What you need to know about the CDL

Student taking the Commercial Driver's License Test.

The Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) test contains two parts: a written knowledge test and skills test. There are seven knowledge tests in total: one covers general knowledge, five cover specific endorsements, and an Air Brakes test. Each knowledge test is scored separately, and most drivers only take three or four. The tests you take depend on what type of commercial vehicle you intend to drive, but all of the knowledge tests must be taken in the state where you reside. Please be aware that different states may have slightly different regulations, especially for transporting certain substances. Be sure to check your state’s CDL manual for confirmation of these regulations.

All questions are multiple choice with four answers. The skills test is performed in front of an examiner and divided into three parts: a pretrip vehicle inspection that tests your ability to decide if a truck is safe to drive, basic control skills that test your ability to park, turn, and back up the vehicle, and a road test that gauges your ability to safely drive the vehicle on the road. Every person wishing to obtain a Commercial Driver’s License must take and pass all three parts of the skills test.

What are the costs?

Every state has different fees associated with taking the test so it is best to contact the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office in your state. For example, in West Virginia there is a $25 non-refundable fee for the General Knowledge and Air Brakes test, and an additional fee of $10 for each endorsement test you take. The fee to take the skills test is $90, which is paid to a third-party examiner.

What should I bring?

It is best to check out your state’s requirements for what you need to bring when taking your CDL exam. Generally, to apply for your CDL you need to have a valid ID and proof of social security, as well as proof that you passed the medical and vision exams. If you are applying for the Hazardous Materials test, you need proof of citizenship of legal residence and a Federal Security Threat Assessment (background check). Many states also utilize a third party for the skills portion of the test so you would need to check with them for specific requirements relevant to the day of your skills test.

What kind of job can I get?

There are three vehicle classifications that require operators to carry a Commercial Driver’s License, and each state issuing this license must meet minimum federal guidelines. A Class A vehicle is one with a mass of 26,001 pounds or more, if the vehicle is towing an excess of 10,000 pounds. A Class B vehicle is one with a mass of 26,001 pounds or more, provided the vehicle is towing less than 10,000 pounds. A Class C vehicle includes any vehicle that does not meet the definition of Class A or B, but is designed to carry more than 16 passengers including the driver, or one that is designated for carrying hazardous materials. In layman’s terms, with a CDL you can expect employment carrying goods such as food, livestock, liquids, or gasoline. If you could meet the criteria, you could also operate a school bus or drive a limo.

Am I eligible?

If you want to operate a Class A vehicle, you must be at least 21. If you want to operate a Class C or B vehicle, you must be at least 18, but there are restrictions on what you can transport if you are between 18 and 21. If you are under 21, you may only drive a commercial vehicle for interstate commerce, and you may not transport hazardous materials or drive children on a school bus. All drivers must be able to read and speak English well enough to communicate effectively and read and understand signs and instructions. Additionally, drivers must undergo a medical examination to ensure they do not suffer from any conditions that would prohibit or restrict them from safely operating a motorized vehicle. Having past convictions of driving under the influence, using a vehicle to commit a felony, or restrictions on your personal license will also likely exclude you from obtaining a CDL.

Why does it matter?

It is illegal for anyone to operate a Class A, B, or C vehicle without a CDL license, so if you wish to legally operate one of these vehicles you must take and pass the CDL exam.

What salary can I expect?

Salary ranges for those with a CDL greatly varies depending on what you are transporting and where you are transporting it. Most drivers can expect to earn between $35,000 and $75,000 annually. As with many jobs, you are likely to make more money with more experience.

When is it available?

Assuming you have met all your state’s requirements, the written test should be available year round, excluding national holidays. The availability of the skills portion may be subject to the availability of an approved third-party tester.

Time Allowed

Always check with your state to get the specific requirements of the CDL exam you will be taking. But generally you can expect about 60 minutes to complete the General Knowledge section, 25 minutes to complete the Air Brakes section, 30 minutes for the Hazardous Materials section, and 20 minutes for the remaining endorsement sections.

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