How to Get Your Registered Tow Truck Operator License


Whether navigating the frenzied streets of New York City or the steep cliffs of Arizona, drivers always have a need for well-trained, certified tow truck operators.

When Ernest Holmes, Sr., of Chattanooga, Tennessee, first conceived of the idea for towing disabled vehicles in 1916, he never could have imagined it would become a billion dollar industry or that it would provide tens of thousands of career opportunities each year. If you are considering becoming a tow truck operator, there are a few key steps you will need to take before hitting the open roads.

As more vehicles travel on our roadways each year, there are also more opportunities for licensed tow truck drivers. In many cases, the need for a tow truck driver stems from a vehicle breakdown, an accident or an illegal parking situation, so the driver must be well-versed not only in how to operate their tow, but in how to deal with people in stressful situations.

As of 2015, the average salary for a tow truck driver was $26,000. The continued job outlook is good since there will never be a time when the world doesn’t need tow truck drivers.


How to Become a Registered Tow Truck Driver

There are several steps to becoming a registered tow truck driver, some of which differ by state. Prospective tow trucks drivers should contact the Department of Transportation for their state to learn about the specific laws and guidelines.

In general, an applicant for a tow truck driver position should:

  1. Meet the age and education requirements. While there is no set age restriction for tow truck drivers, other than being an adult of at least age 18, many companies won’t hire anyone younger than 21 or 25. This ensures that the tow truck driver has several years of driving experience. Most tow truck companies also require their drivers to have at least a high school diploma or GED.
  1. Have a valid driver’s license and clean driving record. Getting your standard state issued driver’s license is an easy step to becoming a tow truck driver. Most tow companies will also take a look at their prospective employee’s personal driving record. Someone with a history of speeding tickets, DUIs or general traffic violations is unlikely to be hired. If you work in an area that closes borders another state, you may also need to be certified in that state as well, though this depends on the company.
  1. Pass a physical assessment. Although there are no general physical requirements for becoming a tow truck driver, you must be in good health for the physical demands and long hours of the job. Many tow truck drivers will also be required to pass vision and hearing tests, along with a drug screening. Due to the heavy machinery that’s used, all tow truck drivers must be drug-free. It’s unlikely that a company would hire a driver with a drug record or any signs of drugs in his or her system.
  1. Consider getting a commercial driver’s license (CDL). Not all tow truck employment opportunities require a CDL, but the United States Department of Transportation does require this specialized license for anyone operating a truck and cargo that weighs more than 26,001 pounds. While a light duty truck weighs about 14,000 pounds, a medium duty truck weighs at least 26,000. Once a towed vehicle is added, the total easily passes the limit needed for a CDL.

There are also extra steps involved in a CDL, such as taking both a written and driver’s test, but having the certification makes a potential tow truck driver much more attractive to an employer. If you plan to be a truck driver only as a side job or for a short period, you may not need a CDL, but if you want to be a versatile employee who can take on bigger work, you should get you CDL. So the short answer to “do you have to have a CDL to drive a tow truck?” is “no, but it helps.”

  1. Submit to a background check. Since a tow truck driver’s main responsibility is to move a person’s valuable possessions (their vehicle and contents) from one location to another, they must be trustworthy. Anyone with a felony on their record is unlikely to be hired. Other crimes that may be minor but show a pattern of taking other people’s property may also disqualify that person from being a tow truck driver. Some states also require that tow truck drivers be fingerprinted before starting their job. This varies by state, so check with your Department of Transportation for full details.

Potential tow truck drivers will also need to decide what type of tow truck they wish to operate. Although there may be some variations within each type, the main types of tow truck are:


  1. Conventional tow truck — also known as a hook and chain truck, these are what most people think of when they refer to a tow truck. Chains are wrapped around the axles and frames of the vehicle that needs to be towed. The back arm of the truck then lifts the vehicle so only two of the wheels remain on the ground, making it easy for the vehicle to be towed when put in neutral. Hook and chain trucks aren’t as popular as they once were, mainly because the chains can scratch the vehicle’s paint and cause other damage. They are used most often in response to an accident where the vehicle that is towed is already damaged. All-wheel drive vehicles also can’t be lifted by a conventional tow truck because it can damage the driving system.
  1. Wheel lift or full float truck — based on the same mechanism used by hook and chain trucks, wheel lifts use a metal yoke that lifts one of the axles (either the front or back of the car) off the ground by touching only the tires of the vehicle. Hydraulics, rather than chains, stabilize and suspend the vehicle, making it much less likely that the vehicle can be damaged in the process.
  1. Flatbed trucks — also called rollback trucks, flatbeds are usually used to move more expensive vehicles or those that have been so badly damaged in an accident that the wheels won’t rotate on their own. The truck has a hydraulic system that lowers and raises the truck bed onto a ramp so the vehicle can be loaded on.

