CDL Blog Part 2: Getting Behind the Wheel

CDL Blog Part 2: Getting Behind the Wheel

Studying and training for a commercial driver’s license is a non-trivial effort, especially if you’re trying to obtain a CDL in just a few weeks.

If I owned a heavy-duty pickup and trailer, I could have practiced with that before taking the CDL test, but I don’t. So to help with my effort, I signed up for a $1,200 end-to-end class with Universal Trucking School near downtown Los Angeles.

Universal’s package includes a minimum of 20 hours of guided instruction behind the wheel of a Class 6 Freightliner FL70 semi pulling a 30-foot trailer, a rig to borrow for the driving test, California’s CDL paperwork (saving me a trip to the DMV) and a study guide to the CDL exam.

First up was a visit to the doctor. California requires a medical professional (a physician, physician’s assistant, registered nurse or chiropractor) to complete the Department of Motor Vehicles’ Medical Examination Report DL 51, which certifies that a person meets the medical standards to operate a commercial motor vehicle. It took a few days to schedule, but I was in and out of the doctor’s office with the completed paperwork in less than an hour.

Next, I’ve started making notes and flashcards about California’s CDL rules, regulations and guidelines. More on that in a later blog post.


Today was the biggest step so far. It was my first time driving a circa-2000 Freightliner. Universal has around 10 of these training rigs. The odometer registered 95,440 miles, but I’m pretty sure that means it has 1,095,440 miles on it because it’s one tired old hauler. It also had a six-speed manual transmission and either a CAT or Cummins diesel idled under its long nose. I didn’t have time to look.

The Freightliner is a long truck, and you sit up high – much higher than in a light- or heavy-duty pickup. For most late-model truck buyers, its manual transmission is an oddity. GM and Ford have dropped manuals all together, leaving Ram 2500 and 3500 HDs as the last big pickups to carry on with an optional handshaker in the cab. All of my driving will be done with the six-speed manual.

In the cab, Universal’s instructor took two minutes to orient me to the Freightliner’s major driver-support features: an adjustable seat and steering wheel, and the air brake controls for the truck and trailer. Then the trainer fired up the truck, showed me how to drive forward 100 feet in a straight line (piece of cake) and then back into a coned parking spot (ay caramba!)

After demonstrating the maneuver once, it was my turn. The trainer stood outside the cab to shout maneuvering instructions on the fly. He provided hand signals to tell me which way to turn the steering wheel and three pieces of advice. The first was to feel the tractor balancing the trailer behind it. Second was to keep my eyes focused only on the driver-side rearview mirror. And third was to constantly adjust the steering wheel left or right as I backed up.


It took five or six times pulling forward and backing up to get used to the truck. The Freightliner’s stiff clutch felt like I was doing one-legged squats, and I had no idea where it would stall. I also had a difficult time lining up the trailer with the cones because the key to backing up a trailer is to steer in the opposite direction you want the trailer to go when you’re in Reverse. I wound up overcorrecting several times to the point where I had to pull forward to avoid hitting cones.

By around the 10th time, I started to get a solid feel for the truck. I rode the clutch excessively to prevent stalling, but I also started to understand what the instructor meant by constantly steering the rig as I backed it up.

Instead of making large maneuvers when it looked like the trailer was going off course, I started making small but frequent left-right-repeat corrections with the wheel, keeping my eye solidly on the trailer’s side and its left wheels in relation to the cones in the rearview mirror. Constantly correcting provided the balance I was looking for, and by the 20th time, I was no longer riding the clutch while backing up. I simply shifted from Reverse to 2nd gear to pull forward and then shifted right back into Reverse 100 feet ahead of the cones to start the process over.


I eventually spent two hours simply pulling forward and shifting into Reverse about 30 times in all, and by the end I was very happy with my progress. I thought I had made a big mistake getting a CDL on a medium-duty truck when I had only tried it five or six times.

