Understanding the Commercial Driver’s License

Interested in becoming a truck driver? Getting your commercial driver’s license (CDL) is essential. Learn about the CDL permit tests, including the general knowledge, air brakes, and combination vehicles tests. This guide will provide comprehensive resources to help you prepare for and pass the CDL exam. With the assistance of this guide, you can navigate the complexities of obtaining your CDL and trucking authority, ensuring a smooth journey into the world of trucking.

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Want to become a truck driver? Obtaining your commercial driver’s license is a must. Here’s what you need to know.

Embarking on a truck driving career means accepting more than just a job. It invites adventure, independence, and opportunity into your life. Plus, you’ll play a vital role in helping businesses and entire communities flourish.

Sound like something you’re interested in? Read on to learn more about getting started in the world of truck driving. We’ll answer common questions, ranging from What are the three tests for a CDL permit? to How can I prepare for my CDL?, to give you a good idea of what to expect on your journey to becoming a successful trucker.

An introduction to CDL permit tests

Becoming a trucker isn’t just about driving. It’s also about being responsible and committed to safety at all times—and that means taking the commercial driver’s license (CDL) permit tests. But what is a commercial driver’s license, and how can you earn one?

In a nutshell, a commercial driver’s license is a state-issued license that allows its holders to drive trucks and other commercial vehicles. You’ll need to prove you have the knowledge and skills required to operate commercial trucks safely, which means taking tests.

In addition to a driving test, you’ll need to take the:

  • General knowledge test: The general knowledge CDL exam poses questions about safety and cargo transportation based on the official CDL manual. Expect to be asked everything from Why do you need to be in the proper gear before starting to drive down a hill? to What should you do when encountering an aggressive driver? You’ll encounter many questions, but you don’t need to get every single question right. Most states will ask 50 questions on the CDL license test and require test takers to answer 40 questions correctly to pass, including New York, California, and Hawaii.
  • Air brakes test: This part of the CDL license test process is a must if you want to drive a truck with air brakes. Instead of relying on hydraulic fluid, air brakes use compressed air and comprise a supply system, a control system, and foundation and parking brake systems, all of which must work together seamlessly. The air brakes CDL test generally includes 25 multiple-choice questions on everything from air loss to brake lag and requires a score of 80% or higher to pass.
  • Combination vehicles test: You’ll also need to pass the combination test to operate a combination vehicle, which includes a straight truck with a trailer, doubles, or triples as well as tractor-trailers. You’ll need to answer roughly 20 questions about driving, inspecting, coupling, and uncoupling different combination vehicles, though the exact number depends on your state.

In some cases, simply taking the CDL license test won’t be enough. If you plan on transporting hazardous materials like certain combustible liquids or explosives, you’ll also need to study for the hazardous materials test. To drive a tractor with two or more trailers, you’ll need to take and pass the Doubles/Triples Test by demonstrating you know how to check your air brakes and couple, uncouple, inspect, and pull your trailers.

CDL study resources

Now that you know what a commercial driver’s license is, it’s time to start studying! Your #1 CDL study resource should be your state’s CDL handbook. You can find the answers to most of the questions you’ll be asked in the CDL handbook, so getting to know the material inside and out is an excellent way to set yourself up for success come exam day.

Once you’ve looked over your state’s CDL handbook, you’re ready to take online practice tests. These can give you a better understanding of the format and content of the CDL permit test, allowing you to gauge your knowledge and identify areas you need to review.

You might also want to look into study guides. These valuable tools provide additional explanations, practice questions, and tips to help reinforce your understanding of the material and prepare you for the CDL test.

Many truck driving schools also offer comprehensive training programs that include study materials and practice exams to ensure you’re well-prepared for test day. Utilizing a combination of these resources can significantly increase your chances of passing the CDL permit tests on your first attempt.

CDL test format and content

The CDL test is fairly straightforward and consistent in format and content, though the exact test may vary by state. However, here’s a general overview of what you can expect:

  • The general knowledge exam: This section of the CDL license test is one of the first hurdles you’ll need to overcome, as applicants can’t take other written tests or practical exams until they’ve passed the general knowledge exam. Expect 50 questions about safe driving, cargo, and more. You’ll need to answer at least 40 questions correctly to pass.
  • The air brakes test: As previously mentioned, the air brakes test will likely comprise 25 multiple-choice questions. You’ll need to achieve a score of 80% or higher to pass.
  • The combination vehicles test: Expect to answer 20 questions about inspecting, driving, coupling, and uncoupling combination vehicles. You’ll need to answer at least 16 of these questions correctly to pass the exam.
  • A pre-inspection test: Drivers need to have a thorough knowledge of all the parts of their truck and how they work together in order to identify when something is wrong — and the pre-inspection test will assess your ability to recognize and address potential issues before hitting the road. You’ll likely be asked to examine fluid levels, check that all your lights are working properly, inspect tire condition and tread depth, identify any leaks, and verify that your brakes are in good working order.
  • A backing test: Backing up a semi-truck is very different from backing up a regular vehicle due to the size of the truck and the limited visibility. That’s why you’ll also need to demonstrate your ability to safely maneuver your truck while in reverse. After all, you’ll need to back up while parking, docking, and navigating tight spaces, so you must show mastery of this skill before earning your CDL.
  • A road skills test: You’ll also need to complete a road skills test, which will put you through your paces when it comes to navigating intersections, turns, curves, merges, city driving, and rural driving. Make sure to check your mirrors before changing lanes, flip on your turn signal, and avoid hitting curbs. Performing dangerous actions, speeding, exiting unsafely, driving over the curb, hitting another vehicle, failing to come to a complete stop at stop signs, traffic lights, and railroad crossings, incorrectly performing the cab check, and stalling your truck are all automatic failures.

