What Is the Difference Between an Operator's & a CDL License?

by Gail Sessoms; Updated September 26, 2017
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The state departments of motor vehicles enforce the laws that regulate driver’s licenses. Each state has procedures and requirements to obtain a license to operate a vehicle. While both the operator’s license and a CDL, or commercial driver’s license both entitle the holder to operate a motor vehicle, the two licenses differ in several ways, including the qualifications and the application of federal laws.

Operator’s License

In most states, any person older than 18 may apply for an operator’s license to drive passenger cars and trucks below a certain weight. Most states have different classes of operator’s licenses, starting with the class that entitles the holder to drive a car for personal use. For example, the New York issues Class D driver's licenses to residents 18 years of age and older and to drivers who are age 17 and have completed approved driver education. Other classes of operator licenses entitle holders to operate passenger vehicles, motorcycles and commercial vehicles

Graduated Licensing

The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators promotes the use of graduated licensing for drivers younger than 18. The association recommends a program that provides a learner’s permit at age 16, an intermediate stage during which driving privileges are increased after completion of requirements and approval of a full operator’s license when the driver reaches 18. Most states have some form of graduate licensing. For instance, Vermont’s young drivers begin with a learner’s permit, move on to a junior operator’s license and qualify for a regular, or senior, operator’s license when they are 18 years old.

Commercial Driver's License

The commercial driver’s license, or CDL, is another class of the operator’s license. The Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986 describes the classes of the CDL and the distinctions. Class A, B and C licenses are based on the weight of the vehicle the driver is authorized to drive. Other considerations are whether the vehicle transports hazardous materials or if the vehicle is intended to carry 16 or more passengers. Federally prescribed and state-determined restrictions and endorsements may be applied to a vehicle operator’s commercial driver license.

Nationwide CDL Program

The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators promotes national standards to ensure that only qualified and trained drivers receive the commercial driver’s license. The association operates a nationwide CDL program to assist states in adhering to the provisions of the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986. The act establishes laws to regulate the CDL program, including standards for testing, revocation of a driver’s CDL and requirements for state-based CDL program information systems.

About the Author

Gail Sessoms, a grant writer and nonprofit consultant, writes about nonprofit, small business and personal finance issues. She volunteers as a court-appointed child advocate, has a background in social services and writes about issues important to families. Sessoms holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal studies.

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