But today was the easy part. In the next few days, I’ll start learning how to do offset backing up to the right and left into a different lane instead of straight back. I’ll also learn how to back up sharply into an alley dock and parallel park in spaces on the left (sight side) and right (conventional) sides of the truck before I can attempt the driving test.

This is going to be a challenge, but as I learned today, the more I practice the easier it should be.


That is why I have a rear parking camera I can only imagine backing that thing into a desired space.

@ Mike - sounds like a lot of fun.

Bravo, Mike! Sounds like it will be a great learning experience.

Mike, u make it sound like u've never towed a trailer before. I figure u being an owner of a pickup truck site n having driven numerous trucks that it would be a breeze backing any trailer up. My experience has been that short trailers r harder than long trailers to back up.

I've towed lots of trailers with lots of trucks but not one this large with a semi. It took a while to get used to both. I'm feeling good about it today.

good luck Mike it's pretty simple just pay attention and you will do fine

I have friends that drive mostly super B trains. One friend went back to single trailer 45 ft. semi trailers and it took him a few days to re-adjust to backing up.
I'd agree with Mike, it is all based on what you are used to.
The clutch sounds really stiff on his trainer. I haven't driven anything big in years but the last truck I drove was an R600 Mack. The clutch was easy to use. It shifted as easy as any manual trans pickup.

hmmm, looks just like a ford interior no? Well, I am here to tell all you ford and dodge fans that I predict the Mighty Duramax diesel in the Silverado HD and Sierra HD'S will win the Shootout and leave Ford and Dodge fighting it out for second place.

So let it be written, so let it be done!

haha bob you make me laugh even tho i agree with you LOL you'll do fine mike i don't see no knocked over cones or strips down the side of the trailer you got it buddy good lucky hope you get it im sure you will

@ Bob - what is with the super nice guy routine from the "Rally Colorado " thread?
quote "Last post before the weekend. I want those of you who are out there wondering how to resond and letting the hate and negativity into your life to just stop and shake it off. You don't want to be one of those people, make the choice to let it go and move forward."
Quote "I don't have time to waste anymore. I'm not going to argue with anyone anymore."

Now you are full on, point blank, not even subtle bashing!

Obviously, you are not a man of your word!

Mike, You must have had the Navigation screen set to 'very dark' because I can't make out what it says on that interior picture. Were the seats heated and cooled? ;)

@Lou: It's two different Bobs.

@ford850: It's also missing a tach!

@ Mike - Thanks, that makes perfect sense. It didn't sound like the "Bob" we know and love ;)

@ Mike - you going to end up with a Schwarzeneggeresque left leg after this is all done? LOL

One last comment
- there should be a disclaimer/warning on this site for any "alternative" Bobs. Use the name Bob "At your own risk". LOL

I'll look like a reverse fiddler crab. LOL.

OK, from now on I will be known as Michigan Bob so people don't get me confused with other people named Bob. So for the record, the Mighty Duramax Diesel in the Silverado HD and the Sierra HD will win the shootout against the 2011 Ford Super Duty and the all New High Output Cummins Diesel that matches fords super duty with 800 foot pounds of torque.

We will see if that is enough to beat GM'S Duramax with only 765 foot pounds of torque. My money is on the proven Duramax diesel and the proven Allison Transmission.

Ford does have the "man step' though! Haaa haaa haaa

You only need 20 hours of actual driving to obtain a CDL?

When I got my CDL back in Holland I had about 80 (required) hours behind the wheel of a Semi. Getting a drivers license here is way too simple.



@Michigan Bob - you are now sounding like the other Bob ;)
what is wrong with the man step?
My 11 year old, arthritic black lab has figured how to climb in and out of my truck with the "man step".
If she can figure it out a GM guy could (well maybe not). LOL

Good luck Mike. Learn the pre-trip cold and you'll have some wiggle room on the road test. Also, pay attention to bridge heights signs, speed limit signs, etc. They love to ask you what the bridge clearance was under the bridge you just went under, or whether you're in a 35 or a 40 MPH speed zone.

