Shedding Light on Foggy CDL Requirements

Reprinted with Permission from the May/June 2018 issue of Tracks, the official publication of NATM (National Association of Trailer Manufacturers).
By Kim Mann, General Counsel to NATM, Scopelitis, Garvin, Light, Hanson & Feary
NATM headquarters receives frequent calls from trailer manufacturing members asking why the local police are insisting on commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs) for drivers operating tow vehicles pulling their trailers. They then describe their particular set of circumstances. Prompting these questions are complaints the members have received from their customers and dealers about state troopers and local enforcement officers pulling over drivers towing their trailers they thought did not require CDLs and their customers had purchased with that same understanding. So, what’s going on here? Overly-aggressive law enforcement at work? Dealers and/or customers ill-informed about CDL laws? A combination of both?

What appears to be behind these inquiries is the vagueness of the CDL laws and the general confusion and disagreement this vagueness naturally generates. So, let’s try to clear up some of this confusion. Starting at the beginning, Congress has charged the U.S. DOT’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) with responsibility for implementing the federal CDL laws through federal regulations and has directed the states to issue CDLs in conformity with these regulations. The FMCSA’s CDL regulations appear in the Code of Federal Regulations, 49 C.F.R. Part 383. The FMCSA requires drivers to have a CDL – either a Class A, a Class B, or Class C (for transporting passengers or hazardous materials) – in order to operate defined types of commercial motor vehicles (CMVs) in interstate, intrastate, or foreign commerce.

CDL Requirements

FMCSA’s graphic illustrating the various vehicle configurations constituting the groups of CMVs requiring a Class A or Class B CDL (Click to enlarge)

To clarify its regulations, the FMCSA publishes a graphic illustrating the various vehicle configurations constituting the groups of CMVs requiring a Class A or Class B CDL. That graphic can be found to the right. State and local law enforcement often refer to it for guidance.

The FMCSA requires drivers to have a CDL to operate a motor vehicle if that vehicle meets the FMCSA definition of a “commercial motor vehicle” and is used in “commerce.” The FMCSA defines both terms in 49 C.F.R. § 383.5. The great misunderstanding out there, within the trailer industry and probably within the law enforcement community, about the CDL requirements springs from those two definitions, particularly of “commerce.”
The FMCSA defines a “commercial motor vehicle” as a motor vehicle, or a combination of motor vehicles, in certain GVWR-based configurations, when used in “commerce” to transport “property or passengers.” The physical configuration component of the CMV definition is very mechanical, very objective. When dealing with a tow vehicle-trailer combination, you look at the gross combination weight rating (GCWR) of the tow vehicle if the tow-vehicle manufacturer has assigned it a GCWR and displays it on its cert label. With regard to the familiar combination, a tow vehicle (whether truck, automobile, or tractor) towing a trailer, the driver needs a CDL if the tow-vehicle manufacturer’s assigned GCWR exceeds 26,000 lbs. (as shown on its cert label) and the trailer’s GVWR exceeds 10,000 lbs. If there is no assigned GCWR, the FMCSA requires a CDL only if the sum of the GVWRs of the tow vehicle and the trailer together exceeds 26,000 lbs. and the trailer’s GVWR exceeds 10,000 lbs. In either case, the driver will need a Class A CDL.
With regard to a single vehicle, the FMCSA requires the driver to have a Class B CDL to operate that truck, bus, van, or automobile if that vehicle has a GVWR of more than 26,000 lbs. It is required even if that truck, automobile, or van is towing a trailer and that trailer has a GVWR of 10,000 lbs. or less (If the trailer’s GVWR exceeds 10,0000 lbs., a Class A CDL is needed).

The second component of the CDL requirement, and of the CMV definition, is much more troubling, much more subjective, and the primary source of the confusion. To qualify as a CMV requiring a CDL, that vehicle, even in a qualifying GCWR/GVWR configuration, must be used in “commerce.” “Commerce” has its own separate definition in § 385.3 of the FMCSA’s regulations. The FMCSA defines it broadly as any trade, traffic, or transportation between points in one state and points 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. Not exactly an enlightening definition, to say the least. How this “use” assessment turns out often varies depending upon who is doing the assessing. And that is often the law enforcement officer on the scene.

