Truck Drivers Falter Under the Weight of High Fuel Prices

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

Williams has never been married. He says the trucking life is too hard for it. It's common, Williams says, to drive 18-hour stretches. He'll risk a ticket, and fudge the log book a bit, by driving extended hours. Like most drivers, Williams says he never uses drugs to help with the drive, but he knows plenty of guys who do.

"I've personally never had to take pills, or done coke or crank, to keep on the road," Williams says. "There's a lot of guys having to run harder than hard to make any money, and they'll have to take whatever they have to take."

John Bazzoon despises one thing more than high prices at the diesel pump: the government. The word encompasses plenty — cops, environmentalists, the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Department of Transportation. In his mind, they all want two things: To make it harder for him to haul freight, and to take plenty of the money he earns.

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.

"Fuel could be $10 a gallon and they wouldn't give a shit," Bazzoon says. "It's all about money. My money."

Bazzoon works as an owner/operator out of Cleveland, Texas. He has satellite television in the sleeper cab of his cherry red Peterbilt, but spends much of his down time reading a copy of one of the Outdoor Life magazines he keeps in the door panel of his truck.

His Peterbilt is paid for, and Bazzoon has stayed profitable by hauling lumber for one company from Houston to Oklahoma City.

But on a recent sunny morning in Pasadena, Bazzoon was under government control. He had been pulled off the highway by two motorcycle cops and guided to a Hollywood Movie Theater parking lot. Officers from the Houston and Pasadena police departments, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Harris County Sheriff's Office were on hand as part of a truck inspection day.

The officers were weighing trucks, inspecting loads, checking permits and logbooks, and writing tickets. As one truck passed through inspection, the officers on motorcycles would pull a new truck off the highway.

"They don't like it, but nobody wants a dangerous truck on the road," says Keith Bell, a "commercial enforcement" officer with the Pasadena Police Department. Since the trucks were being inspected in Pasadena jurisdiction, Bell was writing the tickets.

The driver before Bazzoon had to leave his trailer because of a cracked leaf spring on the rear suspension. The Peterbilt had made it to the front of the line, and Bazzoon paced nervously as an officer crawled along the asphalt under his trailer.

"They're hungry. They're running me over pretty good," Bazzoon says.

The officer under the trailer called another inspector to the rear of the trailer.

"Damn," Bazzoon says, "this is a bad place."

Despite a close call with a thin crack on his trailer, Bazzoon passed through the inspection without violation.

The battle between truckers and highway cops has been immortalized in song and movie. One anthem among truckers, "Convoy" by C.W. McCall, is about a group of truckers trying to avoid police while making a cross-country haul.

By the time we got into Tulsa town, we had 85 trucks in all.

But theys a roadblock up on the cloverleaf, and them bears was wall-to-wall.

Yeah, them smokies is thick as bugs on a bumper, they even had a bear in the air.

I says, callin' all trucks, this here's the duck. We about to go a-huntin' bear.

The song is one of Travers's favorites, and he calls police "bears" and weigh stations, where police often wait to inspect trucks, "chicken coops."

Travers says there are three bad chicken coops between Houston and San Antonio, and a notorious coop on the Louisiana/Mississippi state line. The scales place the truck in both states, and Travers says it's not unusual for officers from both sides to write tickets while the truck is on the scales.

When the police are camped out in one spot, truckers are quick to alert one another over the radio. The overpass near Exit 815 on Interstate 10, west of Houston, has become a well-known spot for police to nab speeding truckers.

Police have the authority to pull over truckers anytime, without probable cause, for a safety inspection. And according to Travers, a ticket is almost guaranteed.

"You're hauling lumber and it's been raining all day, of course your load is overweight," Travers says. "[The police] don't take that into consideration. You could take a brand-new truck two miles down the road and they'll find something wrong with it."

If the trucker is lucky, Travers says, he'll encounter an officer on a good day, and despite the number of violations, the cop will simply write a seatbelt ticket, whether the driver was wearing a seatbelt or not.

The number of government regulations is also growing, and new idling laws have angered truckers. California was the first state to pass such a law, which makes it illegal for a trucker to park with his truck running for longer than five minutes. Texas has not passed similar state legislation, but Dallas recently passed a five-­minute idling ordinance.

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