@UncleBud - wonder if it would be useful to just call those out as you see them. Kind of like when I did my check ride in a Cessna 172, as we approached the plane we just told the instructor pilot what we were looking for, what we were doing, and did it thru all of the flight.

@bob hmmm, looks just like a ford interior no?
Are you really making fun of ford's interior when GM has the most outdated interior of the big 3?

Backing up a semi is just like dealing with your wife. You tell it to do one thing and she does just the oppposite!

Cat or Cummins? You mean you couldn't tell just by the sound it made idling? They might flunk you just for that! The docking maneuver isn't to tough. Go slow and don't over-steer the thing. Remember where the nose is. Lots of guys will get the trailer lined up O.K. but will knock over a bunch of cones with the tractor's front bumper in the process.

They use Concrete Blocks to simulate various load conditions when driver training here. I agree with Woodpud 20 hours does not sound like much. Most HDT Trucks here are now Automatic or AMT's, a whole lot better than changing a million gears manually.

Forgot to add that you needed to have considerable experience on other vehicles before attempting to get a Commercial truck Licence here.


Keep the shiny side up,Good Buddy !!

Watch out for the Smokeys !!

And keep it between the ditches !!

Sorry,I couldnt resist...

By the way, I learned how to drive a old semi (1971 White 4000)on my uncles property when I was 14..For some reason to this day I always think what it would of been to become a trucker,being chased by the smokeys,having a chimp ride shot gun ,scantily clad women all over the truck..ect...ah,the good old days !!

Ford and GM guys are fighting who's truck is better,more manly..well......

Today we are left with only 1 real man truck...The Dodge RAM h.d with a standard shift !!!

Ford/GM duelly trucks are for women (automatics).Real men drive heavy duty trucks that are STANDARD !! Nothing like shifting a Diesel !! Sorry Ford and GM fanboys,you are left with sissy trucks,thats why in Canada Dodge RAM is the best selling Diesel around !!!

@Aint a Furd or Gumby Motors !!
How long do you think Ram will actually keep the manual trans around once the new 8 speed comes out?
Fuel economy standards will kill manual trans as quick as poor sales of trucks with them.
Standard transmissions in pickups are a dying breed.

You need a manual transmission to be a man?
I bet you stand abnormally close to the porcelain in the restroom.

@Rick, I learned that from the guy that failed me on my first pre-trip inspection, and later in life, I applied it when I took my check-ride in a Piper Cherokee 140.
@Mike Levine, we're giving you pearls here!!!

@Lou, good one!

@Mike Levine, live and die by your checklist. It will cover your a$$ before you go, and if you have trouble along the way, it will save your a$$, and if you go to court one day without proof that you followed the checklist, it will cost you your a$$!!! Airplanes and trucks are similar in such fashion. Pre-trip and keep records. Dead freaking serious.

@Rick am I right?

These tips are solid gold. Thanks!

So to get a CDL you have to take a physical and pee test every year right? Sounds annoying just to drive your truck.

@tommy, if you have a heart attack and die in your car and crash into a house, you might take out the dining room. Do that in a tractor trailer and you take out the whole block.

@Tommy - You are required to take a pee and DOT test every 2 years, unless you have a medical condition such as high blood pressure which will only get you a 1 year DOT card.

With the new CSA 2010 rules in place the responsibility falls on the company as much as it does the driver. A lot of the old heads in the business still have not heard about CSA and many companies don't even bother telling their drivers about it. Bottom line if you get caught by DOT or Johnny Law with a violation or they put your rig in out of service (OOS) it will go on your driving record. After a few offenses you could lose your CDL license. If your rig is not safe to drive FOR ANY REASON you must tell your company and REFUSE to drive it. If the company gives you any slack call the DOT.

