has certain driving experience and a good driving record, she may be able to bypass the skills test, as well.


    • There are different classes of CDLs, depending on the weight of the vehicle and the intended passengers. Class A CDLs allow the driver to operate any combination of vehicles with a gross weight of 26,001 or more pounds and the towed vehicle(s) exceeding 10,000 pounds. Class B licenses are for any single vehicle with a gross weight of 26,001 or more pounds, or one such vehicle towing a vehicle that does not exceed 10,000 pounds. Class Cs are for all the other vehicles that are not classified under Class A or Class B, but is made for transporting a minimum of 16 passengers (including the driver) or is designated for hazardous materials.

    Endorsements and Restrictions

    • In order to drive certain CMVs, drivers must pass more tests to get the proper endorsements on the CDL. Extra tests are required for multiple trailers, passengers, tank vehicles and hazardous materials. Furthermore, if a driver fails the air brake component of the knowledge test or takes the skills test in a vehicle that does not have air brakes, the driver will be issued an air brake restriction.

    Current Status

    • More than 8 million drivers have obtained a CDL. Between April 1992 and June 1996, approximately 11 percent of the CDL drivers were disqualified at least once. Without the program, these drivers would have more than likely stayed on the road.

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