While working at a tow truck company, you’ll usually be assigned to a specific type of truck. It’s important to know the limitations of that tow truck and when you’ll need to call in a different truck based on the situation.


Tow Truck Driver Training

Training to become a tow truck driver is vital, as there are many laws and standards based on the state in which you will be working. Many companies offer on-the-job training if you are willing to start as an apprentice or if you work part-time with the company.

The best way to get started as a tow truck driver is to talk to other tow truck operators in your area and find out which companies and driving firms offer the best training opportunities. Even after a truck driver has experience, additional training will take place any time he or she changes employer to learn that particular company’s policies and record keeping system.

Once you do become a tow truck driver, consider taking extra classes to get ahead. Educational institutions such as Vista College offer online continuing education courses for tow truck drivers who are looking for more than on-the-job experience. Vista College’s StateCE program is nationally recognized for providing professionals with affordable, state-specific continuing education courses that are time-efficient and Internet based.

By using the StateCE self-study program, students can more closely manage their educational experience. From the speed at which you move through the course material to how frequently you practice, you are in complete control. Once you have completed and passed all of the tow truck driver course requirements, you will be able to print your certificate of completion and StateCE will provide your state with your educational credits information within one business day.

Due to Vista College and the StateCE program’s more than 50 years of combined continuing educational experience in the towing industry, you can be confident that the material you learn is the most up-to-date and accurate information available.

Tow Truck Driver Responsibilities

In addition to the actual steps you need to take to become a tow truck operator, you must consider your working conditions and schedule. There is no getting around it — earning a living as a tow truck operator can be hard, dirty work. Tow truck drivers are often called on to make minor repairs to broken down vehicles such as jumpstarting batteries, changing tires and helping customers who are locked out of their vehicles.

A solid knowledge of how vehicles work and how to fix them is imperative. When tow truck drivers don’t have a call, they often help around the mechanic shop or vehicle company where they work, so being able to transition into a role as an automotive repairperson will help you get ahead.

Tow truck drivers often respond to accidents. At these scenes, the driver may be exposed to disturbing sights and will need to deal with people who may be emotional, both upset and angry. Drivers will also need to preserve the vehicle if it’s considered a crime scene and may need to assist the police with specific information about a vehicle’s condition. Being able to handle these high-stress situations is an important part of the job.

At the same time, the work can also be very rewarding. Depending on the scenario in which you are towing a vehicle, you may find yourself providing critical assistance to those who have found themselves in a dangerous situation.

More often than not, drivers do not get to choose the time or place in which they need the aid of a tow truck operator. Many times, vehicles will break down at the most inopportune locations — along busy highways or deserted country roads. Broken down drivers may experience elevated levels of stress. Outgoing personalities should apply for positions that allow for interaction with customers.

On the other hand, a position towing vehicles for impoundment will have limited human interaction. Most tow truck driver positions will have some combination of solitary and public interaction, so every day will be different. This makes it the perfect position for someone who doesn’t want to sit behind a desk all day.


The Tow Truck Driver and Physical Fitness

When applying for a tow truck operator position, many companies will require some sort of physical fitness exam in order to ensure you are up for the physical demand of the work. You will want to consider your physical abilities and whether you will be able to lift and use heavy equipment such as tow chains and tires on a routine basis.

Will you be willing and able to work in all types of weather conditions? Are you comfortable driving in a torrential rainstorm? Can your heart handle shoveling snow in order to free a vehicle that has skidded off the road? Successful tow truck operators will not only need to be mentally tough, but physically strong.

Your hearing and vision are also factors you should also consider as a tow truck operator. You must have the ability to see at a distance for oncoming traffic, but also up close when hooking up vehicles or manipulating equipment. If you are unable to pass these exams, many towing companies will not be able to secure the proper insurance for you, making it nearly impossible for you to operate a tow truck in a safe and legal manner.

Now that you have thought through the physical and mental aspects of becoming a tow truck operator, you should consider the work schedule. One of the appealing aspects of this occupation is that it is a 24-7-365 line of work. Vehicles need to be transported at all hours of the day and night. Many operators enjoy the flexible hours, as it enables them to keep a work schedule that best suites them and their families. If you need to work overnight so that you can be home during the day, that is an option. The more flexible you are in offering up scheduling options to an employer, the more successful you will likely be as you begin your towing career.

As the economy continues to improve, so will the need for well-qualified, educated tow truck operators. People’s disposable incomes are increasing, which means they are driving more and relying less on public transportation. With more vehicles on our roads, more unfortunate instances of car accidents, breakdowns and illegal parking will require the response of a qualified tow truck driver.