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A commercial driver's license (CDL) is quite different from the normal license for driving passenger cars and trucks. Because commercial vehicles are larger, harder to operate, and more dangerous―and because the commercial trucking industry is highly regulated―you have to have more training, undergo more testing, and jump through more hoops to get a CDL in Texas (or any other state).
In fact, many of the rules and regulations you'll come across as a commercial driver are mandated at the federal level. To read about the federal laws that apply to CDL holders across the entire country, see "Federal Guidelines," below. This section also explains the various license classes and endorsements.
As long as you've got a pretty clean record, get the right training, and supply all the required paperwork, a career as a professional driver could be in your future. To obtain a CDL from the Texas Department of Public Safety's Driver License Division, applicants must go to a driver license office and do the following:
- Present proof of identity.
- Provide two proofs of Texas residency. One of the documents must prove that you've lived in Texas for a minimum of 30 days.
- Provide proof of your Social Security number.
- If you own your own commercial vehicle, provide proof of registration and liability insurance.
- Fill out all necessary application forms (extra forms may be needed for each endorsement).
- Pay the required fees. A five-year CDL starts at $61, with additional endorsements and related testing costing $10 per test.
- Pass a vision exam.
- Pass the written tests, including any special testing for endorsements.
- After you've received training, pass the skills test (driving test) in a vehicle of the same class as the license you're applying for. You must provide this vehicle.
- Be photographed and fingerprinted.
The questions for the written exam come from the Commercial Motor Vehicle Drivers Handbook. You'll want to thoroughly study the handbook before attempting to take the written test.
After you've passed the written test, you have the option of getting a learner's license for $16, $20, or $24, depending on the class of license you seek. With a learner's license, you may practice driving a commercial vehicle, as long as someone with a valid CDL for that class rides along with you. This will help you prepare for the skills (driving) test.
Please note that not all driver license offices offer skills testing. Confirm this with your local office.
As part of the application process, you must also certify that you are physically fit and don't suffer from any ailments that could interfere with driving. These include seizure disorders, diabetes treated with insulin, and a number of other conditions. For the full list, please refer to the Prologue in the Commercial Motor Vehicle Drivers Handbook. Also see "Requirements for Medical Certification," below.
You must self-certify your type of vehicle operation with the Texas DPS by January 2014. This means you must self-certify one of the following driving categories:
- Non-Excepted Interstate
- Excepted Interstate
- Non-Excepted Intrastate
- Excepted Intrastate
If you choose Non-Excepted Interstate, you must, in addition to a completed self-certification application, provide the DPS with a federal medical certificate.
Questions? The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's website provides detailed information.
Of the several endorsements you can get for your CDL to allow you to drive certain specialized vehicles (see "Endorsements," below), the hazardous materials endorsement is the most demanding in terms of testing and other requirements. This is due to the increased danger of transporting these materials and the potential for terrorism. You aren't required to get a hazmat endorsement in order to obtain a Texas CDL, but you'll need it for certain types of work.
Interstate vs. Intrastate
Texas makes a distinction between interstate (national) CDLs and intrastate (Texas-only) CDLs. You may get a CDL when you turn 18 years old, but you won't be allowed to drive commercially across state lines until you're 21 years old.
Also, some drivers who can't qualify for the interstate CDL may still be able to qualify for the intrastate license. For example, while you are required to be able to speak English to drive a commercial vehicle cross-country, it's not required in order to do so within Texas. Consult the Prologue of the Commercial Motor Vehicle Drivers Handbook for a full explanation of who qualifies for an interstate CDL.
Driver's License Prerequisite
If you don't have a regular Texas drivers license when you apply for a CDL, you must first satisfy the requirements for the standard driver's license before applying for the CDL.
You can find additional detailed information on obtaining a Texas CDL in the Commercial Motor Vehicle Drivers Handbook.
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.
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 years old. Many states allow those as young as 18 years old 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)
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.
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.
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.
Applying for a Hazardous Materials Background Check
After you get a CDL, apply for a background check from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) if you'll be obtaining a hazardous materials endorsement. You may do this online or by contacting a TSA agent. They will ask for:
- Your CDL or CDL permit number.
- Proof of legal status.
- Proof of Identity.
Next, the TSA will ask you to go to a fingerprint office to give your fingerprints. The TSA and the FBI will conduct background investigations. You will pay:
- $38 for fingerprints.
- $34 for the TSA background check.
- $17.25 for the FBI background check.
The TSA attempts to finish background checks within 30 days. You will be notified by mail. If you are approved, you can then go to your state's licensing authority (wherever you got your CDL) to complete your hazmat application process. If you are denied, you can appeal or seek a waiver.
- Hazmat endorsements must be renewed at least every five years.
- Your state might require renewal more often.
- Get a new 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 canceled.
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
Remember that your state also has its own guidelines that may be stricter than the federal ones. For more information, consult your employer, the DMV, or the Federal Motor Carrier Association.Articles
- Getting Behind the Wheel of a Big Rig: How to Land a Trucking Job
- Want to Do Even More with Your CDL? CDL Classes and Endorsements
- CDL Holders: Completing the Medical Exam Report Requirement
- How to Apply for a Hazardous Materials Endorsement
- Commercial Driver’s License Requirements: Do You Have What It Takes?
- How to Prepare for the CDL Test