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What Are The CDL Requirements In Washington State?


To legally drive a large commercial vehicle – such as a semi-truck or tractor-trailer – truck drivers must undergo more advanced training and testing. Commercial truck drivers are subject to more stringent regulations than drivers of passenger vehicles. 

The Washington State Department of Licensing (DOL) requires drivers to obtain a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) in order to operate any vehicle that may be categorized as one or more of the following:

  • All single vehicles with a manufacturer’s weight rating of 26,001 pounds or more;
  • All trailers with a manufacturer’s weight rating of 10,001 pounds or more, and a combined vehicles’ gross weight rating of 26,001 pounds or more;
  • All vehicles designed to transport 16 or more persons (including the driver). This includes private and church buses;
  • All school buses, regardless of size;
  • All vehicles used to transport any material that requires hazardous material placarding or any quantity of a material that is classified as a select agent or toxin by the federal government.

Types of Commercial Driver’s Licenses (CDLs)

There are different types – or "classes" – of Commercial Driver’s Licenses that allow drivers to legally operate different types of commercial vehicles. For this purpose, commercial vehicles are divided into three different classes based on their size and weight. Below is a table from the Washington State Department of Licensing (DOL) that outlines the various CDL classes and the types of vehicles that are authorized by each class of CDL:

Types Of Vehicles That Can Be Driven With Each Class Of CDL

Commercial vehicles are divided into 3 size classes: A, B, and C.

semi truck accident data

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Exceptions To CDL Requirements In Washington

There are also a number of scenarios that do not require a driver of a large semi-truck or tractor-trailer to obtain a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL). Some of the exceptions to the CDL requirements include:

Farmers and Farm Employees who transport farm equipment, supplies, or products – such as trees, lumber, and other wood products – using a farm vehicle are not required to obtain a CDL as long as the vehicle is:

  • Operated by a farmer or a farm employee;
  • Not used to operate a common or contract motor carrier;
  • And operated within a 150-mile linear radius of the location of the farm.

Recreational Vehicle (RV) drivers are not subject to CDL requirements provided that they are driving the vehicle for private, personal use, rather than for commercial purposes. This extends to the operation of two-axle rental trucks and horse trailers.

Firefighters and Law Enforcement Personnel are not required to obtain a CDL in order to operate emergency equipment provided that they carry an official certification card which proves that they have completed the Emergency Vehicle Accident Prevention Program (EVAP), which is regulated and overseen by the Washington State Patrol and the Washington State Fire Marshal’s Office.

Members of the Military are only exempt from CDL requirements if they are operating a military vehicle and have been issued a military license by their specific branch of service. Currently active military personnel with two or more years of experience driving commercial vehicles as part of their military duties may also be eligible to have the training certificate and CDL skills test requirements waived. The written knowledge tests cannot be waived, however.

Commercial License Permits

The Department of Licensing also issues Commercial License Permits (CLPs) to new drivers who are still learning how to properly and safely operate a semi-truck or other type of commercial vehicle. The CLP system bears some resemblance to the non-commercial driver’s license system that most regular drivers are accustomed to. After a driver obtains a CLP, they are permitted to operate a commercial vehicle provided that they abide by the following restrictions:

  • The CLP holder is accompanied by a valid CDL holder, who also:
    • Has two years experience driving the same type of commercial vehicle;
    • Has at least five years of total driving experience;
    • Sits in the seat directly beside the driver in order to give proper instruction.
  • CLP holders are prohibited from operating a commercial vehicle that is carrying or is classified for hazardous materials.

The Smith System®

This training system is commonly taught to drivers of commercial vehicles, and it seeks to help drivers develop the habit of “driving with traffic instead of against it.” This training system has been around for more than 50 years. The System claims that at least fifty percent (50%) of all Fortune 500 companies use the System for their commercial drivers. 

The System teaches all truck drivers to follow the Smith-5-Keys™:

  • Aim High in Steering®: Drivers of large trucks or commercial vehicles should look further ahead than the drivers of other smaller vehicles.
  • Get the Big Picture®: Drivers of trucks must see more around their commercial vehicles than other drivers can.
  • Keep Your Eyes Moving®: Truck drivers must be more aware of their surroundings than other drivers.
  • Leave Yourself an Out®: Truck drivers must always position themselves and their large load in traffic better than other drivers. This means anticipating hazards and allowing themselves a safe “out” to avoid a collision.
  • Make Sure They See You®: Truck drivers must make themselves more visible to other motorists. 
Chris Davis
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Chris Davis is the founder of Davis Law Group, P.S. in Seattle, WA.