On Tuesday, just a few days away, I’ll be taking my CDL skills test. I’ve been in class for only 5 weeks, so it’s hard for me to believe that I might already get an actual legal license allowing me to travel all over the entire country in a giant 80,000-pound vehicle with bouncy seats, full of buttons and gauges with brakes that run on a system using air. Or that the instructors even think I’m ready for this test… already.
When I went on the road last week with instructor Brian, he took me all over the place, and at one point he asked, “do I have you totally lost?” I told him he did and that I had no idea where we were. We were in Little Chute. I got a lot of practice in that day, and I felt pretty good about how I was driving. Once back at the school, I parked in the “truck stop” and Brian showed me a few tricks for a smoother start from a stop (I was much better at this in our previous truck), and he pointed out just a few things for me to work on. Then he wrote something down, pointed at it and said, “when you get a chance, head over and pay for your CDL test.” He felt I was ready and was going to schedule me for next week. I was shocked, instantly nervous and didn’t really feel ready, but these instructors know what they’re doing, and I’m going to trust them.
Later they explained to us that they understand we might not feel 100% ready for the test when they tell us they’re going to schedule us, but they see cues that we are on an “upswing.” We are improving at a certain rate and that this is the perfect time to test. It won’t be long and we’ll sort of plateau for a little bit, and possibly even slow down as we become a little too comfortable. It’s the perfect time while we’re fresh and still hyper-aware of the several things we have to stay focused on. It makes sense and strangely made me feel a little bit better about it.
But I am still nervous. At night when I can’t fall asleep, I’m visualizing my truck in my mind and going over each part and reciting what I need to say when I point to it during the pre-trip inspection part of the test. I visualize doing an offset or 90-degree backing exercise. I’m thinking about that right mirror and how I neglect it sometimes when I’m out on the road. I think of corners and not hitting curbs. The thing that’s scary about this CDL test is that you can do every single thing perfect, but there are these few thing that can automatically fail you. There’s obvious ones, like doing something dangerous or getting into an accident. But there’s simpler ones, too, like speeding. Or hitting a curb. I’m sure you’ve seen semi drivers jump their trailer tires up over a curb once or twice. If I even so much as kiss that curb with a trailer tire, I fail. I’ve done it a few times practicing, and you all know about my snowbank story!! Well, yeah… needless to say, that would fail me, too. On top of all this, it’s winter, and a snowbank equals a curb, so if my tires brush a snowbank… fail. These are the little things that worry me. I’ve been doing amazing on my turns during my last few runs, so I shouldn’t be worried, right? But what if the ONE day I cut that corner just a wee bit too short… is Tuesday morning? Better to take those turns wide (which is one point off), than to take it too tight, brush a curb and fail. It’s strategy, I suppose.
To be completely honest, these nerves are fueled a little bit from excitement, too. It kind of makes me feel “alive” to do something so completely different that anything I’ve ever done before, and so far, I’m succeeding at it. And driving a big truck is simply just fun.
So to help mentally prepare myself, and share with you all out there who are curious, here’s how the CDL test works. There are three parts to it, and I pay $50 for each part. So I’ve already paid a full $150 to take the test. If I fail the first part, I do not continue, I pay another $50, reschedule and try again. If I pass the first part, but fail the second, I do not continue, pay another $50 for part two, reschedule and start on part two. Same with if I pass the first two parts but fail the third. For each part I would need to repeat, I have to fork out another $50 and reschedule. Obviously it’s best to just pass all three the first time!
