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Who needs a CDL? A primer on commercial drivers' licenses.

Updated: Mar 7, 2021


Since 1992, the USDOT has required commercial drivers operating certain types of vehicles to obtain and hold a special license to do so. That license is known as a commercial driver's license or CDL. In this article, we'll explore who specifically needs a CDL, who is exempt, what types of CDLs exist, and more, but generally speaking:


Commercial drivers who operate the following types of vehicles in interstate or intrastate commerce are required to hold a CDL: (i) a vehicle having a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) or gross vehicle weight (GVW) of 26,001 lbs. or more; (ii) a combination of vehicles having a gross combination weight rating (GCWR) or gross combination weight (GCW) of 26,001 lbs. or more, inclusive of a towed unit with a GVWR or GVW of more than 10,000 lbs.; (iii) a vehicle designed to transport 16 or more passengers (including the driver); and (iv) a vehicle of any size used to transport placardable quantities of hazardous materials.


Who is required to hold a CDL?

Part 383 of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations specifies that any person who operates a "commercial motor vehicle" in interstate, foreign, or intrastate commerce must hold a CDL. The term "commercial motor vehicle" in this context means:


a motor vehicle or combination of motor vehicles used in commerce to transport passengers or property if the motor vehicle is a -

(1) Combination Vehicle (Group A) - having a gross combination weight rating or gross combination weight of 11,794 kilograms or more (26,001 pounds or more), whichever is greater, inclusive of a towed unit(s) with a gross vehicle weight rating or gross vehicle weight of more than 4,536 kilograms (10,000 pounds), whichever is greater; or

(2) Heavy Straight Vehicle (Group B) - having a gross vehicle weight rating or gross vehicle weight of 11,794 or more kilograms (26,001 pounds or more), whichever is greater; or

(3) Small Vehicle (Group C) that does not meet Group A or B requirements but that either -

(i) Is designed to transport 16 or more passengers, including the driver; or

(ii) Is of any size and is used in the transportation of hazardous materials as defined in this section.


In sum, drivers of property-carrying vehicles must hold a CDL if they operate a vehicle or combination of vehicles that weighs 26,001 pounds or more (assuming, for combinations, that the trailer weighs at least 10,001 pounds), or a vehicle of any weight that is used to haul placardable quantities of hazardous materials. Drivers of passenger-carrying vehicles require a CDL if they operate a vehicle that is designed to transport 16 or more passengers, including the driver.


As an aside, this particular definition of a CMV dictates the applicability of the CDL requirement, as well as drug/alcohol testing for commercial drivers. A different definition--one found in 49 C.F.R. 390.5--dictates the applicability of the remainder of the federal safety regulations, including things like driver qualification, hours-of-service, and vehicle maintenance requirements. Check out this article for a more in-depth discussion of the term "commercial motor vehicle" and its significance to the highway transportation industry.


Who is exempt from the CDL requirement?

There are a number of full and partial exemptions from the CDL requirement, which are spelled out in 49 C.F.R. 383.3. The most significant exemptions are:

  1. Firefighters and emergency response vehicle drivers - States may, but are not required to, exempt these categories of drivers from the CDL requirement while operating vehicles in the execution of emergency governmental functions, so long as the vehicles are equipped with audible and visual signals and are not otherwise subject to normal traffic regulation.

  2. Snow plow drivers - States may, but are not required to, exempt snow and ice plow drivers from the CDL requirement when those drivers are employed by a governmental unit for emergency ice or snow removal, if the governmental unit determines that properly licensed individuals are not available to provide those services. This exemption is limited to operations within the governmental unit's territory.

  3. Farm vehicle operators - States may, but are not required to, exempt farm vehicle operators from the CDL requirement, so long as the vehicle controlled and operated by a farmer, his family, or his employees; is used to transport either agricultural products, farm machinery, farm supplies, or both to or from a farm; is not used in for-hire operations; and is used exclusively within 150 miles of the farmer's farm.

  4. Drivers of "covered farm vehicles" - Drivers who operate "covered farm vehicles" are exempt from the CDL requirement. A "covered farm vehicle" means a straight or articulated truck that is (i) registered in a state with a farm plate; (ii) operated by the owner or operator of a farm or ranch, including a family member or employee of the owner or operator of the farm or ranch; (iii) used to transport agricultural commodities, livestock, machinery or supplies to or from a farm or ranch; (iv) not used in for-hire motor carrier operations; and (v) operated exclusively within150 air miles of the farm or ranch.

What types of CDLs are there?

There are generally three varieties of CDLs, which are commonly known as CDL groups or classes. They are Class A, Class B, and Class C. The type of vehicle or combination being operated dictates which class of CDL is required.

  • Combination vehicle (Class A) - Any combination of vehicles with a gross combination weight rating (GCWR) of 26,001 pounds or more provided the GVWR of the vehicle(s) being towed is in excess of 10,000 pounds.

  • Heavy Straight Vehicle (Class B) - Any single vehicle with a GVWR of 26,001 pounds or more, or any such vehicle towing a vehicle not in excess of10,000 pounds GVWR.

  • Small Vehicle (Class C) - Any single vehicle, or combination of vehicles, that meets neither the definition of Group A nor that of Group B as contained in this section, but that either is designed to transport 16 or more passengers including the driver, or is used in the transportation of placardable quantities of hazardous materials.

What are CDL endorsements?

Aside from the broad classes of CDLs, there are also a number of specific endorsements that drivers must obtain to operate certain specialized equipment. Common endorsements include the following:

  • Passenger (P)

  • School bus (S)

  • Tank Vehicle (N)

  • Double/Triple Trailers

  • Hazardous Materials

Conclusion

Simply stated, drivers of certain larger equipment (or equipment used to haul placardable quantities of hazardous materials) in interstate or intrastate commerce need a CDL to do so. They may also need a specific endorsement in order to operate certain specialized equipment or haul certain types of commodities or passengers.


For more in-depth training on topics like commercial driver qualification requirements, hours-of-service, drug/alcohol testing, vehicle maintenance regulations, and much more, check out our industry-leading online regulatory courses available through Trucksafe Academy. And for a quick primer on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, look no further than Trucksafe's eBook, DOT Compliance: The Basics.

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