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When Do You Need a CDL to Drive Passengers?

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You’ve been tasked with the responsibility of transporting your entire extended family to and from the family reunion site, and you will have to hire a van to do so. Or, maybe you’ve decided to get a part-time job as a Lyft or Uber driver. Whether it’s for personal or commercial purposes, transporting passengers from point A to point B means reexamining your driving license to determine if you are legally allowed to drive passengers. If so, you should know exactly how many passengers you can transport and the specific vehicles. Federal and state laws establish the terms for which license is appropriate to your needs and dictate if you’ll need a commercial driver’s license.

Different States, Different Definitions

Most drivers in the United States hold a Class D license, which allows them to drive a vehicle that weighs between 10,010 and 26,001 pounds and can tow up to 10,000 pounds. This describes most cars, SUVs and vans that hold up to 15 people, and it includes the driver in the head count. Recreational vehicle, farm vehicle and some emergency transport drivers all drive on Class D licenses, and they are exempt from getting a commercial license.

Because some states classify the general-public driving license into separate categories with different names, check your state department of transportation or motor vehicle licensing department for the correct terminology and the type of license that’s issued for everyday driving.

Transporting Small Numbers of Passengers

Vehicles that hold 15 or fewer passengers are ideal for driving and escorting small groups. Athletic teams, club members or tour groups can be transported legally without the driver holding a commercial license. Types of small vans include a 15-passenger shuttle and a Ford Transit van, and even a 15-passenger Mercedes Sprinter is considered “small.” Twelve-passenger vans with room for two wheelchairs are also available, which don’t require commercially licensed drivers.

Consider Van Safety

A 12‒15 passenger rental van driver can operate the non-commercial use vehicle with just a Class D license, but he or she should be aware of the differences in the physics of driving such a large piece of machinery. According to the National Highway Safety Transportation Agency, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, weight and load totals can affect the performance of the van.

Vans are longer and wider than passenger cars, and they need more room to maneuver. You’ll also rely more on the side-view mirrors, especially when changing lanes. Be sure the lanes are clear before you start to switch.

Loaded vans are more susceptible to rollovers. The center of gravity is raised with the weight more prominent toward the rear. Driving a loaded van is not like driving a car because your steering is less responsive, and maneuvering through traffic is more difficult than when you’re driving a standard car or SUV. A van also needs more braking time. If you’re driving a rental van, do a thorough maintenance check before getting behind the wheel.

Most companies require drivers of 12 to 15-occupant vehicles to complete a passenger van driver training program. A clean three-year driving license is also required.

Loading Passengers

If you’re driving a 15-passenger van, safety starts when the people step in. Load your passengers from the front to the rear, trying to keep the majority of the weight in front of the rear axle. And the same rule holds for cargo. Never load any cargo on top of the van.

A casual driver who needs to transport more than 15 passengers should consider hiring two smaller vans, which means he can bypass the need to hold a commercial driving license. But keep van weight and load safety in mind.

Transporting Large Groups

School buses, church vans, touring buses or any other passenger vehicle that carries more than 16 people requires the driver to have a commercial Class C license. Even if the vehicle is empty, the driver must have the designated license. Some states issue a “P” endorsement onto the commercial license, indicating that the driver is qualified to drive passengers.

Any vehicle that’s used to transport students, regardless of the number, must be driven by a commercially licensed driver. That driver also needs his license endorsed with an “S,” proving he has passed both the skills and knowledge tests needed to drive students.

The Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act was put into effect in 1986 in response to the large numbers of multiple-passenger vehicle accidents. Previous laws did not require a driver of large groups to hold a commercial license. Since the law went into effect and drivers were required to hold a Class C license and undergo the testing necessary to get a Class C license, highway and passenger safety has improved.

Just as driving a 15-passenger vehicle involves a different set of skills, driving a larger vehicle depends even more on a trained driver.

Getting a Chauffeur’s License

If the car-for-hire to drive passengers weighs from 10,001 to 26,001 pounds and is deemed a commercial vehicle, a chauffeur’s license is required.

Each state has its own requirements for obtaining a chauffeur’s license, but most require the driver to hold a basic driver’s license along with successful completion of a knowledge and vision test.

