What is a Class A Driver’s License

In the United States, vehicles are classified according to their total weight. To follow that, driver’s licensing also follows those same classifications to denote skill level. In commercial vehicle licensing, for example, there are generally three classes: A, B, and C. This varies in some states, of course, but most follow these general guidelines.

The Class A license is the heaviest of the licensing options for public road use. This license covers vehicles that weigh 26,000 pounds or more that are towing another vehicle (usually a trailer) that weighs 10,000 pounds or more. These licenses usually have a requirement for air brakes, towing maximums, and other things. Many of these requirements are set by federal Department of Transportation (DOT) standards according to federal highway and freeway rules.

For reference, the Class B and C licenses are usually rated at lower total vehicle weights and may or may not include trailering and air brakes requirements.

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Basic CDL-A Requirements In Most States

In most states, a CDL Class A (or CDL-A) is required to operate any vehicle weighing more than 26,000 pounds without cargo (called the gross vehicle weight, or GVW) on any public road. Heavy trucks, tractor-trailers, big rigs, etc. usually fall into this category. Most are large vehicles towing trailers loaded with cargo, though not all of them refer to themselves as “Rubber Duck” on the CB radio.

Some states will narrow or broaden the definition of a Class-A vehicle. California, for example, calls any vehicle towing a trailer weighing more than 10,000 pounds (empty or tare weight) as being a Class-A vehicle for commercial licensing purposes. Most states, however, have exemptions to commercial licensing rules for private vehicles and farm implements.

Most states follow federal guidelines for commercial driver’s license (CDL) testing for Class-A vehicles. This is because it’s expected that most CDL-A drivers will eventually driver interstate (over state lines) and thus be subject to federal rules. These same rules apply to any federally-operated highway, which includes all US highways and freeways/interstates. The reason for this is simple: Bridge Law.

The Bridge Law is a blanket term that covers the various laws and regulations surrounding federal highway construction and usage. These include how much weight a bridge is expected to be able to bear and how high that bridge must be for vehicles to pass underneath it. Hence the name “Bridge Law.” In a nutshell, Bridge Law requires that a bridge be able to handle up to 80,000 pounds of total vehicle weight and be high enough that a 13-foot vehicle can pass underneath unscathed. It’s for this reason that the maximum weight for a Class-A vehicle is 80,000 pounds of vehicle and cargo and its maximum height is 13 feet. There are a myriad of other specifications contained in the Bridge Law, of course, but those two things are the meat of it. As with all laws, exemptions can be made. Usually with added permits and fees.

Tests Required To Gain a CDL Learner’s (CLP) License

Most states in the U.S. follow the same general guidelines for Class-A licensing. It starts with the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986, which created the USDOT laws that govern interstate usage of commercial vehicles. From there, individual states have fine tuned those laws for themselves. So each state varies in the details, but all follow the general guidelines of the federal government.

In all states, there are specific requirements that must be met before someone can apply for any CDL licensing, including student permits. The person must be:

  • At least 18 years of age, though for interstate travel, the minimum age is 21
  • A legal resident of the state for which the CDL is being applied in
    • Or a legal work visa holder
  • Have a complete medical examination from a qualified physician for CDL requirements
  • Be capable of passing a driver’s vision test

Most commercial driving students aiming for a CDL-A begin by passing written tests that assess their general knowledge of heavy vehicle safety on the road. These usually include:

  • Air brakes operation
  • Safety rules of the road as pertains to heavy vehicles
  • Combination vehicles knowledge

The tests also often cover general knowledge of the various requirements of a CDL driver beyond the learning phase, which may include the difference between various types of trailers and the permits required for them and basic hazardous materials rules. The cost for the test varies by state.

Passing the Commercial Learner’s Permit (CLP) test results in a temporary learner’s permit being issued to the driver. This CLP allows the student driver to operate a Class-A vehicle with a licensed driver on board. The licensed driver is assumed to be an instructor (and some states require instructor registration). Most CLP licenses are good for 180 days from the date of issuance and can usually be extended or renewed after that if needed.

Once a CLP has been issued, the student driver may operate commercial vehicles, with a licensed driver accompanying, for learning and practice purposes. A CLP is not a federally-recognized license and thus is limited to the state in which it was issued.

Note that starting in 2022, CDL applicants for licenses will be subject to new federal regulations for driver training. These new regulations, called the Entry-Level Driver Training (ELDT) rules, will govern CDL training in all 50 states of the U.S.

What Are The Written Tests to Take for a Full CDL-A?

From the CLP or learner’s permit, the driver can train to pass the commercial vehicle driver’s test to gain a full commercial driver’s license. For the CDL Class-A (CDL-A), this means being able to maneuver and park a tractor-trailer combination equipped with air brakes. Written tests are the first requirement and are very similar to those given for the CLP (see above), but these tests are usually more comprehensive.

The written tests for a full CDL-A usually include:

  • Air brakes operation
  • Combination vehicles knowledge
  • Road rules and requirements for commercial vehicles
  • A basic understanding of hazardous materials (HAZMAT) rules
  • Federal highway rules and regulations (“Bridge Law”)

Added written tests can include endorsements to add vehicle capability to the driver’s licensing. These may include:

  • Double and Triple trailers
  • Tanker trailers
  • Hazardous Materials (HAZMAT)

Keep in mind that a few states have more or fewer requirements, depending on state law. Most states allow those who hold a Class-A CDL to drive Class-B and C vehicles without restriction, but do not allow Class-B or C drivers to operate Class-A vehicles. Most states designate busses and similar passenger vehicles separately from other heavy vehicles and require different licensing to operate them.

What Are The On-Road Test Requirements for a CDL-A?