Preparation strategies for the CDL exam

Studying for your CDL test is just like studying for any other exam, so don’t be intimidated. With consistent practice, good resources, and the right preparation strategies on your side, you can gain the knowledge and skills necessary to ace your test.

The first and most important step is to familiarize yourself with the CDL handbook. Read your state’s CDL handbook from cover to cover multiple times until you have a decent understanding of the rules, regulations, and requirements for commercial driving.

Next, you can take a practice test to see the format of the exam. Stimulate test conditions and set a timer to get an accurate understanding of which parts of the handbook have stuck with you the most and which areas you may need to revisit. Then, review any areas you struggled with on your practice test.

To gain a deeper understanding of the material, try taking notes, asking yourself questions while studying, or summarizing critical concepts in your own words. Try using mnemonic devices, including acronyms and rhymes, or creating flashcards and charts for improved retention.

If you know someone who is also studying for the CDL license test, why not buddy up? Having a study partner will not only keep you accountable, but it can also offer you the motivation and support you need as you prepare for the test. Plus, people with study partners have historically performed better on test day.

Whether you’re going it alone or partnering up, schedule study sessions regularly—and stick to them. Take regular breaks to rest, recharge, and keep your mind alert. Try studying in a series of 25-minute sessions, split up by 5-minute breaks.

Leveraging DAT Authority

Once you’ve earned your CDL, you’ll need to acquire your trucking authority if you plan on starting your own trucking company. However, the process of obtaining trucking authority can be a little daunting. Luckily, DAT is here to help!

DAT has over 45 years of experience, meaning we know all the ins and outs of applying for operating authority. We created DAT Authority to help drivers navigate the many regulations surrounding starting a trucking business. We’ll handle the paperwork and provide expert guidance throughout the process so you can start your trucking business off on the right foot. Instead of getting caught up in the intricacies of governmental paperwork and licenses, you’ll be able to start delivering loads and hiring your own drivers in no time.

With DAT Authority, obtaining your trucking authority becomes faster and easier than ever. We’ll help you obtain your MC number or DOT number, register for the International Fuel Tax Agreement (IFTA), and earn any necessary state-specific permits. Thanks to DAT Authority, you can enjoy a stress-free authority acquisition process.

Utilizing the DAT Load Board

Obtaining your CDL and operating authority is only the beginning. Once you’re all set up legally, you need to find loads. Not only are load boards an invaluable resource for securing consistent freight, but they’re also a great way to connect with shippers and brokers, which could lead to long-term business relationships. If you’re looking for a high-quality load board that’s easy to use, you can’t do better than the DAT load board!

Whether you’re just starting as a commercial driver or already have years of experience under your belt, the DAT load board will help streamline your load booking process, maximize your efficiency, and increase your earning potential. Despite the over 448.5 million loads and trucks posted each year, you can quickly find loads that match your needs thanks to the load board’s user-friendly interface and powerful filtering capabilities.

What’s more, the DAT load board offers real-time market insights, including average spot market rates, inbound and outbound load volume by state, and even historical data. Having access to this information will allow you to determine which loads are worth your time and strengthen your negotiating power. You can even learn about potential business partners by viewing company reviews and credit scores.

Launch your career

Passing your CDL permit test is a must, but it can be tricky. However, the right study resources and strategies combined with dedicated practice and preparation can significantly increase your chances of success. If you know your state’s CDL handbook inside and out, master your time management skills, and take several practice tests, you’ll have your CDL in no time!

However, taking the CDL license test is just the beginning. You’ll also need to earn your operating authority and find loads if you want to run your own business—and that’s where DAT can help. Our solutions were designed to simplify truckers’ lives so they can concentrate on driving, finding the best routes, and maximizing their earning potential.

Discover how DAT Authority and the DAT load board can help you get your business off the ground and take it to the next level!

Gain your operating independence with DAT Authority

Getting your operating authority involves lots of paperwork, which can quickly become overwhelming. But don’t worry! DAT is here to help.

With DAT Authority, you can offload the paperwork burden on us. We have decades of experience and can make sure you get your operating authority as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.

Authority: Basic

Starting at $ 549 *

*Includes all federal fees
*MC / DOT number
*BOC 3 process agents






Find the right solution for your business

Reach out by calling 800.551.8847

Reach out by calling 800.551.8847

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