Understand the Different License Classes
Licenses, Endorsements, Certificates
Understand the Different License Classes
California regulates driving by issuing driver’s licenses, endorsements and special certificates. A license grants a motorist the privilege to drive certain types of motor vehicles, while an endorsement to the license adds certain driving privileges and appears on the license itself. A certificate is a separate document that a motorist must carry in addition to her license in order to driver certain vehicles.
The noncommercial Class C license is the basic driver’s license in California and allows a motorist to operate most of the vehicles an ordinary driver would encounter. Class M1 and M2 licenses authorize the operation of motorcycles and motorized bicycles, respectively. A noncommercial Class A or Class B license allows a motorist to operate heavier trucks, camping vehicles and trailers, and carriers as long as the driving is not for compensation.
There are also commercial versions of all three license classes: the commercial Class C license allows the transportation of hazardous materials in a Class C vehicle if the motorist also has the HazMat endorsement. The commercial Class B license authorizes the operation of heavier vehicles for compensation, including three-axle vehicles and buses. The commercial Class A license is the granddaddy of all licenses, allowing the operation of any vehicle in the State of California (so long as the motorist has any required endorsement as well).
There is also a special type of restricted Class A and Class B license available that allows firefighters to operate firefighting vehicles without requiring them to undergo the full commercial licensing process for the Class A or Class B license.
California categorizes its driver’s licenses into eight classes: three commercial vehicle classes, three noncommercial vehicle classes, one motorcycles class and one motorized bicycle class. The commercial vehicle classes allow the operation of vehicles for compensation, and the noncommercial vehicle classes do not. Licensees who undergo special training may obtain endorsements or special certificates allowing them driving privileges in addition to their class of licenses.
Whether commercial or not, each class differs only in two respects: the kinds of vehicles allowed to be driven, and the kinds of vehicles allowed to be towed. These vehicles are defined in terms of the manufacturer’s gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR), the gross vehicle weight (GVW), the length in feet, the number of axles, and for towed vehicles, the type and weight of trailer.
Commercial licenses include all vehicles in the lesser classes as well, meaning that a Commercial Class A license also authorizes the operation and towing of any legal combination of Class B and Class C vehicles, while a Commercial Class B license also authorizes operation and towing of all Class C vehicles.
Noncommercial Vehicle Licenses
This basic operator’s permit allows a licensed motorist to operate any 2-axle vehicle of 26,000 lbs. or less GVWR, any 3-axle vehicle of 6,000 lbs. or less GVWR, any motorized scooter and any housecar 40’ or less. The licensee may tow a single vehicle with a GVWR of 10,000 lbs. or less, including a tow dolly if used.
If the licensee operates a vehicle weighing 4,000 lbs. or more unladen, he may also tow
• a trailer coach up to 9,000 lbs. gross
• a trailer coach or fifth wheel under 10,000 GVWR not for compensation, or
• a fifth wheel travel trailer up to 15,000 lbs. GVWR not for compensation if he gets the Fifth Wheel Endorsement under Section 12804.9(b)(3)(F)(ii).
No passenger vehicle of any weight may tow more than one vehicle, and no vehicle under 4,000 lbs. unladen may tow any vehicle weighing 6,000 lbs. or more gross. (Section 21715.)
Farmers and their employees may operate any combination of vehicles up to 26,000 lbs. if exclusively for farming and not for hire. (Section 12804.9((b)(3)(G).)
This very specific noncommercial license under Section 12804.10 Includes all rights under Class C and adds housecars over 40’ but less than 45’ with the Housecar Endorsement under Section 12804.15.
There are two noncommercial Class A licenses available (also called “Restricted Class A Licenses”) which includes all rights under Class C plus the towing of specific trailers behind a two-axle vehicle weighing at least 4,000 lbs. unladen. The first restricted Class A license allows the towing of a trailer coach exceeding 10,000 lbs GVWR or a fifth wheel travel trailer exceeding 15,000 lbs. GVWR. (Section 12804.12.) The second restricted Class A license allows the towing of a livestock trailer between 10,000 lbs. and 15,000 lbs. GVRW if (1) operated by a farmer; (2) used to transport livestock to and from a farm; (3) not used by a common or contract carrier; and (4) used within 150 miles of the person’s farm. (Section 12804.14(a).)
Commercial Vehicle Licenses
The Commercial Class C license is a very specific class which allows the transportation in a Class C vehicle of hazardous materials as defined in Section 353 or hazardous wastes if the driver has the Hazardous Materials Endorsement as provided by Section 15278(a)(4).
The Commercial Class B license allows a motorist to operate any Class C vehicle plus
- any single vehicle over 26,000 lbs. GVWR;
- any single vehicle with three axles or more, weighing at least 6,000 lbs. GVWR; and
- any bus (except a trailer bus) with the Passenger Endorsement under Section 15278(a)(2) and, when transporting farm laborers, a Farm Labor Certificate under Section 12519(a);
- any housecar more than 40’ long.
The Commercial Class B licensee may tow any vehicle a Class C licensed driver may tow plus any single vehicle with a GVWR of 10,000 lbs. or less if towed by a single vehicle with three or more axles or single vehicle with a GVWR of more than 26,000 lbs.
The Commercial Class A license allows a motorist to operate any Class B or Class C vehicle plus
- any combination of vehicles if any towed vehicle has a GVWR of more than 10,000 lbs.
VC 353, VC 12804.9(b)(3)(F)(ii), VC 12804.9((b)(3)(G), VC 12804.12, VC 12804.14, VC 12804.15, VC 15278, VC 21715