Commercial Driver’s Licenses (CDL) and Commercial Learner’s Permits (CLP)

What is a CDL and who is required to have one?

Anyone operating a Commercial Motor Vehicle (CMV) in the United States (unless training) must hold Commercial Driver’s License (CDL). The type of CDL a driver needs depends on the type of Commercial Motor Vehicle operated. The type of vehicle is normally defined as the combination of the truck and trailer. While the Federal Highway Administration developed standards for CDL licenses, actual testing and issuing of CDLs is handled at the state level.

Why do I need a CDL?

Before 1986, many states allowed anyone holding a standard automobile driver’s license to operate commercial motor vehicles. But these vehicles are normally more difficult to operate than passenger cars and require unique skills. Eventually, some states tightened requirements and only allowed driver’s holding chauffer’s licenses to drive trucks.

In 1986, the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act (CMVSA) was signed into federal law. The law made CDLs mandatory for all drivers of commercial motor vehicles. By ensuring that bus drivers and operators of large trucks are trained and qualified to operate the vehicles needed to do their jobs and similarly qualified to transport people and/or specific types of freight, the CMVSA dramatically increased safety on the nation’s highways.

Obtaining a CDL serves as proof you are qualified to drive and haul specific truck and trailer types and their contents. Some carriers operate their own training programs allowing you to be employed prior to earning a CDL. These programs vary between carriers. Information on these programs can be obtained from the individual carrier websites.

What are the Classes of CDLs and which do I need?

CDLs are issued in one of three “Classes” — A, B, and C. The class of CLD license you need is dependent on the type of truck you operate and the trailer and cargo you haul.

What is a Class A CDL?

Class A CDLs are the most versatile type of CDL drivers can carry. Class A CDLs allow drivers to operate almost any Class A, Class B, or Class C Commercial Motor Vehicle. Class A CDLs are required if a driver is operating, per the FMCSA, “any combination of vehicles with a GVWR/GVW (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating/Gross Vehicle Weight) of 26,001 or more pounds provided the GVWR/GVW of the vehicle(s) being towed is in excess of 10,000 pounds. Class A holders are also permitted to operate any commercial motor vehicle included in Classes B and C.”

In simple terms, if you want to drive trucks often referred to as “18-wheelers,” you need a Class A CDL.

Examples of trucks you can drive with a Class A CDL include:

  • Tractor-trailers
  • Truck and trailer combinations
  • Tank vehicles
  • Livestock carriers
  • Flatbeds
  • Reefers
  • Logging vehicles

What is a Class B CDL?

A Class B CDL allows a driver to operate a vehicle with a “GVWR and GVW of 26,001 or more pounds, or any such vehicle towing a vehicle not in excess of 10,000 pounds GVWR and GVW. Class B holders are also permitted to operate any commercial motor vehicle included in Class C.”

Examples of Commercial Motor Vehicles you can drive with a Class B CDL include:

  • Buses
  • Tow trucks
  • Cement trucks
  • Dump trucks
  • Other trucks used in the construction industry
  • Garbage and recycling trucks
  • Straight trucks
  • Box trucks
  • Armored vehicles
  • Package delivery vehicles
  • Utility vehicles

Class B CDL holders often drive “cash-in-transit vehicles,” defined as those with GVWRs between 8,000 and 12,000 pounds that securely transport freight in urban areas. With certain endorsements, a Class B CDL allows a driver to operate other vehicles as well.

What is a Class C CDL?

A Class C CDL allows a driver to operate a single vehicle or combination of vehicles not meeting the definitions of Class A or Class B, but designed to transport 16 or more passengers (including the driver) or to transport material designated as hazardous but not carried in a vehicle requiring a Class A or Class B CDL.

Examples of vehicles you can drive with a Class C CDL include:

  • Small HazMat vehicles
  • Passenger vans or small buses
  • Vehicles requiring a CDL to operate but not covered in Class A or Class B definitions

What is the difference between a CDL and a CLP?

A CDL, or Commercial Driver’s License, is a type of motor vehicle operator’s license issued by a state after you have proven you hold the knowledge and ability to drive a Commercial Motor Vehicle of the appropriate classification. To obtain a CDL, you must pass a written test, a skills test, and obtain medical clearance.

A CLP, or Commercial Learner’s Permit, is a state-issued permit authorizing you to operate a Commercial Motor Vehicle for training purposes under the supervision of a valid CDL holder for the vehicle you are operating. Obtaining a CLP is often considered the first step taken toward earning a CDL.