A CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) is a specialized driver’s license, required to lawfully operate certain vehicles in commerce.

History of the CDL

Before 1992, requirements to lawfully operate CMVs (Commercial Motor Vehicles) or LCVs (Longer Combination Vehicles) varied from state to state. Some states established strict requirements, including road tests and additional training to operate vehicles transporting hazardous materials. Other states required only a basic driver’s license and a passing score on a written exam.

In 1992, the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986 became law. This federal law requires all drivers to have a valid CDL to operate a CMV. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) established guidelines and testing standards to which individual states must adhere. Further, only approved state agencies or testing facilities may issue a CDL, and the applicant must pass both written and practical exams.

CDL & Vehicle Classes

The FHWA defines CMVs, and associated CDL requirements, using the following classes.

  • Class A. Any single vehicle, or combination of vehicles, with a gross combination weight rating or gross combination weight exceeding 26,000 pounds, whichever is greater, including towed unit(s) with a gross vehicle weight rating or gross vehicle weight exceeding 10,000 pounds.
  • Class B. Any single vehicle, or combination of vehicles, with a gross vehicle weight rating or gross vehicle weight exceeding 26,000 pounds, or any such vehicle towing a vehicle with gross vehicle weight or gross vehicle weight rating under 10,001 pounds.
  • Class C. Any single vehicle, or combination of vehicles, not defined by Class A or Class B, but designed to transport sixteen (16) or more passengers, inclusive of the driver, or transporting material designated as hazardous under 49 U.S.C. 5103 and required to be placarded under subpart F of 49 CFR Part 172 or transporting any quantity of material defined as a select agent or toxin in 42 CFR Part 73.

Endorsements – Specialized Vehicles

The federal government requires certain additional endorsements to legally operate certain other vehicles. In addition, individual state governments may require specialized endorsements. Moreover, such endorsements necessitate additional testing and require a valid existing CDL. Some endorsements include:

  • T – Semi Trailer (Double or Triple) (Written exam)
  • P – Passenger Vehicle (Written and driving exams)
  • S – School Bus (Written and driving exams, existing P endorsement, sex offender registry check, background check)
  • N – Tank Truck (Written exam)
  • H – Hazardous Materials (Written exam, background test administered by the Transportation Security Administration)
  • X – Combination of Tank Vehicle and Hazardous Materials (Written exam)
  • W – Tow Truck (Written exam, required by the NY DMV to legally operate tow trucks in the state of New York)

Beyond federal mandates, individual states may require a CDL for a driver to lawfully operate other vehicles. For example, New Jersey requires a CDL to operate a bus, limousine, or van used for hire and capable of transporting between eight (8) and fifteen (15) passengers.

For more information about obtaining a CDL in the state of Pennsylvania, please see the PennDOT Commercial Driver’s Manual.