Mike I hope you like the tips I left for you on Facebook. The most important thing you can do when you get to the DMV is ace the pre-trip inspection, that way if you make a driving mistake and they take points you should still be able to pass. Not sure about CA but Delaware made me do a 20 min drive around the state capital of Dover on different road types (highway, two lane, city) and then 3 types of parking, load dock (backing up to a set of cones, got to be withing a foot without hitting them), parallel parking withing a cone box, again not hitting any cones, and parking in a tight space so the truck is at a 90 degree angle to the trailer... again not hitting any cones or automatic fail.

@Lou: is there any real proof a manual gets worse mileage? If I had a manual and you had an auto and the final drive ratio was exactly the same, I would come up better on mileage on the highway. And if you know what your doing with a manual and don't abuse it you will spend far less in maintainance. plus you are in control yourself, not some computer!

@ trxTom
i have always known manual to get better FE IF the driver knew what he was doing, the problem you have is how many people want manual vehicles (not many) and how many people can actually drive one, i always like manuals but sit in a few traffic jams and you will soon change your mind

@Mike...speaking of towing trailers, what's the latest on the F150 trailer towing comparison? (5.0 vs 6.2 vs ecoboost)

Is this manua tranny topic back? If people had been screaming for manuals, there would still be one. The time has come for you to move into the 21st century and start educating yourself on what the MODERN automatics are all about. And don't get me started on a diesel ($7000) instead of gas ($700) being a real truck when all you tire kickers are coming on the lot saying, "Why are these trucks so expensive? Don't they know we're in a recession?"

Manual transmissions used to get better MPG ratings than auto's. The new auto transmissions with lock up torque converters no longer have the same losses as the older ones. The 6 speed tranny's and most likely 8 speed ones will be very efficient. They do a better job than 99% of the people out there.
Do I have proof.
Just anecdotal.
Feel free to post any comparisons. I don't have a problem with being proven wrong. (Unless your name is Bob).
I read that 15% of vehicles in North America are sold with manual transmissions. That number is going down to 8% in 2012.

@ Lou
no i think you got it right

@Dan the Man - what I found interesting is that in Europe, only 15 % of vehicles are automatic and 85 % are manual. I've always prefered manuals in trucks but I really like the auto tansmissions I've driven in the last few years. Things like tow/haul, hill descent mode, down shifts with braking etc. have removed the rest of my misgivings about auto transmissions. I also like the fact that my kids or dogs can't get into the vehicle and knock my truck out of gear.

Take and turn an auto trans and see how much effort it takes, then turn a manual. There will be way more effort needed in an auto. How about the way auto trans have driven up the cost on new trucks? I do agree they are making them better though, tuffer, and and the features on them. Dont know where the 8% number comes from but my step bro appreciates that autos are more in use, he will be glad to rebuild them at his shop. I guess alot of it is people just don't learn how to drive a manual, and of course people that would have to hold their phones. Oh well, I just got a 96 Camry 5 speed to save a bit of gas and drive a truck more when I need a truck.

...and one question. Does the six speed in this Freightliner need clutched evertime, or is it like the 13 speed I got my class A with, get it moving with the clutch, never again use it until you stop? Glad I was lucky enough to learn how to drive a manual in a 69 Dart, no regrets on the absense of the "three on the tree"

@trxTom: Yes, the clutch is needed for every gear change.

@Mike Levine: I have never used that type but have used from the 5 speed in a dumptruck moving about 48,000 pounds up to class trucks max 80,000 pounds with the clutch that you only use to get it moving. Sorry my terminoligy is off on that, but I think they should teaching you on the ones where the clutch is not needed, like 10 and 13 speeds. I can't imagine there is many 6 speeds like this out there. I know the smaller trailer can be harder to back, but if they would let people drive around with a 48 footer, that I THINK would be better learning knowing just how much room you need to make that 90 degree turn.

*class A 80,000*

@unclebud - missed your comment, but yes you are absolutely correct. Checklists are your savior.

As time goes on you will learn (or should) to shift without the clutch. Your left leg will appreciate it!
You use the clutch to take off and stop only. Their not synchronized transmissions.

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