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Wednesday 27 May 2020
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How to Drive a Tractor‐Trailer

Part 1 of 3: Knowing the Basics Before You Get Your License1

  1. Understand how to start a truck. To start the truck you let the gauges reset and the glow plugs warm up by turning the key to the first “click.” You’ll learn more about starting a truck from an instructor in truck driving school.
  2. Familiarize yourself with the gear shifting pattern of a semi.Driving a semi requires shifting gears more often than driving an automatic car does. Each truck is different, so plan to learn how to shift using the type of truck you intend to drive professionally.
  3. Learn about how to make turns and park. Driving such a large vehicle requires a higher level of mindfulness about making right turns and left turns, backing up, and parking. Again, it’s important to take a training course to learn how to properly maneuver and park the specific tractor-trailer combination you intend to drive.

Part 2 of 3: Attending Truck Driving School

  1. Find a truck driving school in your area. Check your local Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) website for listings of reputable truck driving schools near you. Look for programs that have been approved by the Professional Truck Driver Institute (PTDI). Attending truck driving school is the best way to learn how to properly drive a semi truck.

    • You can also take CDL classes through a community or technical college in your area.
    • Some schools offer several driving courses with only one that has been approved by the PTDI, so do research before deciding which one to sign up for.[1]
  2. Enroll in a training program. Truck driving schools offer programs designed to prepare you to get your class A or B commercial driver’s license. If you want to be a professional truck driver, plan to complete about 350 hours of training over a period of several months.

    • You can take training courses with fewer hours, but these are generally meant for people with some experience under their belts who need a refresher course.
    • Training programs that have been approved by the PTDI average $4,200, in addition to the cost of books, license fees, and other expenses.[2]
  3. Gain skills and knowledge during the training program. During the training program you will learn how to inspect a semi truck to ensure that it’s safe to drive as well as how to operate a semi truck and handle real-world situations. Skills you will learn include how to:

    • make controlled turns without putting cars and other vehicles in danger.
    • shift gears.
    • stay in your lane or switch lanes.
    • manage your speed on the highway.
    • deal with traffic congestion.
    • handle obstacles in the road.
    • navigate narrow city streets.
    • back up and reverse the semi truck.
    • park the truck.
  4. Train on how to operate as a truck driver. In addition to learning how to operate the vehicle, you will also learn how to be a responsible driver. Here are examples of specialized knowledge you’ll gain to prepare you to get your commercial license:

    • How to keep a logbook to record your hours on the road.
    • Knowledge about Department of Transportation requirements you must follow.
    • How to safely transport hazardous materials.
    • How to operate air brakes.
    • Other behind-the-wheel instruction.

Part 3 of 3: Getting Your Commercial Driver’s License

  1. Meet the physical qualifications. There are federal physical qualifications you have to meet before you can get your CDL license. You must be 21 years of age to drive a semi used for interstate commerce, but you may received a restricted license at age 18 that limits your use of the vehicle to one state. In addition, you must undergo a federal medical test and obtain a federal medical card before applying for your CDL.
  2. Pass the the knowledge tests. To get a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) you must pass a series of written knowledge tests. The tests you take are determined by what type of vehicle you wish to drive, and what you will be carrying in your truck.[3]

    • The General Knowledge Test is taken by all applicants, no matter what type of vehicle they will be driving.
    • The Air Brakes Test must be taken if you wish to drive a truck with air brakes.
    • The Combination Vehicles Test has to be taken if you want to drive tractor-trailer combinations.
    • The Hazardous Materials Test is required if you will be transporting hazardous materials.
    • The Tanker Test is required for hauling liquids in a tanker truck.
    • The Doubles/Triples Test is required if you want to pull two or three trailers at a time.
  3. Get an instruction permit. After you pass the knowledge tests, you get a permit – similar to the one you’d get before you’re licensed to drive a car – which you can use to practice for the remaining exams you’ll need to take to get your CDL for up to 6 months. As with a regular driver’s permit, you’ll need to have an instructor with a CDL license with you at all times. To get a permit, you must:

    • be at least 18 years of age.
    • have a valid driver’s license.
    • pass the knowledge tests.
    • have a federal medical card.
  4. Pass the skills tests. After getting a passing score on the knowledge tests, you can move on to the skills tests, which will draw on the hours of practice you underwent during training. In some cases you can rent a semi truck from your training program and take it to the DMV for the skills test. You’ll be tested on the following skills, in addition to others that may be related to the specific type of vehicle you will be driving:

    • Pre-trip vehicle inspection – This mandatory tests determines whether you understand how to check to make sure your vehicle is safe to drive. You’ll perform a check in front of the examiner.
    • Basic vehicle control – For this test you’ll get inside the vehicle and operate it in front of the examiner. You’ll be asked to move it forward, backward, and to make turns without veering too far from your lane or hitting cones or barriers.
    • On-road driving – For this test you’ll be asked to drive your vehicle on the road through a variety of traffic situations. You’ll make turns, move through railroad crossings, shift to go up and down grades, and navigate city streets and highways.
  5. Use your license to land a job. Once you have your CDL, you can start applying for jobs with trucking companies or operate as an independent agent. If you want to start driving a different type of truck, you may have to take additional exams.


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