Complete Guide To Becoming A Professional Truck Driver in Washington State
Open roads and jobs well done—that’s the goal of many who become truck drivers. Over $700 billion in goods travels by truck in the United States. The country’s economy in many ways depends on a healthy trucking industry.
Trucking requires the right person with the right skills. While only you can decide if you are the right person, the training and skills comes from the right driving school. The Pacific Northwest Professional Driving School (which we’ll call Pacific NWDS from now on) in Tacoma, Washington, is ready to provide you not only with those skills, but to assure you of a job—the vast majority of our graduates are placed in a job immediately after graduation.
Trucking salaries continue to remain excellent. It is one of the few highly-paid professions open to people without extensive post-secondary education. The base salaries in the industry in general begin around $30,000, and can rise to over $80,000. Walmart treats its drivers very well, and pays around $80,000. Trucking can rapidly become a lucrative career for you.
Veterans should also find this a rewarding career. It requires the focus and discipline instilled in you during your service, and allows you to coordinate activities in a logistics chain similar to the military’s.
This guide to becoming a professional truck driver will cover all the steps you need to take to receive a commercial driver’s license class A in Washington State. If you follow this guide and do the work, a strong career awaits you.
You can use a lot of this guide as a checklist as you move through the process. Make sure you’ve checked the current requirements from the state, as they may change. We’ve tried to be accurate here, but the links will help you make sure you’re doing it completely correctly.
- What You Can Expect to Learn
- State Requirements
- Knowledge Test
- Skills Tests
- Our Course
- The Trucking Life
. We look forward to seeing you at the school!
1. WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT TO LEARN
This guide will give you a good understanding of what to expect as you go through the process of obtaining your Commercial Driving Licence.
- State and Federal regulations covering the trucking profession.
- Washington State regulations and procedures for obtaining a CDL.
- A general idea of the Knowledge and Skills Tests, including specific skills tested.
- The outline of our four-week CDL course at Pacific Northwest Driving School.
- An overview of the trucking life.
- The some considerations if you want to think about being an owner/operator.
2. STATE REQUIREMENTSAs you can imagine, the Federal and State governments around the country regulate the trucking industry, including licensing. The intent of the regulations is to ensure safety on the highways, and not to keep people out.Licensing is mainly a function of the state governments, and each state has slightly different requirements and procedures. We’ll cover Washington state’s requirements and procedures here.The CDL. A commercial driver’s license (CDL) is required to drive many commercial vehicles. CDLs come in three classes. Class A allows driving all vehicles, while Classes B and C are limited. For example, driving a school bus requires either a Class B or C license, while driving a vehicle with a weight rating of 26,001 pounds or more requires a Class A CDL. For the rest of this guide, we’re going to assume you’re looking for a Class A CDL.Getting the CDL. In Washington, most drivers should be eligible for a CDL. You must be 21 years old or above to operate from state-to-state. The steps in the process for getting the CDL, as far as the state is concerned, are as follows.
- Visit a Washington driver licensing office which offers the knowledge testing required for the CDL.
- Bring your current license, SSN, and proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful permanent residency.
- Self-certify the type of driving you will be doing; you may have to provide a Medical Examiner’s certificate. We recommend self-certifying as a “non-excepted interstate commercial driver”, which will allow you the most flexibility when looking for a job.
- Have a Medical Examination, and carry a complete Medical Examiner’s Report. Some medical conditions are disqualifying unless you have a Federal exemption. The medical conditions which can disqualify a driver included diabetes, hearing, and vision problems. The Federal requirements cover interstate (state-to-state) CDLs only. If you are going to use your CDL in Washington State only (intrastate), then waivers are also possible.
- The medical certificates will be with you whenever you’re driving.
- The Knowledge Test is the next step. It’s offered in English, Spanish, Russian, and Serbian-Croatian. 8 CDL knowledge tests are available, and a pass rate of 80% is required for each test to proceed further. Take the tests which apply to the types of vehicles you hope to be driving.
- On passage, you receive your Commercial License Permit (CLP). The CLP is valid for 180 days, and can be renewed for another 180.
- The Pacific NWDS prepares you for these tests in Week One of the school. Your forty hours in the classroom will set you up for the knowledge tests, obtaining your CLP, and the rest of the course.
