Truck Drivers Falter Under the Weight of High Fuel Prices

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

And because of the weak U.S. dollar, repossessed trucks are a hot commodity in foreign — particularly Eastern European — markets. Unlike in 2001, many of the trucks leaving the industry will not return.

As demand for shipping increases, industry capacity will tighten. The surviving trucking companies will have the leverage to charge more to haul freight. That means even higher prices at the grocery store and the mall.

Broughton writes in his report, "This in our mind suggests an ever widening gap between the 'haves' and 'have nots' in the industry." Broughton also predicts that in coming decades, the trucking industry will morph into an oligopoly, with a few major carriers hauling the majority of freight.

Officers inspect the brakes and tires on a driver's trailer.
Paul Knight
Officers inspect the brakes and tires on a driver's trailer.
Officers Michael Trautwein (left) and Keith Bell (right), of the Houston and Pasadena police departments, check a driver's permits and logbook.
Paul Knight
Officers Michael Trautwein (left) and Keith Bell (right), of the Houston and Pasadena police departments, check a driver's permits and logbook.

"If you are a remaining player, that's great news for you," Broughton says. Truckers have little recourse to stop the industry shift, but some are trying.

On April 28, J.B. Schaffner, a driver from Nocona, Texas, gathered about 250 truckers at the Gables Truck Stop in Pennsylvania. Schaffner had spent months organizing the meeting, mainly through the trucking Web site he created.

The truckers convoyed to Washington, D.C., with air horns blasting and American flags waving from the trucks, to protest the cost of diesel.

"You look at the pay scale, it's treated as though this is the couch potato's answer to a job," Schaffner says. "That's our lives that we put out there, and everybody is being impacted by this one thing, the rising cost of fuel. Everybody is losing everything out there. They really should put us on an endangered species list."

A year ago, Schaffner worked as an owner/operator. His brother also owned a truck, and they followed in their father's and grandfather's footsteps as independent drivers. Schaffner and his brother have since sold their trucks.

"I had a nice dream truck. A Peterbilt 379, kind of the ideal thing everybody wants," Schaffner says. "It got to the point, even at $3 [a gallon] it was so hard, I was barely making ends meet."

He now works for a small company based in New Jersey. The day before the protest, Schaffner hadn't been home in almost four months.

The truckers rolled into Washington and parked at a football stadium. They marched several blocks to the Capitol building to demand that the government open the U.S. oil reserve and place a cap on fuel prices.

A senator from Maine met with a small group of the truckers, but beyond that, not much happened. Schaffner is now trying to organize truckers to shut down and stop hauling freight.

"Don't call it a strike; we have no choice. We cannot afford to drive anymore," Schaffner says. "Call it a going-out-of-business sale. Not even a sale. We're just going out of ­business."

Ken Becker, an independent driver from the Houston area, prides himself on being a shrewd businessman, making a living with two assets: himself and his truck.

Becker, 53, started driving 20 years ago as a way out of the oil field. He saved $5,000 and bought his first truck.

He does almost all of his work for a company in Oklahoma, because the company pays a good fuel surcharge. Becker says if he had a truck payment, he probably wouldn't survive.

His Peterbilt is 11 years old, and a few years ago he resisted the urge to buy a new truck. Instead, he started depositing what was equal to a truck payment — when he could afford it — in an interest-bearing bank account.

Becker now uses that money to pay for routine maintenance on his truck and any on-the-road emergencies. He can't imagine driving without the money to repair a flat tire, which he knows some drivers are doing.

Becker meets plenty of drivers who are barely making it, especially the large number who entered lease-purchase programs with big companies. The programs basically offer a chance for drivers to own their trucks.

Until the truck is paid for, the driver can haul freight only for the specific company, at the price the company sets. And the driver pays fuel costs. Some of the programs advertise trucks for a $0 down payment and no credit check.

"They're almost destined for doom," Becker says. "They're working hard, and they think life is a bowl of cherries. Then nine times out of ten they fail.

"The carrier can quit moving them, but if you're not hauling any freight, you're not making any money. It's about like sharecropping in a sense."

If Becker couldn't change his business plan, his money would suffer. He has started leasing his truck to another driver during his down time. His maintenance costs have soared, but the truck has to move for Becker to make money.

"I don't know if I could suggest to anyone to do what I put myself through," Becker says. "If I had it like I know some of these drivers do, it would be very ­difficult."

And it's not just the drivers who are ­hurting.

The Interstate Motor Lodge, west of Houston, is a well-known stop among truckers looking for a place to stay at night. The lodge, which opened in 1968, caters heavily to truckers. There is free, gated parking for 18-wheelers, and special rates — about $40 a night — are offered to drivers. The motel has direct billing for a handful of small trucking companies.

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