California’s Commercial Driver’s License Laws

The requirements to obtain a California CDL and the reasons for disqualification.

California requires commercial motor vehicle (CMV) operators to hold a valid commercial driver’s license (CDL). But there are many rules concerning what constitutes a CMV and what type of CDL and endorsement the driver is required to hold. This article outlines the tests and requirements for licensure and the consequences of certain violations and improper CDL use.

Vehicles Requiring a CDL

California categorizes its licenses by class and commercial and non-commercial purposes.

Class A. A class A license is required for the operation of any vehicle weighing over 26,000 pounds and carrying a trailer over 10,000 pounds, including trailer buses and vehicles pulling multiple trailers. A non-commercial class A license can be used to tow trailers over 10,000 pounds within 150 miles of the person’s farm or to transport a not-for-hire travel trailer weighing over 10,000 pounds.

Class B. A class B license is required to operate any vehicle with three or more axels weighing over 6,000 pounds (empty) and any single vehicle weighing over 26,000 pounds. A class B license authorizes the driver to pull a trailer weighing less than 10,000 pounds. A non-commercial class B license can be used to drive certain farm labor vehicles and RVs over 40 feet in length.

Class C. A class C license (non-commercial) is sufficient to drive most vehicles under 26,000 pounds, with trailers less than 10,000 pounds. However, a class C CDL is required if that vehicle is carrying hazardous materials or more than ten passengers.

Endorsements. To drive certain vehicles and transport certain cargo-specific endorsements are required. A passenger endorsement is required to carry passengers and requires the driver to pass additional testing. A hazmat endorsement is required to transport hazardous materials and requires Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) clearance.

Restrictions. A CDL can also include restrictions based on the driver’s experience and knowledge. For example, a driver who cannot complete the driving test with an air-brake CMV will be restricted to CMVs with hydraulic brakes.

Testing

Like all licenses, CDLs require the completion of a written exam and driving test. The exams are tailored to the class of license and desired endorsements. Class A and B applicants must complete 15 hours of behind-the-wheel training prior to the driving test. Applicants must provide proof of identity, citizenship, and residency. The falsification of any information will result in disqualification. Cheating or aiding in cheating for the CDL tests will also result in CDL disqualification and misdemeanor charges.

CDL Disqualification

A CDL is a privilege and failure to comply with the many requirements can result in license disqualification. A driver can be disqualified due to another state’s license suspension or if the driver is deemed to be an imminent hazard, among many other reasons.

Serious Traffic Offenses

“Serious traffic offenses” include speeding 15 miles per hour or more over the limit, reckless driving, texting while driving in a CMV, and any traffic violation involving a fatality. Two serious traffic offenses in three years will result in a 90-day CDL disqualification. A third violation within three years results in a 120-day disqualification. Driving a CMV without a CDL is also considered a serious traffic offense, but not if the driver shows proof of then-valid licensure to the court.

Out-of-Service Order

A driver in violation of CDL rules or a vehicle in violation of equipment regulations can be issued an out-of-service order (OSO). OSOs are temporary but prohibit operation during their duration. Violation of the OSO can result in the employer being fined $2,750 to $25,000, and the driver will face:

  • 1st offense: 180-day revocation (two years if in hazmat or passenger CMV) and a $2,500 fine.
  • 2nd offense in ten years: Two-year revocation (three years if in hazmat or passenger CMV) and a $5,000 fine.
  • 3rd offense in ten years: Three-year license revocation and a $5,000 fine.

Railroad Crossings

CMVs have special rules pertaining to crossing and approaching railroad tracks. Railroad-related violations will result in a revocation of 60 days for a first offense, 120 days for a second offense, and one year for a third offense within three years. An employer can also be held liable for knowingly permitting or requiring a CMV operator to violate railroad crossing laws and be fined up to $10,000.

Transporting Fireworks

A CMV operator caught carrying more than 10,000 pounds of fireworks will be suspended for three years.

Criminal Convictions

Various criminal convictions will also lead to a one-year license revocation. This includes DUI (driving under the influence), a DUI in a CMV, chemical test refusal, fleeing and eluding in a CMV, leaving the scene of an accident, using a motor vehicle in the commission of a felony, driving with a revoked CDL, and vehicular manslaughter. The revocation period is three years if the driver was transporting hazardous materials. A second conviction of any of these offenses within three years is a lifetime disqualification. A driver will also receive a lifetime disqualification for using a motor vehicle to transport, manufacture, or distribute controlled substances.

Honesty

CDL holders are required to self-report any traffic conviction to both the State of California and to their employers. This reporting requirement includes both in-state and out-of-state convictions. Operators are also required to report OSOs to the state and their employers.

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