Everything you wanted to know about a CDL (Almost)
If you love to travel and wish to earn a comfortable salary, applying for your commercial driver’s license (CDL) can be a smart career move. The job market for truck drivers continues to grow at a rapid pace, with experts anticipating the addition of more than 111,000 jobs by 2014. In Iowa, the average wage for a commercial driver is approximately $35,000 per year. There are a few minimum requirements for becoming a licensed commercial driver in Iowa:
- You must be 18 years old or older.
- You will need to apply at an Iowa Department of Transportation driver’s license site and supply documents proving your date of birth, your full name, and your Social Security number.
- Fill out the Certification for Commercial Driver’s License form testifying that you are eligible for a CDL.
- You’ll be subjected to an interstate check of your driving record, which must be clear in all states.
- You must pass a vision screening.
- You must pass a written knowledge test: one for the commercial license and one for each endorsement you wish to add to it (see “Endorsements,” below).
- Finally, you’ll need to pass an on-road skills test in the class of vehicle you are being licensed for.
You will be asked to surrender any driver’s license you currently hold from Iowa or any other state. Essentially, your CDL replaces your other license, and it’s illegal to have more than one license.
The licensing fees are pretty straightforward. A commercial learner’s permit, which you can get after passing the written test and which is valid for six months, costs $12 and gets added to your current noncommercial license. The learner’s permit allows you to get behind the wheel of a big rig as long as someone with a valid commercial license for that type of vehicle is riding beside you.
A basic commercial license for Class A, Class B, or Class C vehicles (see “CDL Classes for Every State,” below) costs $40 for five years. Add to this base fee an additional $5 or $10 per endorsement:
- Air brakes endorsement: $10
- Passenger endorsement: $10
- Hazmat endorsement: $5
- Doubles/triples endorsement: $5
- School bus endorsement: $10
- Tank endorsement: $5
While the hazmat endorsement fee is charged every time you renew your license, the other endorsement fees are charged only when you first apply for them or if you are reapplying for them after your CDL has become invalid.
Preparing for Your CDL Exams
Most Iowa residents who wish to earn a CDL receive professional training from one of the state’s many community colleges. Some programs offer hundreds of hours of classroom and driving instruction over a period of many weeks to prepare students for the CDL written test and driving exam. In some cases, students may also rent a vehicle to use when taking their CDL driving test.
Since the Iowa Department of Transportation does not administer education programs for commercial drivers, you’ll need to contact your local educational institution for information about course requirements, tuition, and enrollment dates.
Iowa’s Testing Procedures
To earn your commercial driver’s license, you’ll need to complete both a written exam and a supervised driving evaluation. CDL driving tests are available by appointment at Iowa Department of Transportation driver’s license sites. County treasurer license sites do not offer the supervised driving exam.
Once you’ve received your CDL, you’ll need to renew your license every five years. If you renew within 60 days of the expiration date, you generally won’t need to retake the written exam or driving test. However, there will be a written exam for those who wish to maintain a hazardous materials endorsement. You’ll also need to take a written exam to add an endorsement to your current license.
For more information about earning your Iowa CDL, contact the Commercial Vehicle Information office at (800) 925-6469.
The Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986
The Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986 was designed to improve highway safety. Its purpose was to ensure that drivers of commercial vehicles are qualified to drive them, and to remove unsafe drivers from the highways. The Act didn’t require federal driver licensing―states still license commercial drivers―but it established minimum standards that states must meet when issuing commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs). It required states to upgrade their existing programs to follow the new federal standards.
Before the Act was passed, many commercial vehicle drivers operated vehicles they were not properly trained on or qualified to drive. Even in states that had separate license classes, drivers were not necessarily tested in the types of vehicles they would be driving. States must now test commercial drivers according to federal standards, to ensure that drivers know how to operate the trucks or buses they intend to drive.
The Act also made it illegal to have more than one driver’s license. You can hold a regular or commercial driver’s license, but not both. You can have one license from the state you reside in, but not from any other states. In the past, bad drivers could more easily hide their driving histories by getting several licenses. Today, all the states are connected to a national database to check driver histories.
CDL Classes for Every State
To be eligible for a CDL, you must have a clean driving record. Federal regulations require you to pass a physical exam every two years. To operate a commercial motor vehicle in interstate commerce, you must be at least 21. Many states allow those as young as 18 to drive commercial vehicles within the state. You must be able to read and speak English well enough to read road signs, prepare reports, and communicate with the public and with law enforcement.
The Act established three separate classes of commercial driver’s licenses. Every state issues licenses in these categories:
- Class A: Any combination of vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating (GWVR) of 26,001 or more pounds, provided the GVWR of the vehicle(s) being towed is in excess of 10,000 pounds.
- Class B: Any single vehicle with a GVWR of 26,001 or more pounds, or any such vehicle towing a vehicle not in excess of 10,000 pounds GVWR.
- Class C: Any single vehicle, or combination of vehicles, that does not meet the definition of Class A or Class B, but is either designed to transport 16 or more passengers, including the driver, or is placarded for hazardous materials.
