The CDL is a skill that makes you a valuable employee.
By John Fowler, CSP, CMSP
I received my Class A Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) in 2002 and since then have driven thousands of miles doing work that in one way or another involves driving.
I’ve done everything from hauling liquid fertilizer to farms in Virginia to driving water well rigs through the Arizona desert to moving coiled tubing rigs in an Alaska oilfield.
Having a CDL was always a huge plus on my resume and made me a valuable employee wherever I went. In addition, I take a lot of pride in the fact that I can shift, drive, and back a large truck.
For the past 13 years, I have been a safety professional in the drilling industry where, among other things, I have been teaching new drivers the ins and outs of driving. Along the way I have picked up a few things that will help you if you are working towards a CDL or if you are just thinking about it.
Before February 2022, if someone wanted a CDL, it was up to each state to determine how much training was required before taking the driving test. In some states, once you had a learner’s permit, you could borrow a truck and practice driving in a field somewhere and then have someone with a CDL drive a truck to the local DMV so you could take the driving test.
However, beginning in February 2022, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) implemented new training requirements for “Entry Level” drivers that set the minimum training required before taking the CDL driving test.
These requirements are explained in the August 2021 issue of Water Well Journal.
These new training requirements ensure that you will have hands-on practice before you take the driving test.
Selecting Class of License and Which Endorsements
Before you start the process to get your CDL, you need to decide on which class of license and which endorsements to test for. The three license classes for commercial vehicles are: Class C, Class B, and Class A.
For this guest editorial, we will discuss Class B and Class A. The Class B license is required to operate a single vehicle with a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) more than 26,000 pounds. The Class A license is required to operate a combination vehicle: a vehicle with a GVWR more than 26,000 pounds towing a vehicle with a GVWR of more than 10,000 pounds. Look at what you expect to drive and decide which license class is best for you.
The next decision is a little more complicated and that is which endorsements to test for. You have the option of testing for air brakes, hazardous materials (HazMat), tanker, passenger vehicle, school bus, and double or triple trailers.
In my opinion, the most important endorsements for a Class B vehicle in our industry are air brakes and tanker. You can’t drive a water truck without a tanker endorsement, even if the tank is empty.
It is the same for a Class A license, but if you are getting a Class A license, also consider getting the double and triple trailer endorsement because it is simply a knowledge test and who knows—you may need it someday.
The one endorsement that you should think long and hard about is the hazardous materials (HazMat) endorsement. Some people think that all you need is a HazMat endorsement on your license, and you can start hauling hazardous materials. That is not always the case.
You can only haul hazardous materials if you have the HazMat endorsement and if you are driving for a company that is registered as a HazMat carrier. If your company is not registered to transport hazardous materials, then a HazMat endorsement not only won’t be useful but also comes with extra cost and extra burdens like fingerprinting and background checks.
Test Preparation Is Key
Now that you have decided on the license class and endorsements, it is time to study for the knowledge tests. Each state has an online commercial driver’s manual which is the best place to start when preparing for a knowledge test. If you search “CDL Prep” there are also many free apps which allow you to take practice tests with the exact same questions you will see on the real test at times.
Once the knowledge tests have been passed and you have your learner’s permit, it is time to begin preparing for the driving test with an FMCSA Training Provider. The Training Provider is a person or company that has been authorized by the FMCSA to provide CDL training. Click here to go to the FMCSA website to find trainers in your area.
The CDL driving test is divided into three sections: inspection, backing, and driving. Having an experienced driving instructor is important, but like everything else in life, the only way to learn how to do something is to practice, practice, practice. Whenever you have the chance, you should jump in a truck and practice shifting, practice driving, and practice backing.
In my opinion, try to practice and take the test in a vehicle with a manual transmission. If you take a test in a truck with an automatic transmission, you will receive an automatic transmission restriction on your license, meaning that you can only drive trucks with an automatic transmission. If you test with a manual transmission, you won’t have that restriction and will be able to legally drive trucks with either type of transmission.
Of the three portions of the practical test (inspection, backing, and driving), the one that most people struggle with is driving. The vehicle inspection can be challenging, but it just takes memorization and many mock inspections with an instructor to get it down.
One thing to remember about the vehicle inspection is to use the correct terminology. Instead of saying “that” and pointing, say the actual name of whatever you are inspecting. The commercial driver’s manual will have the names along with what criteria will place that piece of equipment out of service.
When it comes to backing, the tests will be selected from straight line backing, offset backing to left, offset backing to right, parallel parking conventional, parallel parking sight side, and alley dock. You won’t be tested on each one, but several tests will be selected from this list.
These backing tests allow the driver a certain number of pull forwards and even allow the driver to get out and take a look at where they are in the course. I highly recommend that if you are allowed to exit the vehicle and have any question about where you are in the course, you should stop, get out, and take a look.
The driving test can be difficult for some people, especially if they are using a manual transmission. Driving a manual transmission truck takes physical skill and requires practice and coordination to master the timing of the clutch and gear shifts.
Most states require that you demonstrate your ability to double clutch to pass the driving test in a manual transmission truck. A good way to practice this is with a chair and a toilet plunger. After the class is over, sit in a chair with a plunger beside you and just practice pressing an imaginary clutch halfway in, shifting out of gear, pressing the imaginary clutch halfway in and shifting out of gear.
It is all about rhythm and you must teach both your feet and arm to work together. One other valuable tip is that fifth gear is your safe harbor. If you miss a shift and are panicking in the middle of an intersection, as long as you are moving and below about 25 mph, you will be able to get the truck in fifth gear without stalling the truck out.
One of the most common items that gets forgotten when someone is taking their commercial driving test is the need to understand the basic rules of the road. These are the same items you studied when preparing for your regular driver’s license test at age 16.
Many of us have since developed bad driving habits, so it is important to go back and read the regular driver’s manual in addition to the commercial driver’s manual. For example, you need to remember who yields to who at an intersection, which lane to turn into when turning at an intersection, etc.
The ability to drive a commercial truck is a skill that you should be proud of, especially if you can drive a manual transmission truck. Most of the new trucks on the road today have automatic transmissions and the ability to drive a manual transmission is becoming something of a lost art.
Driving on the highway is one of the most hazardous things that we do in the drilling and pump installation industry. In 2020, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 38,824 people were killed in motor vehicle accidents. Of that number, 4,965 fatalities were from accidents involving large commercial trucks.
Driving a commercial truck is a lot of responsibility and earning a CDL requires dedication and hard work. But the ability to safely drive a commercial truck on the highway is a real skill to be proud of, a great addition to your resume, and will make you a valuable employee.
John Fowler, CSP, CMSP, has been in the drilling industry for more than 20 years, working on projects ranging from the Prudhoe Bay oilfield in Alaska to ice drilling in Greenland and at the U.S. South Pole Station in Antarctica. For the past 13 years, Fowler has been working as a safety manager for a large mineral exploration drilling contractor. He serves on NGWA’s Safety Task Force and is a regular safety workshop presenter at Groundwater Week. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.