The Magical Mystery Tour of CDL

David Higgins
Director of Fleet Maintenance
City of Boston, Massachusetts
Member, Fleet Services Committee

The Commercial Driver's License (CDL) criterion was created by legislation in 1986. With a four-year implementation period, it became the law of the land in 1991. Since the original standard was written, there have been some significant changes. As public works fleet personnel we are exposed to these regulations on a daily basis. Hopefully, this will answer questions you might have on the subject:

  • What is a CDL?
  • What is it for?
  • What is Safety Sensitive Function?
  • When is it required?
  • What is a Commercial Motor Vehicle?
  • Will the recent rule change affect me?

What is a CDL?
A CDL is a Commercial Driver's License.

What is it for?
A CDL is used to perform Safety Sensitive Function.

What is Safety Sensitive Function?
Safety Sensitive Function is:

  • All time at terminal, waiting for dispatch
  • Equipment inspection
  • Repairing, adjusting equipment
  • Driving, operating equipment
  • Loading, unloading equipment
  • Attending disabled equipment

When is it required?
A CDL is required when operating a Commercial Motor Vehicle.

What is a Commercial Motor Vehicle?
A CMV is defined as:

  • A single vehicle with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of more than 26,000 pounds
  • A trailer with a GVWR more than 10,000 if the gross combination weight is more than 26,000 pounds
  • A vehicle designed to transport 16 or more persons (including the operator)
  • Any vehicle which requires hazardous materials placards.

Will the recent rule change affect me?
Please remember the change in federal regulation that occurred in the fall of 2002; any violation you may be convicted of, committed in a non-commercial motor vehicle, would have a direct effect on your CDL. This is a significant change from the prior rule. Previous to this change, you had to be operating a CMV in order for the offense to have an impact on your CDL. Now, regardless of what you are operating, your conviction for a moving violation, or your refusal to take a breathalyzer and/or drug test, will have an immediate effect on your CDL and quite possibly your job.

Disqualification for serious traffic violations
Table 2 to Section 383.51 contains a list of the offenses and the periods for which a driver must be disqualified, depending upon the type of vehicle the driver is operating at the time of the violation, as follows:

Disqualification for railroad-highway grade crossing offenses
Table 3 to Section 383.51 contains a list of the offenses and the periods for which a driver must be disqualified, when the driver is operating a CMV at the time of the violation, as follows:

Additionally, all of the standards for the Commercial Driver's License criterion for Controlled Substances and Alcohol use apply to all political subdivisions. Participation in a random testing pool is mandatory for all CDL holders, along with the rules regarding various other testing. There has been a large misconception, in some areas, that the regulations the private-sector folks were exposed to did not apply to governmental employees. That is absolutely false! Make sure you know what the rules are, prior to an enforcement official informing you of an OOPS! The goal of all of the regulations is safety, for you, your employees, and the citizens that live in your discipline.

David Higgins has been an owner-operator, a small fleet owner, a regulatory compliance consultant in the trucking industry, fleet manager for a small city and now Director of Central Fleet Maintenance for the City of Boston, Massachusetts. He is a Past President and member of the Board of Directors of the State of New Hampshire Maintenance Association. He is a certified CDL instructor and the author of the 1-2-3 test system. He conducts a variety of training seminars, around the region, for private carriers and municipal entities. David is a current member of APWA's Fleet Services Committee and a former member of The Commonwealth of Massachusetts I&M Advisory Committee. He will present an educational session entitled "Emerging Issues with Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel (ULSD) and Biodiesel Fuel" (Sept. 11 at 10:00 a.m.) at the APWA Congress in San Antonio. He can be reached at (617) 635-7564 or