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.

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.
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.
Cary Courtier, a company driver from Lufkin, encountered protesting truckers blocking a weigh station in Dallas.
Paul Knight
Cary Courtier, a company driver from Lufkin, encountered protesting truckers blocking a weigh station in Dallas.
Mark Kilpatrick, an independent driver from Alberta, Canada, hopes to sell his truck in six months, because he can no longer afford the fuel costs.
Paul Knight
Mark Kilpatrick, an independent driver from Alberta, Canada, hopes to sell his truck in six months, because he can no longer afford the fuel costs.

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.

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."
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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.

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.

"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.

Erica Cruz, who works the night shift at the motor lodge, says that about 95 percent of the clientele are truck drivers. The motor lodge has operated at about half occupancy since the first of the year.

"Our owner always calls me to see how we're doing, and she always complains about the diesel prices," Cruz says. "It's about shut us down."

Near the Interstate Motor Lodge is the Key Truck Stop and Restaurant. With its gravel parking lots and a cafe that allows smoking, the Key Truck Stop is a refuge for truck drivers looking for a change from the sprawling "travel centers" and "family" restaurants a few miles west.

But the Key Truck Stop is struggling. The ownership has changed several times in the last two years. A sign above the building advertises a 24-hour cafe, but the restaurant started closing at 9 p.m. several months back.

Judy, who asked that her last name not be used, has worked as a waitress at the Key Restaurant for 17 years. She makes $2.60 an hour plus tips. The restaurant once stayed packed during breakfast and dinner hours, and Judy averaged about $70 in tips a day. She could make $100 on a good morning.

Now, she says, she's lucky to make $30. That's less than the dishwasher, who makes $7 an hour. The owners sometimes tell the dishwasher to stay home, and Judy will stay late to wash dishes and mop the floors.

"I'm about making enough money to go home and put enough gas in my car to come back the next day," Judy says. "This really is the worst I've seen it."

A couple drivers had entered the truck stop. David Williams, a company driver from Baytown, stood in the cafe and drank a glass of Dr Pepper.

Williams started driving in 1970. He learned from his dad, who let him ride along on grain-hauling trips from Texas to Oklahoma. He's had three of his own trucks in his career, but about a year ago, sold his last truck.

"I made more in 1985. It wasn't nothing for me to walk around with $2,000 in my back pocket," Williams says. "We pretty much go week to week now."

Williams stood at the window with his Dr Pepper and watched his company rig. At just about every truck stop, Williams had heard of truckers having fuel stolen while they slept, ate or showered. Williams spoke to one driver who shot a man in the foot after catching him at his fuel tank.

Mike Travers, a driver from Gulfport, Mississippi, says that some drivers carry an electric pump that can drain a truck of its diesel in about 30 minutes. Most diesel thieves target the big-name company trucks — like Werner and Swift — but if need be, some will steal from ­independents.

"I keep a loaded .44 in my cab," Travers says. "I can't afford not to. It's getting to that point."

A tanker driver, hauling 7,400 gallons of diesel, recently had his truck stolen at gunpoint in the parking lot of a gas station in southeast Houston. Tanker drivers are extremely on edge, Travers says, and he's heard some talk of a tanker strike during the second week of July.

Travers started driving a truck when he was 14, helping his father drive a dump truck around town. His dad later bought a big truck and started driving long-haul, working as an owner/operator. Travers's father was killed in a truck crash, but Travers was already driving a company truck, and decided to stay with the trade.

Travers has driven as a company driver for almost his whole career — 26 years — and his latest stint was three years with Knight Transportation. He quit working with Knight because he wants to buy his own truck. A friend in Mississippi is letting Travers drive one of his trucks for four months. If Travers can turn a profit with the truck, the man will sell.

So far, it's been tough. His plan was to haul refrigerated loads between south Texas and south Florida, but he wasn't able to scratch up enough freight to stay busy. He says he'll haul whatever pays.

Travers cut most expenses that aren't an absolute necessity at home — Internet, satellite television, pretty much all his leisure activities are gone, he says. On the road, he's cut back to eating only twice a day. A chicken-fried steak plate at the Key Restaurant was the first thing he had eaten that day.

"There's a lot of bad attitudes with the fuel prices," Travers says. "It used to be work that you enjoyed, like getting paid to travel, but you could actually make a living. Not anymore. Now it's just a job.

"If I'd known what I now do, I'd do something different. But I'm stuck. I don't have any other trade."

Williams has a driver friend, an owner/operator from Huntsville, who got behind on his truck payment, so he sold his personal truck to try and catch up. When that didn't work, the friend had to sell his house and move to a trailer across town.

"He lost a wife over that deal," Williams says.

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.

"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.

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.

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."

Melzer takes pride in working as an independent. He knows he's a faster driver, and can haul freight better, than any com­pany man.

At the diesel pump next to Melzer's International, there was an 18-wheeler loaded with three farm tractors. The driver walked the length of the rig, yanking on straps and checking the underside of the trailer.

"I guarantee you he's an independent," Melzer says.

Sure enough, the driver was. His name was Mark Kilpatrick, and he had driven a load of steel pipe to Houston from Alberta, Canada. The tractors were destined for a Canadian ranch.

Kilpatrick told a story similar to that of most owner/operators, with his monthly income cut in half since last year. Kilpatrick was trying to sell his car back home to continue running his truck. He's being more selective with the loads he hauls, hoping to keep the truck in good enough condition to sell in another six months.

"It's obscene," Kilpatrick says. "Nobody is paying for loads, but there's always another idiot out there who will take it. It's really not worth it."

It was near dark at the Flying J when Melzer finished fueling. He hung up the nozzles and hurried inside to pay his bill. Melzer had a long drive ahead.

He says his only plan is to keep driving, and try to survive to the next load.

paul.knight@houstonpress.com

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