- Once you complete your driver training, you will take the skills test either with a Department of Licensing or Third-Party examiner.
- You will need to bring your Skills Test Results form as well as the school’s DOL training certificate with you to get your CDL after you’ve completed everything.
- You may drive a commercial vehicle only if someone with a CDL for the type you’re going to drive is in the seat next to you, giving instruction.
- That person must have at least 2 years’ driving experience in the type of vehicle, and must have been driving for at least 5 years.
- You may NOT drive a vehicle classified or placarded for hazmat. In addition, you can’t drive a passenger vehicle or school bus with passengers, or a vehicle you don’t have the endorsements for.
- The Pacific NWDS has the trainers you need to meet all these requirements.
- P1 Passenger vehicles weighing 26,001 pounds or more designed to carry 16 or more people.
- P2 Passenger vehicles weighing up to 26,000 pounds, designed to carry 16 or more people.
- S School buses
- T Double- or triple-trailers
- N Tank vehicles with tanks carrying 119 gallons or more and an an aggregate of 1,000 gallons or more.
- H Hazardous materials
- X The combination of N and H endorsements
- V Medical variance
3. KNOWLEDGE TESTWe know you want to get on the road. But before you can get there, you will have to sit and study and prepare for the knowledge tests. The first week of the Pacific NWDS program is designed to get your ready for these tests.Some of the requirements change as of September 1, 2017—make sure you’re paying attention to when you’ll be taking the test. Our instruction will prepare you for taking these tests. You can get an idea of what to expect from the state’s CDL guide.
- The General Knowledge test is required of all CDL applicants.
- The Combination Vehicles test is required for everyone who expect to drive Class A combination vehicles.
- The Passenger Transport test is required of all bus driver applicants.
- The Air Brakes test is required if your vehicle has air brakes, or air over hydraulic brakes.
- The Hazardous Materials test, if you expect to haul hazmat (this endorsement also requires the Transportation Security Administration background check).
- The Tank Vehicle test, if you’re looking to drive trucks with liquid or gaseous tanks meeting the N endorsement.
- The Doubles/Triples test, if you want to pull double/triple trailers.
- The School Bus test, if you want to drive a school bus.
4. SKILLS TESTSAt the end of your training at the Pacific NWDS, you’ll need to pass three skills tests. You must take the tests in the type of vehicle you want to be licensed to drive, and you must take them in the order we list below. The tests are done in English only, and you can’t have an interpreter. Don’t label anything in the vehicle.Schedule the tests at least 3 days in advance. Once you’ve passed all three tests, you must wait 1 day to get the CDL. The test scores are valid for 180 days.You will be tested either by a state examiner or a third-party examiner. You will not get to choose who your examiner will be, and must schedule the tests at least three days in advance. If you fail a part of the test, you will need to wait 3 days, except for the Road test—the waiting period then is 7 days.You should plan to take all three tests in the same vehicle or vehicle configuration, and that vehicle should meet the requirements of the CDL you’re looking to receive. Section 11 of the Washington state CDL guide outlines other requirements at the test site.You will want to know what to expect during the skills tests.Vehicle Inspection
- The vehicle inspection skill test requires you to walk the inspector around the vehicle, identify a variety of components, and explain why you are checking those components.
- You’ll open the hood of the engine compartment, but do not need to get under the vehicle.
- You will have to describe your actions.
- You’ll begin with the lighting components and air supply system.
- You’ll be able to conduct the rest of the inspection in any order.
- Expect to point to and touch each item you inspect, and explain how you check each item.
- The examiner may ask questions to make sure you know the items you’re inspecting.
- Section 11 of the Guide has full details.
- This skills test has three components: straight line backing, offset back/right, and alley dock.
- These tests are conducted between a series of cones, and the goal is to touch none of them—or at least as few as possible.
- These tests address basic maneuvers you as a truck driver must be able to complete.
- In the straight-line test, you will back up through two lines of cones.
- For the offset back/right, you will have to change lanes in reverse.
- The alley dock requires backing into a 90-degree angle.
- Section 12 of the Guide has more details.
- During the on-the-road test, you will demonstrate your ability to manage a number of typical driving situations.
- The examiner may ask you to demonstrate what you would do, if the situation is not available—for example, a railroad crossing may not be nearby, but the examiner may find another location such as a crosswalk and treat it like a railroad crossing.
