Master Your CDL with These 10 Steps: A Decisive Guide to Your CDL
New Drivers & New Businesses
Getting your Commercial Driver's License (CDL) can open doors to a world of opportunities in the transportation industry. Here, we'll outline the ten crucial steps to obtaining your Class A CDL, so you can hit the road with confidence and start your trucking career.
1. Assess Your Eligibility
First, you need to ensure you meet the prerequisites for pursuing a CDL. Typically, individuals aged 18 to 21 can acquire a CDL, but there are some age-related restrictions on interstate driving. To operate a commercial vehicle across state lines, you must be at least 21 years old. The new Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program will soon allow people at least 18 years old, and who have a state-issued commercial driver's license with a clean record, to take drive interstate trucks with supervision.
You'll need to obtain a physical examination and a DOT medical card from an FMCSA-approved examiner. Make sure you have essential documents like your birth certificate, driver's license, Social Security card, utility bills, and a copy of your Motor Vehicle Record (MVR) to prove your identity, residency, and driving history.
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2. Address Any Disqualifying Factors
Certain factors can hinder your CDL process, such as specific prescription medications, medical conditions like sleep apnea or high blood pressure, physical disabilities, or a history of serious criminal offenses, such as drunk or reckless driving, arson, kidnapping, or extortion. Aa physician's waiver may allow individuals with certain medical conditions or physical disabilities to operate commercial vehicles safely. Felony convictions might not necessarily disqualify you, but they could limit your job opportunities in the industry.
3. Enroll in a Reputable Truck Driving School
Quality CDL truck driving schools come in various forms, from private training academies to community college programs. The key is to choose a reputable school that aligns with your needs and budget. Private schools and community colleges offer comprehensive courses with dedicated instructors and excellent training programs. Do your research to find a school that offers a credible and quality course.
4. Obtain the CDL Manual for Your State
While CDL manuals are relatively standardized, they can vary slightly from state to state. It's crucial to obtain the manual from the state where you intend to undergo training and testing. You can usually obtain a hard copy of the manual from your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or download a PDF version from their website. Consider printing a copy for easier study. If you're attending an out-of-state school, they can likely provide you with the relevant manual.
5. Complete a CDL Learner’s Permit Application
Before you can begin training, you'll need to apply for a CDL learner's permit. You can complete this application online, in person at the DMV, or at the truck driving school you plan to attend.
6. Pass the CDL General Knowledge Test
Once you've obtained your learner's permit, you'll need to pass a general knowledge test. If you've dedicated time to studying the CDL manual, this test should be manageable.
7. Learn, Practice, and Study
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) mandates that during training, students must practice driving under the guidance of a qualified CDL holder who sits in the passenger seat. Instructors at private and company-sponsored driver training programs guide students through a comprehensive curriculum, which includes in-classroom learning and on-road practice. Classroom sessions typically last around 300 hours, in addition to practical driving and maneuvering exercises conducted on public roads.
8. Take the Final CDL Tests
To earn your CDL, you'll need to pass several final tests, including:
Vehicle Inspection (Pre-trip Inspection) Test
This involves checking the engine compartment, tires, suspension, braking system, and coupling devices on combination units.
Basic Controls Test
This assesses your ability to perform essential maneuvers like straight-line and offset backing, parallel parking, and alley docking.
During this evaluation, an instructor assesses your overall control of the vehicle, awareness, proper use of mirrors and turn signals, and ability to brake and accelerate safely.
Depending on your career goals, you may also pursue additional endorsements such as HazMat or a Twic Card to enhance your job opportunities. If you might work in ports while hauling, then you need to get a TWIC card.
Remember that most states require you to hold your learner's permit for at least two weeks before taking the final tests. If you're attending a school, they'll help you schedule these exams and ensure you have access to the right type of vehicle for your class of license.
9. Get Your CDL (And Don't Be Discouraged by Initial Setbacks)
Once you've aced your final CDL tests, you'll receive a physical copy of your CDL. However, if you face challenges, such as test anxiety or inadequate preparation, don't get discouraged. You'll have the opportunity to retake the tests after a brief waiting period. Be sure to inquire about your school's retesting policy, including any associated fees or waiting times between attempts.
10. Find a Truck Driving Job
Now that you've earned your CDL, it's time to kickstart your trucking career. If you're in a paid CDL training program, your job placement is often guaranteed upon completion. Some private truck driving schools also have placement programs with select trucking companies. However, if you're pursuing your CDL independently, you'll need to start your job search. Many trucking companies offer training programs for new CDL holders, where you can further develop your skills.
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