CDL Blog Part 3: Passed the Tests!


If you purchased a 2011 one-ton dually pickup truck from GM, Ford or Ram to tow heavy equipment, you might be driving that rig illegally if the gross combined weight rating of the truck and trailer exceeds 26,000 pounds. But not us. We just received our California Class A commercial driver’s license.

In the past two years, all three heavy-duty truck manufacturers have increased the power and capabilities of their one-ton dual-rear-wheel pickups to levels so high that they now require a CDL to tap the full potential of these trucks.

A CDL is required for a combination vehicle (truck and trailer) with a GCWR of 26,001 or more pounds or if the trailer (or trailers) has a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,001 or more pounds, according to California state law, which is similar to other driving laws across the country.

The law doesn’t apply to drivers who tow a fifth-wheel travel trailer over 15,000 pounds GVWR or a trailer coach over 10,000 pounds GVWR, when the towing is not for compensation. But even at these weights, California drivers must have a noncommercial Class A license that requires passing special tests. Otherwise, you risk getting a big ticket if you’re caught violating those thresholds.

Think about that for a moment.

Besides a motorcycle, what other conventional vehicle for sale at the local car dealer requires you to acquire a special license and pass special tests to fully use it? Nothing else. Not even when you buy a high-performance sports car, like a Nissan GT-R that can do zero to 60 mph in 3.2 seconds and tops out at almost 200 mph.

A few weeks back we wrote about signing up for a CDL driving school and talked about . On Thursday, we passed all our tests at the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

Thursday’s tests included an air brake inspection, pre-trip inspection, skills test and on-road test.

Air brakes use compressed air instead of the conventional hydraulic and electric brakes you’ll find on HD pickup trucks and the trailers they pull. Because we trained on Freightliner FL70 Class 6 trucks with air brakes, we took advantage of the opportunity to receive an air brake endorsement. This means we can drive most over-the-road trucks that use air brakes.

In some ways, the air brake inspection was the hardest exam because it requires memorizing and applying five different tests to make sure the brake system is working properly. The tests included knowing when the air compressor should turn off (120 to 130 pounds per square inch) and on (90 to 100 psi, no less than 85 psi); how to check for leaks in the air brake system; making sure the low air pressure warning alarm is operating properly; and testing the truck’s and trailer’s parking brakes and truck service brake (foot pedal) using a so-called “tug test.” Miss any of these steps, and you fail the test.

The pre-trip test was a comprehensive visual inspection of almost every major hardware component on the truck and trailer. We checked the interior (doors, seat belt, lights, etc.), engine compartment (alternator, pumps, steering, etc.), suspension, brakes, wheels, fifth-wheel and trailer to make sure there were no cracked or broken parts and nothing was loose or leaking. In all, the checklist covered more than 80 different items.

The skills tests rated our performance for three different parking exercises: parallel parking, alley dock and straight back. Parallel parking sounds like it would be the most difficult test, but once we learned where to properly line up the rear passenger-side trailer wheel with a cone marking the corner of the parking box, the rest was easy. The trailer went into the space the same way each time. The alley dock was a reverse J-turn that required backing the truck 90 degrees into a coned-off box. Backing up slowly was key, along with making very small left and right movements with the steering wheel to control the trailer’s alignment with the cones. Once the trailer was parallel and positioned between the cones, the rest was easy. Straight-back parking required keeping the truck straight while backing up 100 feet.

The final test was the on-road test. With an instructor in the passenger seat, we crisscrossed East Los Angeles’ industrial areas, neighborhoods and freeways. When you’re driving an over-the-road truck, it takes your full attention to constantly scan ahead and behind you to stay safe in traffic while trying to anticipate future events, such as stoplight changes and squirrely cars. The DMV agent quizzed us on laws and best practices while driving while providing instant feedback when we made a mistake. We were also asked the exact height of an overpass after we’d driven under it – luckily we’d paid attention to that, thanks to listening to earlier reader comments.

When we finally pulled back into the DMV parking lot at the end of the road test, the sense of accomplishment was awesome. Compared to a standard Class C license to drive a car, a Class A license was like going for an MBA after getting a GED. Perhaps our greatest lesson is that we gained more respect than ever for the hard-working commercial truck drivers that cross our country every day.

We’ll be putting our new CDL to use on Monday, when we start the toughest heavy-duty truck test we’ve ever done. We’ll be comparing GMC, Ford and Ram one-ton duallys towing 18,000 pounds from Colorado to Arizona. The trucks will tackle temperatures over 100 degrees F and grades as steep as 7 percent. It’s the Heavy-Duty Hurt Locker.

Got questions about how we did our CDL? Ask away below.


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