- You will be asked to demonstrate basics such as turning, proceeding through intersections, changing lanes, and entering/exiting highways.
- You’ll be asked to demonstrate a safe roadside stop and start, as well as successful navigation of a railroad crossing.
- The examiner may ask you about traffic signs you’ve just passed, especially bridge/overpass clearance signs.
- Section 13 of the guide covers the On-road driving test.
5. OUR COURSEThe Pacific NWDS course takes four weeks to complete. Each week requires forty hours in attendance—you will probably not have time to work at a major job for the month. The course is designed to allow you to take and pass both the Knowledge and Skills tests in a very short period of time.Week 1The first week is most like school. Through video and live lectures, bookwork, and demonstrations, you’ll learn all about the theory behind managing a big rig, and will be able to pass your Knowledge test to obtain your CLP. This week builds the framework for the rest of the course.Week 2During the second week, you’ll focus on vehicle inspections, maintenance, and reporting. In addition, you’ll focus on backing up the trucks, as well as making corners. Many of these skills are on the first two Skills tests.Week 3The training during the third week focuses on road skills, building on the second week. You’ll be able to get onto the road for light traffic work, as well as work through the required inspections.Week 4During the fourth week, you’ll finally be out on the highways around Tacoma, as well as in medium and heavy traffic. Review of material will continue throughout the week. By the end of the fourth week, you should be ready to pass all three of the skills tests required by Washington.
6. THE TRUCKING LIFE
Like all careers, trucking is demanding, challenging, and rewarding. During your first year, the demands and challenges will show up quickly, but we expect you’ll also discover that the rewards will soon follow. In your first year, you’ll still be practicing the skills you demonstrated during our course and for the state examiner.
You will also be getting used to the new lifestyle. Especially if you’re doing cross-country trucking, you can expect to be away from home for extended periods of time. This change is something you and your family will need to plan on as you gear up for your new career.
First-year drivers are frequently not given the best of schedules, loads, or destinations. Treat this as an opportunity to demonstrate your reliability, competence, and work-ethic. The ability to drive from Tacoma to Boston and back, on time, will be noticed. If you show the trucking company that you can be counted on to keep to schedule safely, you will find better assignments coming your way quickly.
If you end up on the long-haul routes, you will have the opportunity to see more of the country and appreciate more of its people than people in most every other profession. You can find ways to turn that knowledge to your positive advantage.
Plan to be able to keep in touch with the folks at home. Cell phone and internet access should allow ready access to spouse and children—in addition to your dispatcher and shippers. Remember that your cab is also your office.
Down the road, you may want to consider becoming an owner/operator. This means you are your own boss, running your own business. The independence of being your own boss can be great, but you need to be ready to handle it—not everyone can. We don’t recommend beginning as an owner/operator, but if you’re interested, you should keep it in mind all through your years of driving for others.
Operating the business
You will have to run your truck as a business. You will have to develop an excellent reputation for reliable and safe service. You should have a tax adviser in your life early in your career as a trucker. Follow their advice as you work towards being an owner/operator.
The best way to make a living as an owner/operator is to become your own authority. In that state, you will serve as your own general contractor, and contact shippers directly. You’ll need to complete the required Federal paperwork. You’ll have to insure your operations, as well as follow all state requirements.
Once you have the insurance and authority, you will have to work with shippers to get business. This can be both challenging and rewarding. You are the entrepreneur, but if you are successful, you will find a way to a substantial income—you may even be able to buy more trucks and hire other drivers, becoming a true trucking company yourself.
You can also act as a lease operator. You lease your truck and services to a specific company or carrier. If you have your own authority and insurance, you will get a higher percentage of money. The key benefits of leasing in this way include dispatching, paperwork, fuel taxes, and maintenance—the company takes care of these expenses.
Trucking provides more independence than most other careers. You have the opportunity to make a living while seeing the country. You have a lot of freedom along the way. While the career can take you away from home, the satisfaction of getting your cargo to its destination on time will provide you with a great deal of job satisfaction.
When you’re ready to take your first steps into a great career, the Pacific Northwest Driving School will help truckers based in Tacoma and Pulluyaptake them. We look forward to seeing you at the school!