Truck Drivers Falter Under the Weight of High Fuel Prices

The rising price of diesel hits independent owner/operators the hardest

Bubba Melzer swings open the door of his 18-wheeler, walks over to the diesel pumps at the Flying J truck stop and begins to fill one of the 200-gallon tanks on his truck.

While the truck is fueling, Melzer removes a brush from a bucket filled with soapy, gray water. He scrubs the windshield, steel and chrome on the big gold International, cleaning away the bugs and muck.

The diesel pump clicks off. Melzer's tanks were about half full when he pulled into the truck stop on Houston's north side, and it took about 230 gallons to fill both tanks.

Bubba Melzer, an independent trucker from Crosby, has lost about half his income due to high diesel prices.
Paul Knight
Bubba Melzer, an independent trucker from Crosby, has lost about half his income due to high diesel prices.
A Houston police officer checks the weight of a tanker truck.
Paul Knight
A Houston police officer checks the weight of a tanker truck.

The price: $933.

"A year ago, this would've been $400," Melzer says. "This should be $400."

Melzer is an independent driver, known as an owner/operator. The truck is his; he doesn't drive for any specific company. He negotiates his own freight contracts and pays his own costs. He thinks that owner/operators are the heart of the trucking industry.

The International pulls a 65-foot flatbed trailer. Two bald eagles, painted in red, white and blue, streak down the sides of the rig.

Melzer loves his truck, but there's not much good he has to say about the current state of the trucking industry. Shipping companies are paying less for loads, freight brokers are collecting a higher percentage and government regulations are increasing each week.

The government also wants to open the border to Mexican trucks. Melzer thinks it's a bad idea, and one more thing that he knows will hurt his bottom line.

As Melzer stands by his truck, a pale white 18-wheeler pulls in front of Melzer's International and stops. The driver, wearing a company uniform, steps out of the truck and walks toward the Flying J. Melzer takes a couple steps toward the driver and shouts.

"Then you got assholes like that who park in front of you so you can't go anywhere," Melzer says, waving the brush. The company driver never looks back.

The rising price of diesel is by far the biggest problem facing Melzer and other independent drivers, who bear the heaviest burden of fuel costs. If a driver is lucky, he can negotiate a fuel surcharge from the shipping company. Even then, fuel costs are rarely covered.

To drive the big International, with diesel at $4 a gallon, it costs Melzer about 80 cents a mile in fuel. Some loads Melzer hauls, he's making little over $1 a mile. A year ago, Melzer cleared about $3,000 a week. Today, he's making half that, and his costs continue to increase. He's had to accept any load he can get to survive.

Before stopping at the Flying J, Melzer had already worked about six hours, hauling two local loads across Houston. His trailer was loaded with heavy machine parts, destined for Wyoming.

"The worst part is," Melzer says, "I still have to drive 1,400 miles before I even think about lying down."

Dick McAbier thinks most Americans take truckers for granted.

McAbier, a 68-year-old driver from Canton, Ohio, has made a living hauling freight across a triangle of roads from Canton to Houston to Miami and back. He's driven more than one million miles in his career and never had an accident.

"You want to know what causes wrecks?" McAbier asks. "High fuel prices and pissed-off drivers."

Last year was McAbier's worst money year in a decade. He blames diesel prices and bad winter weather.

McAbier was recently in Houston picking up a load of lead-coated bricks for a cancer treatment center in Miami. The clinic was expanding its radiation room, and the bricks were needed for ­construction.

"We're not just driving apples and oranges," McAbier says.

The trucking industry accounts for about 70 percent of all long-distance freight hauled in the United States. Even cargo that is transported by plane, ship or train is moved to its final destination by truck.

Nationwide there are more than two million truck drivers, and an additional nine million jobs directly linked to the trucking industry. In Texas, one out of every 14 people works in the industry, making Texas a top-five trucking state.

Since industry deregulation in 1980, small companies and independent, owner/operators have flooded the roads. This portion of the trucking industry prides itself as a fleet of small businessmen and women who haul freight cheaper and faster than the large ­carriers.

That niche is changing fast. The price of diesel fuel has jumped by almost $2 a gallon since last year, and is still rising faster than most small companies and owner/operators can handle.

"There will be very good businessmen across the state that just hang them up because they're tired of dealing with it, and some will just not be able to keep up with the cost," says John Esparza, president of the Texas Motor Transportation Association, an organization that represents small trucking companies.

Many drivers already can't keep up. In the first quarter of 2008, 935 trucking companies in the United States went bankrupt or closed down, according to a report by industry analyst Donald Broughton. About 42,000 trucks, which represents about 3 percent of the U.S. industry, shut down.

Broughton estimates those numbers will increase as the price of diesel goes up. More trucks could leave the industry than in 2001, which was a record year for trucking company failures and truck repossessions.

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