The road test (or simulated road test) requirements for a Class-A commercial driver’s license vary by state, but usually follow the below guidelines. Road tests can take place on public roads or in large lots specifically laid out for the purpose of commercial vehicle license testing. Various testing requirements may include “automatic failure” points. These auto-fail points are usually safety-related and can immediately disqualify a driver’s test no matter how well the driver does on other aspects of the test. Most states allow learner’s permit holders (CPL) to retake the CDL test multiple times, but how often those retakes may occur differs from state to state.

Basic road test requirements include:

  • Vehicle inspection test
  • Basic controls test (often an auto-fail point)
  • Turning corners on truck-approved roadways
  • Successful HAZMAT stops at railroad crossings (often an auto-fail point)
  • Backing, docking, and parallel parking

These tests can be separated into portions and taken separately. For example, the inspection test and basic controls test could be separate from the on-road portions and the backing/parking tests could be separate as well. Most truck driver training facilities will give the driver’s test in three parts, with the inspection and backing/docking being done on-site and the road test happening on public roads near the facility.

Once a student driver passes all of the testing requirements (paper and hands-on), the student is qualified to receive a full CDL and drive a basic commercial vehicle without restriction.

What Usually Follows a Successful CDL Test?

Once a driver receives his or her license, that driver is capable of operating any commercial vehicle the license covers. Most employers, however, will have further requirements of the new driver in order to assuage insurance and other concerns.

Many commercial over-the-road trucking companies, for example, require a minimum age of 23 or 25 years old to drive interstate (between states) for insurance and liability purposes. Most also require in-house training on top of the training already received to achieve CDL licensing. A typical added training regimen will include 30 days over the road with a well-established company driver as a trainer or several weeks driving local deliveries for the company to establish safety awareness.

Further, the medical examination required for CDL drivers continues so long as the license is active. Most states require the driver to submit medical examination certification annually. Some give exemptions and allow the test to be conducted every three years if the driver is in excellent health. In all cases, a CDL may be revoked if the proper medical license has not been submitted.

It’s also important to know that those who hold a CDL are under different rules, even when driving a regular passenger vehicle or pickup truck, than are other drivers. In most cases, alcohol limits and other restrictions are by federal rather than state standards. In a state with a DUI blood alcohol limit of .08, for example, a driver with a .04 (federal limit) holding a CDL could still be cited for drunk driving. Which would likely result in suspension or loss of licensing.

Read more on the topic of licenses, Drivers Ed and Traffic School here.

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How long does it usually take to get a Class A Driver’s License?

This will depend on the training regimen required by your state, but most drivers can receive a learner’s permit within their first week of training and have a full CDL-A within a month. Some accelerated trucking schools will push for 3 weeks to completion while some may go longer. As with most training, the more the better, so opting for a longer school is usually a better option.

What is the expected pay rate for a new CDL-A driver?

There are a lot of factors that work into pay scales for a commercial driver. The type of cargo to be hauled, the area in which the vehicle is being operated, what type of driving is involved, and more are all factors. Most jobs involving local or close regional (daily) driving will pay by the hour at a fixed rate. This rate can vary from $10 or more per hour and will usually be a “day driving” job that operates like most hourly work. A new over-the-road driver operating regionally or nationally can expect to be paid by the mile. Mileage may vary according to what is being hauled and how the mileage is calculated. Pay usually begins around $0.24 per mile as a base rate.

As with most careers, pay will depend not only on experience, but also on skillset. A driver capable of hauling hazardous materials, extra trailers, etc. can expect to be paid more. A driver with a clean driving record and who manages to keep it that way will also be first in line for promotions or raises.

Can someone with a criminal record still be a truck driver?

Most of the time, a criminal record will not affect a person’s ability to get a commercial driver’s license. Some exemptions, such as recent violent crimes history, may prohibit the issuance of a CDL, but most with a criminal history are not barred from commercial driving. Some companies, however, will have hiring practices that prohibit the hiring of those with criminal records or records of certain types of criminal activity. Theft, drug use, recent DUI/DWI, and the like are the most common reasons for not hiring CDL holders. Sometimes these roadblocks can be overcome with exemptions from the company’s hiring team, but these restrictions are more often placed by insurance carriers than they are by the trucking company itself. Some felony crimes will also prohibit certain driving endorsements, especially Hazardous Materials (HAZMAT), which requires a full federal background check.

I passed the medical exam for a CDL, but only just made it. Will I have restrictions?

In most cases, no, but some pre-diagnosed medical conditions such as high blood pressure or hypertension may mean the medical exam resulted in a red flag. This may mean a follow up is required with the driver’s regular physician or that some restrictions on vehicle operations may be temporarily imposed until the condition is properly diagnosed or the red flag is removed. In general, though, the CDL medical exam is a “pass/fail” without any gray area. Your test either allows you to drive or it suspends your ability to drive until further medical requirements are met.

How often do I have to renew my CDL-A and will I have to retake tests?

Most states issue commercial driver’s licenses a 3-year operator’s permits. Renewals are just like any other driver’s license, requiring only that the driver update information and submit proof of identity to renew. There are currently no states that require periodic or random re-testing to retain a valid CDL.

If I lose my CDL, can I get it back?

If your commercial driver’s license was lost due to criminal activity or revocation while active, then you are not likely going to be able to get your CDL back without a lengthy court process. Most states have a near-zero tolerance policy for drunk driving or similar offenses when it involves a commercial vehicle.

If the license was suspended for administrative non-compliance, such as failure to submit a medical examination form or failure to renew on time, it may be reinstated once the non-compliance is remedied. Most states allow a lot of leeway with this, but waiting months to renew a license could result in a requirement for recertification and testing. For most driver’s that is basically a return to trucking school.

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