Trailer Towing: When Do You Need a CDL?
Have you or one of your drivers been pulled over when hauling a trailer and asked to show your commercial driver’s license? This happens with frustrating frequency, according to the National Association of Trailer Manufacturers. They say there is a lot of confusion – among law enforcement as well as truck dealers and their customers – regarding just when a CDL is required and when it is not.
Why are so many people confused? Because the law isn’t very clear and that invites varying interpretations.
Here’s the deal
The federal government establishes regulations that are supposed to define when a commercial driver’s license is required. The Department of Transportation, through its Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) division, is supposed to implement the regs. (You can look up the rules for yourself in the Code of Federal Regulations, 49 CFR Part 383.)
Each state is responsible to issue CDLs, based on the federal rules. Essentially, you must have one if you’re driving a “commercial motor vehicle” in the process of conducting “commerce.” Commercial driver’s licenses are divided into categories depending on the type and weight of involved. A CDL can be:
- Class A (total GCWR of truck and trailer is 26,001 pounds or greater, and GVWR of the trailer/load is greater than 10,000 pounds)
- Class B (total GCWR of truck and trailer is 26,001 pounds or greater, but GVWR of trailer/load is less than 10,000 pounds)
- Class C, required for transporting the most sensitive cargo — hazardous materials or human passengers
If you’re having trouble picturing that, here’s a graphic that illustrates the categories. Class A enables the licensee to also operate vehicles in Class B or C. the holder of a Class B license can also operate Class C vehicles.
So what’s the problem?
Although the FMCSA defines “commercial motor vehicle” and “commerce” within their regulations, but not well enough so that everyone understands them in the same way. The vehicular side of the equation is pretty straight-forward. A “commercial motor vehicle” is a motor vehicle or combination of vehicles within a specified range of GVWR-based configurations that is being used to transport passengers or property.
Class A requirements
- If you have a tow vehicle pulling a trailer, you can check the certification label on the vehicle to find its gross combination weight rating (GCWR). If that number is greater than 26,000 pounds AND whatever you’re towing has a total GVWR of more than 10,000 pounds, then you need a Class A CDL to operate that tow vehicle, whether that vehicle is a car, truck, or tractor.
- If the tow vehicle does not have a manufacturer-assigned GCWR, a Class A CDL is required if the combined weight of the tow rig and trailer/load exceed 26,000 pounds AND the trailer’s assigned GVWR is more than 10,000 pounds.
Class B requirements
What if you aren’t towing but driving a single vehicle such as a car, truck, van or bus? You’ll need a Class B CDL if the vehicle’s GVWR is greater than 26,000 pounds. If you are using one of these types of vehicles to tow a trailer, you’ll still need that Class B license even if the trailer is rated at less than 10,000 pounds GVWR.
So far, so good. The numbers tell the story. If whatever you’re operating/pulling is heavy enough, you’ll need a Class A or Class B commercial license. But then the fog rolls in. Because regardless of the numbers, you do not need a CDL unless you’re using the vehicle in commerce.
So, what, exactly does “commerce” mean?
Well, that depends. According to the FMCSA, it’s “any trade, traffic, or transportation between points in one state and in another state or any trade, traffic, or transportation that ‘affects’ trade, traffic, or transportation in the U.S. between points in one state and points in another.” No wonder confusion and resulting misinterpretation are so common.
Let’s say you own a trailer and you’re using it to tow your kid’s 4H project sheep to the county fair. You might think this constitutes personal use of your vehicle and trailer, but there’s a little wrinkle that could cause a problem: your daughter will win money if her best sheep wins the top prize. Uh, oh. Now your transport could be viewed as “commercial” in nature, in which case an enforcement officer would expect you to hold a CDL.
Let’s say you’re taking your sheep to a festival where they will appear in a petting zoo. The festival is renting the sheep from you for this purpose. That’s a commercial purpose, even if sheep rental isn’t a formal business for you.
Let’s say your daughter has outgrown 4H and is enjoying a budding career as an entrepreneur, earning money by using your truck and trailer to haul around your lawn mower and blower to tend neighborhood yards. Does she need a CDL? Yes, if your truck’s GVWR exceeds 16,000 pounds and the trailer’s GVWR is greater than 10,000 pounds. (Even though, the trailer and equipment clearly do not weigh that much – it’s the rating that matters.)
Where you live matters, too
States can create their own CDL laws that apply to intrastate transport, but they have to respect the rules of other states. So if you live in New York and New York says you do not need a CDL for your purpose, then Connecticut cannot cite you for not having one, even if their own rules say residents do need a commercial license.
Got it now?