As a starting point, the proper inquiry, then, is whether this questionable CMV is transporting property (across state lines) for some commercial purpose, as opposed to for the personal use of the owner, driver, or some other person. What the trailer owner considers his or her own “personal use” may, upon close examination, in fact turn out to be for a “commercial purpose” when viewed through the critical eyes of the state or local law enforcement officer. Let’s examine several tricky examples:

  • The trailer owner is towing his own horses to a horse show or his livestock to the state fair where monetary prizes are awarded. That familiar scenario is likely to be seen as a commercial undertaking or commercial purpose from the vantage point of the diligent state trooper who pulls the driver over looking for that CDL.
  • Suppose instead those horses belong to a stable whose owner charges the public by the hour to ride them. Another commercial purpose according to a strict interpretation of the term. It does not matter that no business name or logo is displayed on the side of the truck or trailer towing these horses.
  • Now suppose it is a college student behind the wheel of Dad’s 16,000 lbs. GVWR truck towing his family’s lawn mower around the neighborhood in Dad’s utility trailer to earn a few bucks mowing lawns to off-set that college tuition. He may need a Class A CDL if that trailer’s GVWR exceeds 10,000 lbs.

Complicating the question of whether a CDL is necessary could be a hodge-podge of state CDL laws at variance with the federal law. States are not prohibited from enacting their own state CDL laws, applying them to non-interstate movements (i.e. the trailer does not cross the state line), if those state laws are stricter than the federal law. In theory, the state law of State A might require its residents to have a different class of CDL, perhaps designated as a “Class D,” to tow a 26,000-lbs. GVWR trailer when used for personal use.

State A must, however, honor the out-of-state license issued by State B to its residents: for example, if State B does not require a CDL for its residents to operate a vehicle for personal use, then State A may not require State B residents to have a CDL while operating a vehicle for personal use in State A even if State A requires its own residents to have a “Class D” CDL for this purpose.

The “CDL” complaints that NATM fields typically revolve around the smaller trailers (between 10,000 lbs. and 26,000 lbs. GVWR) and the debate over personal vs. commercial use. In sum, assuming commercial use, when the GVWR of the truck exceeds 26,000 lbs., a CDL is required, regardless of the GVWR of the trailer, and when the GVWR of the truck is less than 26,000 lbs., a CDL is required only if that truck’s GVWR and the trailer’s GVWR, added together, exceed 26,000 lbs. and the trailer’s GVWR exceeds 10,000 lbs.

View the Original article “Shedding Light on Foggy CDL Requirements” in NATM’s Tracks Magazine here.

Learn more about Felling Trailers’ full line of trailers for commercial, construction, government, utility use and more.



  1. I have a class B with air brakes endorsement already. I want to get a Class A. When I take the driving test, do I have to have a trailer with air brakes as well to get the endorsement on my class A license.

    • Felling Trailers says

      Hello Mac,

      For accurate detail of what you will need on test day, we suggest contacting your local department of motor vehicle.

      Best of luck on your test,
      Felling Trailers

  2. I have an f-450 GVW 16,000
    With a trailer GVW 21,000
    Which I use to tow my own personal race cars to amateur vintage races that I pay to enter for my own pleasure were no prize money can be won.
    I live in Illinois
    Do I need a class A license?

    • Good Morning George,
      Class A: a combination of 2 or more vehicles, including a trailer(s) in excess of 10,000 lbs., articulated buses with a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) exceeding 26,000 lbs., and all vehicles authorized to be driven under Class B and C, or with a regular driver’s license, Class D.

      To further break this down, your current Gross Combination weight rating is 16,000+21,000= 37,000 lbs., which would require a Class A license. A Class D License is only good for vehicle combinations up to 26,000 lbs. I would recommend contacting the Illinois Highway patrol for further verification and explanation specific to your state.

      Hope this helps,
      Felling Trailers

  3. We have a F-250 10,000lb and a 14,000lb tandem axle trailer. Owned personally but used to complete service work for our business. If we cross state line to work at a customer location do we need DOT? Do we need CDL simply because its being used commercially?

