Turning 30

| December 05, 2007

The Minneapolis I-35W bridge collapse reflects a growing sense of crisis in highway maintenance funding.

In November 1977, the National Association of Truckstop Operators launched a publication, distributed free to drivers at member locations. NATSO Truckers News, as editor Mark Perry wrote in that first issue, was founded on the premise that “truckers and truckstop operators have a lot more in common with each other than any other people in any other two industries. All they need to do is talk to each other and work together” for change.

Perry was insistent on providing a platform for open communication to and from truckers in Truckers News, a platform that survives to this day.

To celebrate our 30th anniversary, we’ve assembled a long haul through 30 years of trucking history. In some instances, guest columns from industry representatives – from veteran driver R.L. Grant to former Interstate Commerce Commission chairman Dan O’Neal – accompany stories, and we’ve included stories and illustrations from past issues of Truckers News. Enjoy the ride.


Paint by Numbers
Trucking stats show change on numerous fronts

It’s not only Bob Dylan who tells us that the times are a-changing. Numbers tell us, too.

For the 30 years since Truckers News began publication, many of the major changes in our industry are starkly outlined in statistics, from the cost of a gallon of diesel to the money drivers can expect to take home.

They don’t tell the whole story, but these statistics show the sweeping changes the industry has gone through and give us a window into the past.

Fuel
Today a gallon of diesel will cost you nearly three bucks. Way back in 2006 a gallon was only $2.07, excluding taxes. But back in ’78 a gallon of pre-taxed diesel cost you a quarter, a dime and three pennies. Then in 1980 (remember those gas lines?) it leaped to three quarters a nickel and two pennies. A barrel of crude oil in ’78 was just $12.50, but by 2006 it was $60.20 – the average price of a barrel rose by 64 percent between 2000 and 2006. As we prepare this issue of Truckers News, crude is going for more than $80 a barrel, an all-time high.

In 1977 there were 141,000 new Class 8 tractors sold, a figure which had soared to 253,000 by 2005. Between 1970 and 1985 there was an average yearly increase in sales of 2.8 percent, but between 1985 and 2005 the comparative figure was 4.3 percent.

Not all Class 8 trucks are over-the-road haulers. But for what government statisticians call “combination trucks” (which includes trucks designed to pull a trailer) there were 1.24 million registered in 1977 traveling a total of 55.7 billion miles on American roads and using 10.8 billion gallons of fuel. Average fuel economy was 5.1 mpg. In 2005, 2.08 million combination trucks were registered, running 143.7 billion miles and using 24.4 billion gallons of diesel at an average of 5.9 miles per gallon.

The average rig used 9,201 gallons a year in 1980 and 12,289 in 2004. That rig rolled 38,829 miles in 1970, 48,472 in 1980 and by 2004 averaged 72,325 miles a year.

Roads, four-wheelers
Truckers had 41,120 miles of interstate to run in 1980 and 46,837 in 2004, a 14 percent increase. If you think you are seeing more small trucks and vans out there, you’re right. The minivan and SUV revolution shows up in the numbers. In 1977 combination trucks made up 3.8 percent of vehicle miles traveled by vehicle type, with cars at 75.6 percent and two-axle, four-tire trucks (those pickups, vans and SUVs) at 17.1 percent. In 2005 big rigs made up 4.8 percent of all vehicle miles, but cars made up only 56.5 percent – those light trucks more than doubled their share to 35.4 percent. Call it the “soccer mom effect.”

Trucks, trailers, containers
How many older rigs are you seeing out there? The average 1970 model truck over 26,000 pounds was on the road for 20 years, statistically speaking (that is, after 20 years half of them had been scrapped). The 1980 model lasted on average 18.5 years, but half the 1990 models will be around for some time – their average working life is expected to be a stunning 28 years.

With durability comes safety. In 1980 the occupant fatality rate for 10,000-plus-pound trucks was 1.2 per 100 million vehicle miles, but in 2005 that figure was down to 0.4. The fatal crash rate for large trucks per 100 million vehicle miles was 5.0 in 1980 but only 2.2 in 2004.

Rail-truck intermodal haulers will recognize the next trend. In 1980 there were approximately 3 million units being hauled off rail cars behind tractors, but the stats don’t show us the trailer/container breakdown. Starting in 1988 we can see the split – there were approximately one-third more trailers than containers. By 2004 there were approximately 11 million units being hauled – eight million of them containers!

