CDLs: We Should All Be Ashamed — Part 1

The CDL controversy has reared its ugly head again and so we thought it is time to revisit the issue and put out the facts, as we know them to be. The facts for this column come from a variety of sources, including the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Act, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA).

Part one of this column will present information from the federal Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act. That document says, "It is widely recognized that driving certain Commercial Motor Vehicles (CMVs) requires special skills and knowledge. Prior to implementation of the Commercial Driver's License (CDL) Program, in a number of States and the District of Columbia, any person licensed to drive an automobile could also legally drive a tractor-trailer or a bus. Even in many of the states that did have a classified licensing system, a person was not skills tested in a representative vehicle. As a result, many drivers were operating motor vehicles that they may not have been qualified to drive."

It is apparent from that paragraph that some person or group was very concerned about drivers that were operating motor vehicles that they might not be qualified to drive. That is a concern that we should all have.

The Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act continues, "The Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986 was signed into law on October 27, 1986. The goal of the Act is to improve highway safety by ensuring that drivers of large trucks and buses are qualified to operate those vehicles and to remove unsafe and unqualified drivers from the highways. The Act retained the State's right to issue a driver's license, but established minimum national standards which States must meet when licensing CMV drivers…

"The Act corrects the situation that existed prior to 1986 by making it illegal to hold more than one license and by requiring States to adopt testing and licensing standards for truck and bus drivers to check a person's ability to operate the type of vehicle he/she plans to operate."

The Act recognizes that there are differences among the vehicles we drive. The Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986 was a direct result of many serious commercial vehicle accidents attributed to drivers holding multiple licenses issued by different states. In one case, a tractor-trailer driver held several licenses, with all but the last one being suspended or revoked. So this was the federal government taking action to rid the roads of bad commercial drivers. "It is important to note that the Act does not require drivers to obtain a separate Federal license; it merely requires States to upgrade their existing testing and licensing programs, if necessary, to conform to the Federal minimum standards. The CDL program places requirements on the CMV driver, the employing motor carrier and the States."

Drivers have been required to have a CDL in order to drive a CMV since April 1, 1992. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has developed and issued standards for testing and licensing CMV drivers. Among other things, the standards require States to issue CDLs to their CMV drivers only after the driver passes knowledge and skills tests administered by the state related to the type of vehicle to be operated. Drivers need CDLs if they are in intrastate, interstate or foreign commerce.

Classes of Licenses

The federal standard requires states to issue CDLs to drivers according to the following license classifications:

Class A — Any combination of vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) 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.

As you can see, many fire service vehicles would fit one or more of the classes listed.

As always, the comments represented here are those of the author and the author only. I hope to see many of you at Firehouse Expo. Until then, keep safe and give this column some serious consideration.

MICHAEL WILBUR, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a lieutenant in the New York City Fire Department, assigned to Ladder Company 27 in the Bronx, and has served on the FDNY Apparatus Purchasing Committee. He consults on a variety of apparatus-related issues around the country. For further information, access Wilbur's website at