Passing the CDL Pre-Trip Test in Virginia

  • Fri 10 July 2020
  • misc

About a year ago I came to realize that I didn't have the right license for operating a particular truck that I'd been driving periodically for a number of years. So I set about to fix it.

What makes a vehicle require a commercial driver's license? There are small vehicle commercial licenses for carrying more than 15 passengers or driving a school bus, but in my case it was the weight of the vehicle. For a number of years I had been under the impression that the weight that mattered was either the actual weight (across the scales when you checked) or perhaps the registered weight of the vehicle - when you have "truck" tags on your vehicle in Virginia, you pay by the weight you tag it at, heavier = more, and if you run overweight you're risking a ticket.

It turns out that none of that is true. The number that matters is the GVWR (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating), which is listed on the nameplate on the door frame. Two visually identical trucks might have GVWR plates that say 25999 and 33000; the heavy one requires a CDL and the light one does not. If the plate on the door frame reads 26001 pounds or more and the vehicle isn't exempt in some way (registered as an RV, emergency apparatus (the fire department has its own certifications), military, agriculture, and a couple of others that escape my memory... then you need a CDL to drive it.

We thought we'd dodged that requirement by registering at 26000 pounds. This didn't raise any eyebrows at the DMV because it's a common practice to under-tag vehicles that don't carry their full designed weight, and 26000 pounds gets us in right under the wire for not having to register with IFTA, the fuel tax equalization folks. Another common trick is that the tractor-trailer driving schools register their trucks as light as they can to save on road use fees. That's not exactly a loophole - if they tried to carry a load in revenue service they'd be subject to a big fine - but they're not in the business of moving cargo; they're in the business of training drivers.

Last summer I took the written and air brake certification tests. No problem; a quick refresher and I was good to go. I think I missed one question and I'm not entirely sure that it wasn't that the test was wrong. With properly aged learner's permit in hand (you have to have it for 30 days before you can take the test), back in January I went out to take the test with a friend who has a CDL.

And I failed the pre-trip test.

How did I manage to do that? A few things:

  • I assumed that it would be easier than it was since I'd done plenty of pre-trips in my youth. 30 years and harmonization of CDL requirements in '92 made a big difference.

  • You don't get credit for being conceptually correct and careful. You get credit for rattling off the words they want you to say. If you point at the alternator and say "securely attached; nothing cracked, bent, or broken; wires are intact", you don't get credit. If you say "no loose or missing bolts, wires are not frayed or burned", you get credit.

  • It's time-bounded. Move quickly.

  • Everything, and I mean everything, that is not on the study guide they give you or addendum to the study guide (where they mention other things they want you to hit like safe start, catwalk, etc) is out of scope. You don't get points for inspecting it even if it's important.

Patrick and I were poking a bit of fun at this last aspect on the morning I took my test. Tie rod? Not on the test, it must not be important. Handles and railings for getting in and out of the cab? They'll ding ya for not maintaining three points of contact getting in and out of the truck but maybe that's just so it doesn't matter if one of them is literally falling off in your hand. DOT bumper in the back? Saves lives every day - it's saved my life. But nobody cares; it's not on the study guide so don't bother.

When I failed the first test I was told that it was obvious that I knew what I was talking about and what I was doing, but I wasn't doing it in the way they wanted and was moving too slowly. Fair enough. They wanted to reschedule in a week and a half... three days after my knee surgery. Nope. Wasn't going to even think about that. Then came a new job. Then came the Coronavirus lockdown.

And so it was that I was scheduling to take the test a couple of weeks before my learner's permit ran out. Virginia won't let you renew a CDL learner's permit - you have to take the written test all over again.

This time I passed, no problem - though it was a lot of stress. I soak up concepts and the gestalt of situations, particularly mechanical ones, with ease. Rote learning is hard for me.

After the pre-trip the parking lot handling and road tests were comparatively easy. This isn't a hard vehicle to handle if you have a bit of time behind the wheel and good spatial awareness.

Additional hints and thoughts:

  • The study guide for the pre-trip is not in the driver's license manual - you have to ask for it.

  • They want to see your medical certificate, even though it's in the computer at the DMV and FMCSA is getting rid of the paper certificates altogether in 2021; it's going fully computerized. Go figure.

  • Use the study guide. Stay away from YouTube. This isn't my advice, it's the inspector's. Take it to heart.

  • The order of points to inspect in the study guide is... ill thought out. Nobody says you can't rearrange them. I like doing them in an order that flows naturally over the truck, down and around the front, open the hood, around the engine, down to the wheel, down the side and underside of the truck, rear wheel, around the back, close hood and enter cab to do the inside the truck inspection.

  • Bring knee pads, gloves, and a flashlight. You don't have to get up close and personal with stuff, the test is point and identify, but getting right up there on it helps avoid missing something because the inspector thought you were pointing at the wrong thing.

  • You're going to be talking for pretty much a half hour straight. Bring a couple bottles of water. You'll need them.

  • They keep a poker face so they don't accidentally help you with their reaction. They're not being jerks, it's their job.

  • Double check the part about parking lot maneuvers in the manual and practice all of them ahead of time. Straight backing and offset backing into a lane are easy. I was expecting a passenger side right angle back into a loading dock for my third maneuver but that wasn't what I got handed - I was asked to parallel park. Not a problem but it took more fiddling than I was expecting. A couple of dry runs would have made that easy.

In not too many more days I'll get an envelope from Richmond with my shiny new license in it. Until then the truck is parked. They're not gonna catch me ridin' dirty.