Truck Drivers Falter Under the Weight of High Fuel Prices

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

The law is environmentally based, to cut emissions, but without idling, the trucker has no air conditioning or heat, which makes it nearly impossible to sleep in the truck. Some larger truck stops have installed equipment that provides air and heat from an outside source, but charge $10 to $15 an hour for truckers to connect.

Truckers have tried to beat the idling laws by traveling with a dog. According to Travers, few police will make a trucker turn off the air or heat with a dog in the truck. Poodles and Chihuahuas are ­favorites.

Parking is another growing problem. Many cities have outlawed truck parking on the shoulders of exit ramps, and businesses have stopped allowing trucks to stay in their lots overnight.

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.

Wal-Mart, which was a longtime haven for truckers looking for parking, no longer allows it. (Williams says that truckers may have burned bridges with Wal-Mart by constantly leaving jugs full of urine in parking lots).

Cary Courtier, a driver out of Lufkin, idled in the Hollywood parking lot, waiting to be inspected. He had driven a refrigerated load of produce from Kentucky to Houston.

In Arkansas, he had planned to stop at a favorite truck stop overnight. The lot was full, and he had to continue another 60 miles before reaching another stop. When Courtier stopped for fuel in Dallas, several truckers were standing on the scales, blocking the drivers in a protest of diesel prices.

Courtier had waited for the inspection for nearly two hours. He figured he had burned about five gallons of fuel, and lost a good portion of his driving time.

"One guy came up and talked to me, that's about it," Courtier says. "With all this going on, you kind of like to get on and drive."

The government program that perhaps has angered truckers the most is opening the border to allow Mexican trucks to drive in the United States. Current laws set a 25-mile boundary north of the border.

The U.S. Department of Transportation launched a one-year pilot program, which allows a limited number of Mexican trucks in the country, in September 2007. After heavy opposition, Congress passed a bill to cut funding of the program.

The Bush administration ruled that the bill was worded in a way that applied only to future Mexican truck programs, and the pilot program ­continues.

Norita Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, says that Mexican trucks are a bigger threat to independent drivers than rising fuel costs.

"The assumption is that diesel prices won't just keep going up and up and up. They'll eventually level off," Taylor says. "Mexican trucks, once you open that, it's like putting toothpaste back into a tube. And we feel like we can do something about the Mexican trucks. We can't control fuel prices."

The Mexican truck program is a main issue on which the OOIDA differs from the American Trucking Association, the nation's largest trucking organization, which represents big trucking companies.

Clayton Boyce, a spokesman for the ATA, says much of the fear among American drivers about Mexican trucks taking their business is unwarranted. It's more efficient for truckers to haul freight through open borders, Boyce says, and drivers and shipping companies should be able to make money in that system.

"It's funny, because companies on both sides of the border have expressed fear, but those problems don't really exist at the Canadian border. You have U.S. companies going north, and you have Canadian companies going south," Boyce says. "There will be an equilibrium if the border is open entirely, that'll come about eventually."

But for independent drivers like Melzer, the cost of fuel is making it hard to haul from Houston to Dallas, much less into Mexico or Canada.

Melzer opposes opening the borders to Mexican trucks, but he figures it's inevitable. It would save the large trucking companies a lot of money, and he knows there is little thought given to the survival of the independent driver.

"I really need $2 a mile to make a living," Melzer says, "but if [Mexican drivers] got a dollar in their pocket, they'll be happy. I can't compete with that."

Melzer started driving a truck in 1973 when he was 17. His first experience was driving livestock loads around Houston, working for a rancher near Crosby. Other than a short stint as a rodeo cowboy, driving a truck is the only work he has ever done.

With his paycheck almost cut in half by diesel prices, and a truck payment of $1,700 a month, Melzer has thought about parking the International and trying to sell.

But he says he has too much time and money invested in the truck to give it up, and there's nothing he'd want to do, or could do, other than drive.

"I guess I could pump gas," Melzer says. "I might draw a better paycheck."

Melzer has heard plenty of chatter on the radio and in truck stops about truckers shutting down to strike. For Melzer, that's not an option either.

"Truckers can't even get along on the CB, or agree what to watch on TV," Melzer says. "How are we going to agree on a strike? If I park my truck, Swift would just come in and run us off the road."

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