America has almost half of the world’s trucks and buses (including light trucks and minivans). There are approximately 105 million of them on our roads, 43 percent of all trucks and buses in the world. In 1975, that figure was 34 million, 38 percent of the world total.

Pay
The U.S. Department of Labor records your wages under code 53-3032 (“Truck Drivers, Heavy and Tractor-Trailer”). In 2006 drivers got a mean hourly wage of $17.46 and a mean annual wage of $36,320. If you were earning $22,460 in 2006, you were in the bottom 10 percent of the profession in terms of wages, but with $52,820 you were in the top 10 percent.

Statistics from 1979 give us some idea of the wages truckers received back then, but they are not so precise – they don’t separate tractor-trailer driver from the “truck driver” category. These ’79 numbers show that drivers earned $289 a week, which, if you took no unpaid vacation, brought you $15,028 a year.

Trucking shows
Trade shows present our industry to the world. Back in 1977 there were only three shows of truly national character. The Mid-America Trucking Show was just four years old in 1977, but this monster event grew dramatically from its beginning as a one-hall fairground show to the biggest in the business today. The International Trucking Show in California was 14 years old in 1977, and at that time it was the country’s premier trucking trade show. The New England Trucking Show of 1977 today is the Boston-based North American Trucking Show.

Two important newcomers (both presented by Truckers News publisher Randall-Reilly Publishing) have arrived: the Great American Trucking Show in Dallas, nine years old and booming, and the recently launched Great West Truck Show in Las Vegas, which evolved from the International Trucking Show and the Truck Show Las Vegas.
–John Latta


That’s Entertainment
Hollywood and music industry create popular outlaw image of trucker

Uh, Breaker One-Nine, this here’s the Rubber Duck. You got a copy on me, Pig-Pen? C’mon.
-”Convoy,” C.W. McCall

Truckers were never more popular than in the mid-1970s and early 1980s.

With movies like White Line Fever, Smokey and the Bandit and Convoy (not to mention the hit song of the same title) the trucking lifestyle was vogue in mainstream entertainment.

Successful non-trucking movies like Walking Tall, which pitted the common man against injustice, set the tone for the decade. It didn’t take entertainment executives long to discover truckers and their lifestyles could fit that mold perfectly.

Hollywood portrayed truckers as rebellious heroes taking on unscrupulous authority figures and as charismatic free spirits who outwitted bumbling law enforcement time and time again.

The Bandit and Sheriff Buford T. Justice became suitable stand-ins for cowboys and Indians, and young boys talked into make-believe citizens-band radio mikes, pretending to be the Rubber Duck. And, of course, it was cool to know all the words so you could sing along with C.W. McCall’s hit “Convoy” whenever it came on the radio.

I sez Pig-Pen, this here’s the Rubber Duck an’ I’m about to put the hammer on down.

The song “Convoy” gave wings to the growing CB craze (see “CB Slanguage,” page 28) among trucker wannabes. Trucker lingo dictionaries came with new CB radios, and trucker-speak phrases could be found on everything from drinking glasses to refrigerator magnets.

The popularity of truckers also carried over to the small screen with shows like Movin’ On and B.J. and the Bear.

While the movies and television series were entertaining, realistic they were not. Convoy and White Line Fever hinted at real trucking issues, but the gotta-make-it-go-boom mind-set of Tinseltown overrode credible or practical storylines. (To be fair, Snowman and the Bandit actually managed to deliver a load, if it was illegal.)

“I liked the movies a lot when they first came out,” says 69-year-old Charles McAnelly of Rainsville, Ala., a former owner-operator who now drives a dump truck locally. “You couldn’t do any of that kind of stuff shown in the movies, but I like to watch trucking movies anyway.”

The persona created by Hollywood functioned as a recruiting magnet for many people who craved adventure. But not everyone thinks that was a positive.

“It was the outlaw image, the last cowboy, the Jesse James mentality,” says 44-year-old independent owner-operator Henry Albert of Statesville, N.C., the 2007 Overdrive Trucker of the Year. “It’s what got us a lot of what we have today.”

There have been other trucking movies (Black Dog and Over the Top, for example) and television series (18 Wheels of Justice) since the cancellation of B.J. and the Bear in the early ’80s, but they haven’t been able to recapture what once was a public love affair with truckers. That’s how pop culture works. Today’s fad becomes tomorrow’s nostalgia.

“Every time I hear ‘Convoy,’ it brings back memories,” McAnelly says.

We gonna catch ya on the flip-flop. This here’s the Rubber Duck on the side. We gone! Bye, bye

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