Do You Need a CDL License for Trucks With Air Brakes in North Carolina?

by Jacquelyn JeantyUpdated September 26, 2017

Prior to 1986, commercial drivers were not required to have licensing for specialized vehicles, such as tow trucks and trucks equipped with air brake systems. Changes in federal law imposed certain licensing requirements for commercial vehicles with specialized equipment designs. In North Carolina, drivers must obtain the standard CDL qualifications along with an additional license or endorsement for operating vehicles with air brake systems.

Federal Regulations

Under the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986, federal guidelines require anyone who drives a commercial vehicle to hold a commercial driver's license, or CDL, according to And while individual states set their own requirements for licensing, federal guidelines establish the minimum standards for operating a commercial vehicle. These standards differentiate among different classes and types of vehicles and ensure drivers hold the qualification needed to operate the type of vehicle they drive. In North Carolina, requirements for commercial licensing follow the federal standard, which includes special licensing for trucks equipped with air brakes.

Commercial Driver's License

Commercial drivers work within a range of different job roles, which include transporting merchandise, transporting hazardous materials and transporting people. Not surprisingly, commercial trucks vary by weight and equipment design to fulfill the different purposes that commercial trucks perform. In North Carolina, commercial drivers must pass a standard written test, a road test, a vision exam and provide a medical certificate showing health status. People who drive trucks equipped with air brakes must also take an additional test that covers air brake operation and use. Drivers applying for commercial licensing for trucks with air brakes must do road tests in a vehicle equipped with air brakes.

Vehicle Types

North Carolina regulations -- as well as regulations in other states -- use three classifications for commercial vehicles: Class A, Class B and Class C. According to, Class A vehicles include trucks used for towing, where the combined weight of the truck and tow exceeds 26,001 pounds with a tow weight of more than 10,000 pounds. Class B vehicles include single trucks that weigh over 26,001 pounds. Class C vehicles include trucks that transport hazardous material or vehicles that transport 16 or more passengers. Within each vehicle class, trucks can have different types of equipment, such as air brake systems, double trailers, triple trailers and trucks equipped to carry hazardous materials. Federal and state regulations require drivers to qualify for each additional equipment design in addition to the basic CDL requirements.


In order to operate a commercial vehicle with specialized equipment, drivers must qualify for endorsements in each specification. Endorsements represent a driver’s qualifications to drive a specially equipped vehicle and appear as codes on the actual driver’s license. In North Carolina, drivers must obtain an endorsement for air brake operation in order to drive a commercial vehicle that has air brakes. Drivers not qualified to operate a vehicle equipped with air brakes receive an “L” code on their license, which restricts them to vehicles that don’t have air brakes. Drivers must pass additional tests to receive endorsement qualifications and usually take these tests when applying for the regular commercial driver’s license.

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