Here are the three parts to the test:
Part 1: Pre-Trip Inspection
There are four “forms” for the pre-trip inspection and I will randomly be given one. Each “form” represents a different section of the vehicle. It could be just the engine compartment, the part just past the engine compartment to the drive axles of the tractor, just the trailer, or the entire vehicle. I actually hope I just get the whole thing because that’s what I’m used to checking. I need to point out things and describe what I’m looking for. “Looks good” is not acceptable. I have to say things like, “I’m looking at all the hoses and making sure there are no holes, breaks or leaks.” I have to point to the air compressor and say, “The air compressor is securely mounted, all bolts are present and they are all tight.” I have to point to the fan belt and say, “The belts all have the proper amount of play and there are no frays, chafing, glazing or cracks.” There’s a whole lot more, but I think I’m getting them down okay. Also part of this test is checking the coupling system (where the trailer is attached to the tractor), an external lights check, an in-cab inspection (signals, mirrors, horns, defrosters, emergency equipment, etc.), and an air brakes test. If I forget to push in the buttons to release the brakes and continue through the air brakes test, this is an automatic fail. I will not forget to push those buttons in! If I fail at any point, I stop there and do not continue with the rest of the test. I pay another $50 and reschedule and try again in a few days. If I do pass, I move onto the second part of the CDL skills test, which is backing.
Part 2: Backing
There are three backing exercises I’ll need to complete successfully to pass, and this is probably the area I am most concerned about, because if I flub up and just have a hard time correcting myself, points will start racking up and when I hit 12 points I fail. Each back gets a set amount of free pull-ups, which means you can pull the vehicle forward to reposition yourself without losing points. After you’ve used the free pull-ups, you lose 1 point for each additional pull-up. Each back also gets a set amount of free “looks,” which means you can leave the seat and get out of the vehicle to check your position. Same with pull-ups, you lose 1 point for each additional “look” once you’ve used up all of your free “looks.” Then there’s encroachment. If your vehicle crosses any boundary line during the exercise, you lose 2 points the first encroachment, then 4, then 6, 8, 10 and 12. Final position is important, too. If you aren’t in the proper final position at the end of the backing exercise, you lose 10 points. And the tricky part is that your 12 points are for all three backing exercises combined.
The first back is called a straight-line back. I pull up through a lane of cones, stop, activate my 4-ways, sound the horn and begin backing in a straight line all the way through the same lane of cones until the nose of my truck is behind the last set of cones. I stop, apply my parking brakes and sound the horn to communicate to the tester that it’s complete. I get one pull-up and one “look” for this exercise.
The second back is called an offset back to the left. From the straight-line back, I pull back up through the same lane of cones, stop, activate the 4-ways, sound the horn and begin backing to a lane that’s behind me and to my left. I have to back into that lane until the nose of my truck is behind the first set of cones. I get two free pull-ups and two free looks during this back.
The third back is the 90-degree back and the most difficult. The cones are reset, and I drive around and line up my tractor and trailer 90 degrees to the lane I want to back into. I activate my 4-ways, sound the horn, crank the steering wheel sharply to the right so my trailer will cut into the lane that is to my left, and slowly and carefully start counter-steering just perfectly to get the trailer to tuck in between the first two cones. I need to get my entire vehicle straight in that lane, with the ICC bumper (which is the big, metal bumper at the end of the trailer) in a space 3-feet wide at the end of the lane. I get two free pull-ups and two free looks for this back, and if I’m not sitting with my ICC bumper in that 3-foot box at the end of the lane for final position, I lose 10 points, so this part is a pretty big deal. It’s wise to save a “look” for this part so you are certain you are positioned correctly before sounding your horn to signal that you’ve completed the back.
Part 3: Road Test
On this part of the test, we go out onto the road with the tester giving us turns and instructions when to merge lanes, asking us what signs said after we passed them, all the while marking checks down on a score sheet in their lap. We are tested on turns, shifting, awareness, intersections, traffic checks, curves, railroad crossings, the highway, and even a roadside stop and start. As I mentioned earlier, there are a few things that are automatic fails, like an accident, a dangerous act, not wearing a safety belt, law violations, impeding traffic (for example, if I pull out into an intersection and a car needs to slow down or stop for me), or bumping a curb.
So there it is. This is where my brain is going to be, hopefully at 100%, on Tuesday morning. I will be focusing on staying relaxed, confident and just doing my thing that I know how to do… but I could still use some happy vibes if you think of it that morning! If I fail? Well, then I fail and try again… but I’m shooting for one and done.
Tonight I love opportunities. It looks as though Adam and I might have another employment opportunity, and we’re both pretty darn excited about this one. The trucking industry sure is interesting!