Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) Laws

The general requirements to obtain a CDL and the reasons for disqualification.

The operation of a commercial motor vehicle (CMV) generally requires a commercial driver's license (CDL). Each type of CDL has endorsements and restrictions specific to the CMV operated. A CDL can also be revoked for certain criminal convictions and rule violations. This article outlines when a CDL is required, how to obtain a CDL, and how a driver can lose CDL privileges.

When a Driver is Required to Have a CDL

Federal and state regulations require a CDL for any vehicle weighing 26,001 or more pounds, designed to carry hazardous materials, or that carries 16 or more passengers. However, state laws often have exemptions to CDL requirements for certain types of vehicles. Military vehicles, medical response vehicles, and RVs are the most common types of vehicles that are exempt from CDL rules. Many states also have exemptions for farm trucks and equipment when used near the farm.

CDL License Classes

There are three classes of CDLs based on the weight of the truck and/or trailer(s).

Combined Weight Tractor Weight Trailer(s) Weight

Class A

26,001 or more pounds

26,001 or more pounds

Over 10,000 pounds

Class B

26,001 or more pounds

26,001 or more pounds

10,000 pounds or less

Class C

Under 26,001 pounds

Under 26,001 pounds

10,000 pounds or less

The driver's license class must meet or exceed the carried weight. So, a class A CDL can be used to haul any weight of CMV.

CDL License Endorsements

Endorsements are listed on the CDL and grant additional privileges, like the authorization for transporting hazardous materials or passengers. Generally, each type of endorsement requires the driver to meet additional testing requirements.

Seasonal CDLs for Farm Work

Some states also have a restricted CDL for seasonal farm work. These seasonal CDLs authorize the holder to operate certain types of commercial vehicles for only part of the year. Applicants generally aren't required to complete all CDL testing but may still be subject to certain rules and restrictions.

How to Get a Commercial Driver's License

Commercial learner permits. The first step to getting a CDL is to obtain a commercial learner permit (CLP). The CLP requires a valid driver's license, the passage of a written CMV knowledge test, and proof of residency. The CLP can be used to practice CMV operation under the supervision of a licensed commercial driver. The applicant can then use the CLP to take the driving test and obtain a full CDL.

CDL age requirements. Drivers generally must be at least 18 years old to hold a CDL and at least 21 years old to operate a commercial vehicle out-of-state.

CDL medical cards. CDL holders are required to see a doctor and obtain a medical certification card prior to operation. The certification ensures the driver is healthy enough to safely operate a CMV. Drivers with certain medical conditions may be subject to certain restrictions.

CDL Revocation and Disqualification

A driver's failure to abide by traffic laws or any of the CMV-specific rules can result in fines and license revocation. While the federal government has its own list of offenses—called "serious" and "major" violations—that can lead to CDL penalties, many states have expanded lists and increased penalties for CDL violations. Most violations if committed in a personal vehicle won't affect CDL privileges. However, there are a few exceptions such as driving under the influence (DUI).

What It Means When a Commercial Driver's License Is Revoked

In many instances, a driver whose license has been revoked can obtain a hardship license to drive to and from places like work and school. But commercial drivers aren't eligible for hardship licenses. So, for commercial drivers, the loss of driving privileges means the loss of their livelihood.

Serious Traffic Violations

The commission of multiple "serious traffic violations" within three years will result in license revocation. Federal rules define serious traffic violations to include speeding 15 miles per hour or more over the limit, driving without a CDL in possession, reckless driving, erratic lane changes, following too closely, and any CMV violation involving a fatality.

Many states also add their own serious traffic violations, which often include texting or using a cellphone while driving a CMV and possessing alcohol in a commercial vehicle.

Having two serious traffic violations within three years results in a minimum 60-day revocation and having three or more serious violations in three years results in a minimum 120-day revocation.

Major Traffic Violations

More serious crimes and offenses deemed "major traffic violations" result in CDL revocation for even a first offense. Per federal rules, major violations include chemical test refusal, driving a CMV while under the influence, leaving the scene of a collision, using a CMV in the commission of a felony, driving while revoked, and negligently causing a CMV-related fatality.

A first major violation will result in a one-year CDL revocation. The revocation will be at least three years if the major offense occurred in a hazmat CMV. A driver will be revoked for life upon conviction of a second major offense but many states allow reinstatement after ten years.

Out-of-Service Orders

An out-of-service order (OSO) is a temporary order prohibiting CMV operation. It is often issued by a police officer to prevent operation when the CMV or driver is unsafe for operation. Driving during an OSO will result in a license revocation of 180 days to three years depending on how many prior OSO violations the driver has within the last ten years.

Railroad Crossings Violations

CMVs also have special rules for crossing railroad tracks. Failure to leave enough clearance, to properly stop, or abide by railroad signals can result in a 60-day to one-year license revocation depending on the number of prior railroad violations the driver has within the past three-year period.

Human Trafficking and Transporting Drugs

Using a CMV to traffic humans or to transport controlled substances will result in a permanent lifetime disqualification.

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