How to Start Driving a Commercial Truck (And Get Your CDL)

If you’re looking for a commercial truck license to drive in the USA, your first step is to train for it. This is neither a marathon nor a sprint. So, sit down. School is in session.

Commercial driver’s license (CDL) training is a course like every other training program. It starts with classroom lessons because you need superior knowledge to handle these mega vehicles. That is followed by a series of tests—written and practical—where your knowledge and skills with the trucks will be put to test. Once you graduate, you’re good to go. But it’s not as simple as you see here. Let’s go over the procedure in detail (in Friends style).

The One with the Department of Transportation

This license is issued by the Department of Transportation. You need to be at least 18 years old to get a CDL to drive within a state, and 21 years old to cross state lines. You will also need to do a vision test, a physical exam, a drug test and give two written tests. But specific rules and regulations vary from state to state.

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Now, there are two types of training programs offered by schools. Sometimes, you also need endorsements along with it if you want to handle a special type of vehicle like a truck with double or triple trailers, carrying hazardous materials, with a tank or a passenger vehicle.

But let’s start with the basics.

The One with Different Training Programs

There are three ways to get a license of this kind. You can go through a community college or a private truck driving school or a school operated by a trucking company.

It’s like picking out a major. You must look at their program and pick one that best suits your needs. The difference is that the length of these programs changes from part-time to full-time hours and ranges from a few weeks to almost six months.

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These programs are typically licensed, certified or accredited. Some schools are licensed, which means a state agency has reviewed the school to check for minimum requirements like facilities, curriculum, instructors, etc.

Some are certified, meaning a third party has inspected the school for industry standards. Schools that are accredited got their approval from an agency authorized by the US Department of Education. This is something companies look at when hiring graduates. Now let’s look at the programs in detail.

The One with Class A Training Program

This is designed for newbies who are looking for entry-level jobs in the industry. It is suitable for all those who have no experience with over-the-road or OTR tractor trailers. But, most schools have this course. If you pass the tests, you will be able to drive a tractor trailer that is over 26,000 pounds.

Take this course by the US Truck Driving School, for instance.

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Here’s what you need to qualify as a student.

  • You must be older than 18 years.
  • You must have a valid driver’s license.
  • You must have a valid commercial learner’s permit.
  • You must have cleared physical evaluation by the Department of Transportation.
  • You must be eligible to work legally in the United States.
  • You must be able to read, write and speak in English according to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR) 391.11 (b)(2).

Not all schools ask for these exact qualifications. So, if you don’t meet the requirement you must try another place. But if you do qualify, you’ve crossed the first hurdle.

This is three to six weeks long which sums up to 160 hours of learning. This includes:

  • 50 hours of classroom learning
  • 15 hours of lab work (and learning about what to do with a parked vehicle)
  • 24 hours of basic vehicle handling
  • 71 hours of driving on public roadways with a qualified driving instructor

You can go for these classes during the day or night. And these are the topics they will cover in these 160 hours.

  • Maneuvering the vehicle
  • Safe driving practices
  • On the road driving with in-cab instruction
  • State traffic laws
  • Accident reporting
  • Logbook instruction
  • Pre-trip inspection

The One with Class B Training Program

If the vehicle you want to drive is 26,001 pounds or above, you’re going to need a Class B CDL and is designed for those who have no experience with class B commercial vehicles. Let’s take a look at what these courses look like. For the sake of consistency, we will consider the training program by the US Truck Driver Training School.

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The length of the program depends on how you customize it. This one can only be done during the day and here’s what you need to qualify as their student.

  • You must be at least 18 years old to enroll.
  • You must have a valid driver’s license.
  • You must have a valid commercial learner’s permit.
  • You must have passed the physical exam by the Department of Transportation.
  • You must have a Class B Permit.
  • You must be eligible to work legally in the United States.
  • You must be able to read, write and speak in English according to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR) 391.11 (b)(2).
  • You must have passed a drug test.

There will be a skill evaluation before enrollment. It’s like the SATs for truck driving school. And even in this course, you will have classroom lessons, instructions about parked vehicles, basic vehicle handling and driving on public roadways with a qualified driving instructor.

In some schools, like this one, you also get help getting a job once you pass the test. It is common for schools to partner with local and national truck companies that are regularly looking for graduates.

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The One with Refresher Courses

Now, if you’re not a kid looking to elbow your way into the industry but a veteran who needs to brush up their skills, some schools have courses for you too. This could be because you did a basic course as a beginner and are looking to step up. It could also be useful if you have decided to take an advanced course and need to take another look at the basics. It could also be that you were out of the business for a while and have returned home. Either way, here’s what you’ll get.

You can customize the program to learn only what you need. Apart from classroom learning, you can also get a refresher on your road skills as a part of this course. This means the length of the program and the price will also vary. You can do 40-hour courses to the whole shebang of 160 hours.

You will, however, need to have a Class A or Class B license or an instruction permit to qualify as a student. Some schools also ask for skill evaluation before enrollment. And, of course, you must be above 18 years of age.

The One with the Final Test

There are three parts to this day. To get a commercial driving license, you need to pass a pre-trip test, a basic skills test and, of course, a road test. On the day of the test, you need to bring your valid driver’s license, your CDL permit and your Department of Transportation card.

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Part one is vehicle inspection. You will also need to bring your own vehicle which will be inspected before the test. Basically, you will need to demonstrate that you know what’s happening with your vehicle.

You will have to check the oil level when the engine is off and show that it is within the safe operating range. You need to also show where the dipstick is located. You also need to display knowledge about coolant levels, the power steering fluid and the engine compartment belts.

If you bring an automatic transmission vehicle, your CDL will have an ‘E’ on it and you can only drive such vehicles. If you don’t want such restrictions, you’re going to have to do this on a manual transmission vehicle.

Part two is to test your basic control skills. You could be asked to do one or more of the following exercises off the road somewhere on a street during the road test:

  • Forward stop or straight-line backing
  • Offset back or right
  • Offset back or left
  • Driver side parallel park
  • Conventional parallel park
  • Alley dock

Part three is the road test itself. You will be given a test route with different types of traffic situations (which makes sense because that’s the real world out there). You just need to show the instructor that you are safe and responsible. Start by wearing your safety belt and obeying all traffic signs and laws at all times. If you have more doubts, refer to the CDL Driver’s Manual.

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In Conclusion

If there is no accident or violation, things will be looking up. The instructor will also assign scores based on general driving finesse and specific driving maneuvers. Just follow their directions. There are no trick questions here and you won’t be asked to do stunts. So, be calm.

If you prep well and follow rules, getting the CDL is not the toughest thing in the world. All you need is calm, clarity and conviction.

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