    • Felling Trailers says

      Hello Mike,

      It is our understanding in the state of Minnesota law, is that as long as the truck trailer is not for hire, a CDL is not required. This may vary state to state, so we do advise you to check with your local Department of Motor Vehicle.
      Thanks much,
      Felling Trailers

  4. John Steinberg says

    We have a GMC Sierra AT4 fro personal use. GVWR IS 29k plus. All use is for pulling our “less than 10k” travel trailer for RECREATIONAL use only.

    1- Do I now need to get a commercial cdl license?
    2- or NO, only applies to commercial/business/for profit use

    • Hello John,
      If the GVWR of the truck is over 26,000 lbs you will need a CDL license of some sort. Depending on the state you could obtain a class B license since the truck only is over 26k but would be limited to trailers to stay under 10k.
      A class A. Would allow you combinations over 26,000 and trailers over 10,000 lbs.

      Hope this helps,
      Felling Trailers

  5. Hi I have a small business and am currently looking for a larger equipment trailer, my trucks gvwr are all 12,500 or less, can i get a 14k trailer (gcwr will be under 26k) and not need a cdl? Or am I restricted to trailers 10k or less? Located in CT. Thanks

  6. I’m in Oregon and building a house for myself. I haul building materials, heavy equipment, gravel, etc. My truck is a 2002 Chevy dually and the door tag says 11,400 pounds GVWR. The manual says the GCWR is 22,000 pounds. In addition, it says a 5th wheel weight distributing hitch is limited to 12,000 pounds.

    My gooseneck dump trailer tag says 15,680 pounds GVWR. Both axes at 7,000 pounds each. The grand total of truck and trailer is 27,080 pounds which is over the 26,000 pound threshold, not to mention exceding the manufactures recommendation for gross weights.

    My questions are the following:
    Is DOT looking at the total capacity potential(stickers on truck/trailer added together) or just what you actually weigh on the scales loaded?
    Do I need more truck to pull this trailer loaded?
    Does DOT care/know about the GCWR in the manual?
    At what point do I need a CDL?

    The 2020 Chevy diesel dually is boasting a 35,500 GCWR!

    Thank you,

    • Steve,
      I will do the best to address each question.
      The simplest form, a CDL is required if the Gross Combination Vehicle Rating is over 26,000 lbs. This is based on the posted weights of the GVWR of Truck + the GVWR of the trailer regardless of what the actual weight is. There are a few exceptions but are usually ag-related. From everything you have explained to me, a CDL would be required to operate your truck and trailer on public roads, even when empty.
      The gooseneck rating seems light at 12,000 lbs, as most are rated at a towing of 25,000 lbs. I would think you have more than enough truck for that trailer, but I better not speak on behalf of the truck manufacturer.
      As far as I know, I don’t think the DOT/ Highway patrol will be concerned with posted towing capacities. From what I have gathered they will look at the capacity of the license purchased and your driver’s license capabilities. They will also look at rated tire capacity and axle capacity.
      In order to get the best knowledge, I would recommend contacting your local DOT/ highway patrol for a more precise explanation of the requirements of your situation.

      Hope this helps,
      Felling Trailers

  7. Hello Felling Trailers,
    Thank you for this article. Sorry to ask the same question, though the more we go over the answer the better everyone’s understanding is of these laws.
    Here’s mine, CA registered dodge 2500 combined axle rating of truck is 10,934lbs and I’m pulling a 14k dump trailer for a total combined of 24,934lbs if correct. I am under the 26,001 but over 10,001 on trailer. Am I clear to run my current Non commercial class C or should I go for a Class A cdl. And if so any tips for negotiating with CHP should they choose to stop me to avoid a brow beating.
    Thank you

    • Good Afternoon Alex,
      A Standard Class D license is good for any vehicle combination up to 26,000 lbs. That being said your listed combination should be safe with a standard license. It is always best to contact the California Highway Patrol in case there are any local laws.

      Hope this helps,
      Felling Trailers

  8. William Seddon says

    What if i have a dually truck with a door sticker rating of 14,000 lbs and a trailer with a sticker rating of 14,000 lbs which would put me at a total of 28,000 lbs which would require cdl because its over 26,000 lbs. But what if i register my truck at a max combination weight of 25,500. Would that still require cdl? No matter what the manufacturers sticker states my registration forbids me to haul over 26,000.