Many states make exceptions for farm vehicles, snow removal vehicles, fire and emergency vehicles, and some military vehicles.
To be licensed for certain types of commercial vehicles, extra testing is required. If you pass, you will receive an endorsement on your CDL. These are the five endorsements that you can apply for. Each requires between one and five knowledge (written) tests, and two require driving (skills) tests.
- T―Double/Triple Trailers (knowledge test only)
- P―Passenger (knowledge and skills tests)
- N―Tank Vehicle (knowledge test only)
- H―Hazardous Materials (knowledge test only)
- S―School Buses (knowledge and skills tests)
Requirements for Medical Certification
In the interest of public safety on the highways, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) regulations require interstate commercial drivers to be medically fit to operate their vehicles safely and competently. You are required to have a physical exam and carry a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) medical certificate if:
- You operate a motor vehicle with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) or gross combination weight rating (GCWR) or gross vehicle weight (GVW) or gross combination weight (GCW) of 4,536 kilograms (10,001 pounds) or more in interstate commerce.
- You operate a motor vehicle designed or used to transport more than 15 passengers, including the driver, in interstate commerce.
- You operate a motor vehicle designed or used to transport between nine and 15 passengers, for direct compensation, beyond 75 air miles from your regular work-reporting location, in interstate commerce.
- You transport hazardous materials in quantities requiring placards, in interstate commerce.
You must carry a current copy of your medical examination certificate with you when you drive. Residents of Mexico or Canada who drive in the United States can be certified by doctors in their countries, provided they meet the U.S. requirements.
Minimum Training Requirements
There are no federal standards in place for on-the-road commercial driver training. The government only requires that you take and pass your CDL knowledge (written) and skills (driving) tests. Longer-combination-vehicle (LCV) drivers must receive training in driver wellness, driver qualifications, hours of service, and whistleblower protection.
Your state’s commercial driver’s manual is a good place to learn basic information, but you will need to be professionally trained to drive a commercial motor vehicle.
In order to pass your driving skills tests, you will need to learn how to inspect vehicles before driving, learn how to couple and uncouple tractors and trailers, and have plenty of practice driving. This includes driving in different conditions and on different road surfaces, turning, parking, backing up, and braking.
Many motor carriers train their employees, while other drivers take courses at private driving schools, vocational or technical schools, and community colleges. Individual states often approve or certify training courses. The Professional Truck Driver Institute (PTDI) has set minimum standards for training curriculums and certifies driver training courses that meet industry and Federal Highway Administration (FHA) guidelines. Many employers require their drivers to take PTDI-approved training.
Some states may specify minimum training guidelines. Check with your state’s motor vehicles department to see if there are minimum training requirements to get your CDL.
Hazmat Background Checks
Under the USA PATRIOT Act, commercial drivers transporting hazardous materials (hazmat) must pass a background records check and be fingerprinted. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is responsible for conducting the background checks for all commercial drivers with hazmat endorsements or who want to add hazmat endorsements to their licenses. The TSA developed this program to carry out the USA PATRIOT Act mandate and protect citizens from the potential threat of terrorists using hazmat cargo. The requirement is a result of the USA PATRIOT Act (Public Law 107-56, Section 1012) and the Safe Explosives Act (Public Law 107-296, Section 1121-1123), ARS § 28-3103(A)(2), and 49 CFR 1572.
If the TSA disqualifies you because of your background, you can appeal their finding or seek a waiver. However, if you are found guilty of a disqualifying crime, you must declare any disqualifying conditions and surrender your hazmat endorsement (if you already have it) to your state’s department of motor vehicles or other licensing agency.
The TSA charges the following nonrefundable fees for background checks:
- Information collection fee: $38
- Threat assessment fee: $34
- FBI fee: $22
- Total: $94
According to the TSA, background checks take between one and eight weeks to complete. You will be notified by mail whether you are approved. If you are approved, you can then go to your state’s licensing authority (usually the department of motor vehicles) to complete your application process. If you are denied, you can appeal or seek a waiver. According to the FMCSA, hazmat endorsements must be renewed at least every five years. However, your state might require renewal more often. You will need a background check each time you renew your hazmat endorsement. You must arrange for the background check no less than 30 days before the expiration of your current approval, or your CDL may be cancelled.
Conviction of any of the following crimes will disqualify you from being eligible for a hazmat endorsement:
- Assault with intent to murder
- Kidnapping or hostage-taking
- Rape or aggravated sexual abuse
- Immigration violations
- RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) violations
- Unlawful possession, use, sale, distribution, or manufacture of an explosive device, firearm, or other weapon
- Distribution of, intent to distribute, possession, or importation of a controlled substance
- Dishonesty, fraud, or misrepresentation, including identity fraud
- Crimes involving a severe transportation security incident
- Improper transportation of a hazardous material
- Conspiracy or attempt to commit any of these crimes
We hope that this guide makes the federal CDL requirements for drivers easier for you to understand. Remember that your state also has its own guidelines that may be stricter than the federal ones. As a commercial driver, you must also be familiar with other federal regulations so you can comply with them. For more information, consult your employer, or visit the Web site of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.