Getting a Commercial Driver’s License

All states establish their own rules and regulations for issuing commercial driving licenses, but most set the minimum age at 21. If you are under 21, you may be allowed to get a commercial license, but you cannot cross state lines. You also need to be a licensed driver and have two years’ driving experience before you can apply for a commercial license.

A newly licensed commercial driver won’t be put in charge immediately of a vehicle as a solo driver. He’ll ride with an experienced driver for several months until he’s confident of the vehicle and his abilities. Carrying passengers carries heavy liability, and most companies are hesitant to push the envelope where passenger safety is involved.

When you apply for your commercial license, you must be ready to present your social security card, a valid passport, birth certificate or a green card. Speaking English is mandatory, as is passing a Department of Transportation medical examination. Passing background checks, and, in some states, passing a commercial driving course, is required.

Owning a commercial license alone does not allow you to carry passengers. You must get a “P” endorsement to the license. Again, states vary as to the requirements for obtaining endorsements, but the requirement to take a special written and driving test is considered the normal path for obtaining a “P” endorsement.

Strict federal guidelines also are in place, especially if you want to transport passengers on a commercial basis in a vehicle that seats nine to 15 passengers.

Whether the passenger pays you directly or you’re paid by the transportation company that hires you, the federal government sets the standards for insurance and safety. Your state determines the class of license you are required to obtain. The rules vary as to the purpose and frequency of the transportation.

Breaking Down the License Classes

The Class C license allows a driver who holds a P endorsement to drive passengers. The vehicle must weigh less than 26,001 pounds. A driver of a van that holds 16 people or more must have a Class C commercial driving license.

A Class B commercial license includes all lower classed license holders. There is no weight restriction on this commercial license, but in order to drive passengers, you’ll need the “P” endorsement on your license. Passenger bus drivers hold a Class B license with the endorsement, as do school bus drivers, who must also pass a background check.

As a holder of a Class A license, you can drive all commercial vehicles, but you still need a “P” endorsement to carry passengers.

Check with your state licensing bureau to determine state-specific regulations.

Drivers of Cars for Hire

Uber and Lyft are the two main commercial passenger companies. If you want to drive for them, the only license you’ll need is a basic driver’s license. No commercial license is required.

In addition to the class license, other requirements include:

  • A car with four doors and seat belts in the front and back.
  • It must be newer than the year 2000.
  • Appropriate insurance coverage
  • You must pass a background check

Neither company hires drivers under the age of 21. Uber allows those who have held a license for at least one year to drive for them, while Lyft requires that their drivers hold licenses for at least three years. Above all, you must have a clean driving record.

In addition, you have to keep your vehicle inspected according to the regulations in your state. Other state-specific rules for carrying paid passengers include having a business license, paying a general excise tax (Hawaii), and notifying your car’s lien holder that you are using the car to transport ride share passengers. Check with your company representative to determine the regulations pertinent to your state.

Licensing Requirements for Taxi Drivers

If you’re considering a career or even a part-time job as a taxi driver, you are required to obtain the appropriate license. As with all licensing rules and regulations, each state sets its own.

Having a basic driver’s license with endorsements for taxis or livery vehicles opens the door to driving a taxi. A commercial driving license is not required unless you plan to work for a company that offers large vans that seat more than 16 people. Your age, how experienced you are at driving, along with a background check – all are considered before a taxi company can hire you.

Side Job Dangers

In many communities, local drivers offer their services for a small fee, and they transport their neighbors to and from the airport, their doctors’ appointments, and even on their shopping expeditions. This kindness is convenient as the passengers get to know the drivers, and a comfort and personal safety level is generally maintained. Until it isn’t.

Accidents happen. And when they do, your car insurance sets the basis for whom is covered for what. Be sure you have full medical or uninsured coverage for both you and your passengers if you are at fault in an accident. This should not be optional if you plan to drive any type of passenger.

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About the Author

Jann has had a variety of careers, which makes writing about them a natural. Writer. Editor. Business Owner. World-traveler. Filmmaker. Author. All have enhanced her life experience.