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Rising fuel costs force truckers to make tough decisions
Raleigh News & Observer


March 06, 2008

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Harold E. Funderburk has noticed more and more big rigs parked on the side of the road with "for sale" signs in their windows.

"They are just giving it up, selling their stuff and going to work for some big (trucking) company," the Raleigh, N.C. trucker said.

The high price of regular gasoline usually gets all the attention, but the price of diesel has been steadily climbing. This week, diesel nationally hit a record $3.68 a gallon.

If prices keep climbing, Funderburk said, he will park his semi, too.

"I'm going to make one more trip," Funderburk, 58, said this week. "When I get back, I'll make my decision."

The average tractor-trailer gets just 5 to 6 miles per gallon, and, at current prices, it can cost more than $700 to fill the empty tanks on most long-haul trucks. That's too much for many truckers to keep hauling goods.

Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association in Grain Valley, Mo., estimates as much as 10 percent of the association's 161,293 members have parked their trucks.

"Right now they are likely spending $70,000 to $100,000 a year just for fuel," Spencer said. "We are talking about losing half of their net income for the year. They simply cannot survive."

The ramifications go far beyond the trucking industry. With most of this country's goods transported by truck, fewer drivers can lead to strained supplies while higher fuel costs can be passed along to consumers who are already paying more for food and other goods.

The high fuel cost is a relatively new problem for trucking companies. Until a few years ago, diesel fuel -- a byproduct of petroleum -- was generally less expensive than regular gas.

But government mandates to make diesel fuel cleaner and higher oil prices have steadily pushed up the price of diesel. The higher costs coupled with a slowing economy have been hard on the entire trucking industry, but especially so on small companies and independent drivers.

And it doesn't look as if there is going to be price relief any time soon, said Tom Crosby, an American Automobile Association spokesman.

Crosby said that the nation's already-strained oil supply has been worsened by a temporary refinery shutdown in Texas and minor glitches at other production sites

The weak economy isn't helping truckers, either.

With the downturn in the housing market, there are fewer construction supplies to ship. And consumers are starting to put the brakes on spending, which means less cargo to move across the country.

Fewer shipments have led to longer waits for a load to drive back home. Layovers also add to their travel costs since drivers, who commonly sleep in their cabs, have to run their truck engines throughout the night to keep warm.

Tom V. Lancaster, an independent trucker from Cumberland, Md., said he usually tries to haul close to home in case he has to wait for a load. But on a recent weekday, he was at a truck stop in Dunn, N.C., near Interstate 40 and I-95, preparing for an overnight stay.

He used the down time to do some light maintenance on his truck -- one way he saves money -- while he waited to hear whether he'd get another load. He had to get one that would cover the $315 in gas he figured it would cost to spend the night and make the drive.

Some truckers have invested in auxiliary power units to use at night to heat their trucks. But Lancaster hasn't been able to afford one; they range in price from $1,500 to $7,000.

With fewer jobs, some small companies are finding it hard to keep their drivers busy.

Kerry Ramsey, owner of K&M Ramsey Trucking in Fayetteville, N.C., parked one of his five trucks when a driver left. He doesn't plan to replace him until business picks up.

"I've got five families depending on me for income," Ramsey said. "You try to save as much as you can because the trucking expenses have gone plumb crazy."



E-mail Vicki Lee Parker at vicki.parker(at)
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Ketchikan, Alaska

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