    • Hello William,
      The law has been explained to me as any vehicle combination over 26,000 lbs will require a CDL. There are several exceptions, mostly for agriculture use.
      This remains true even if the truck and trailer combination is licensed for a lighter weight, the CDL requirement is still based on the Gross Combination Weight Rating, (GVWR Truck + GVWR Trailer).

      Hope this helps,
      Felling Trailers

  9. We have a truck trailer combination of 19,000 lbs with the trucks GVWR at 9,000 and the trailer at just over 10,000 lbs. So even though the combined weight is under 26,000 does this combination require a Class A license in California due to the trailers GVWR? This is a commercial (for hire) situation.

    • Hello James,
      The gross combination is under 26,000 lbs. and a Commercial Class A license should not be required.
      However, you will want to check with the local rules as a DOT health card may be required because it’s being used for commercial/ for hire applications.

      Hope this helps,
      Felling Trailers, Inc.

  10. Joshua Martin says

    Hi, I’m new the the HD truck world and looking to get a 2019 Dodge ram 2500 with the cummins I6 and pull an RV Toy Hauler TT that weights around 10k dry weight and travel around the U.S., would I need a CDL to do so? I heard that it might depend on the length of the trailer also? Thanks

    • Good Afternoon Joshua,
      The CDL is determined by the GVWR of the Truck + GVWR of Trailer, which has to be under 26,000 lbs. The 2,500 Ram and the toy hauler are likely 10,000 lbs, or less, each, which should keep the total combined under 26,000 lbs. The gross combination is under 26,000 lbs. and a Commercial Class A license should not be required.

      Hope this helps,
      Felling Trailers, Inc.

  11. Hello, my problem with this whole weight rating system for P/U and trailers is the GVWR. Because I operate 80,000 pound tractor trailer. That’s the max I can haul legally without permits. But if you go by GVWR on combination, it would be 132,000 pounds. So my point is how can Dot officer justify pulling over and giving a ticket to a p/u and trailer combo if he only base it GVWR??? Because that means that I should be ticketed also because my manufacturing GVWR exceeds 80,000 pounds. But as long as I scale 80,000 or less I am legal. So point is how is my rig based on actual weight but my ram 3500 and gooseneck is based on GVWR?? If I register combo at 26000 pounds and trailer weight doesn’t exceed 10001 pounds actual weight then my daughter should be able to drive truck without cdl. My Question is why is my peterbuilt based on actual weight, but my ram on manufacturing stamped weight?????

  12. We have a Chevy 4500 (Flat Bed, Cab and Chasis) GVWR of 16000 lbs pulling a Gooseneck Trailer GVWR of 20,000 lbs.
    Apportioned license for both at 40,000 lbs max. (Truck does not have state plate – Illinois)
    We know the driver needs CDL when pulling the trailer, but does a different driver only driving the truck by itself need a CDL? Do they need a medical card? Commercial – not for hire.

    • Good afternoon Jeff,
      A person operating a single or combination vehicle under 26,000 lbs is not required to obtain a CDL.
      However, a person operating a vehicle interstate (across state lines) that has a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating or Gross combination weight rating above 10,000 lbs will require a DOT medical exam / Health card. For Intrastate (within the state the vehicle is licensed) the Medical card requirement varies per the state you are in. Most follow the same ruling as Federal. This is how we have interpreted the law, but I strongly recommend contacting the highway patrol in your area for a better explanation of the rule.

      Hope this helps,
      Felling Trailers

  13. I currently do not have a cdl, The answer is probably in this article and I’ve missed it, but is a cdl required to tow a 12,000 lbs trailer with a 3/4 ton truck? ( I can’t remember the gvwr, but it’s a Chevrolet 2500hd)

    • Good Afternoon Cody,

      You will want to look at the VIN tag on the truck (usually on the door) and verify the GVWR. I am assuming it is 10,000 lbs, which, when paired with a trailer that has a GVWR of 12,000 lbs., should not require a CDL.

      Hope this helps,
      Felling Trailers

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