Sign on to most any truck driver forum and you’ll see questions from new truck drivers about a specific piece of technology — the CB radio. Of course, those raised on satellite TV and smartphones seem to regard the CB as a sort of technological artifact, like rotary phones.“Do I really need a CB?” the new drivers ask. And the answer from the veteran truckers is always yes, yes you do. As one experienced driver put it, “It’s not a dying tool; it’s a forgotten tool by many drivers. Any trucker that gives a damn has a CB.”Those new drivers are too young to remember, but there was a time when everyone in the country thought they needed a CB.
For those who weren’t alive to experience it, the CB radio craze of the 1970s must seem inexplicable. Why would so many people get excited about a means of communication used primarily by truckers, contractors and hobbyists? How did phrases like “10-4, good buddy” and “What’s your 20?” enter the vernacular? Why did people who never drove anything with more than four wheels adopt handles? (Even First Lady Betty Ford had one — First Mama).
Sometimes fads are inexplicable (Pet Rocks, anyone?), but the CB radio mania was largely fueled by the 1973 gas crisis. The federal government imposed a nationwide 55 mph speed limit and frustrated truckers and others turned to their CBs to trade information about cheap gas and speed traps. Once the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) dropped its license requirement, it became a cheap way for non-truckers to partake in an exotic culture.
CB radio was only one facet of the public’s fascination with trucking. C.W. McCall’s “Convoy” hit No. 1 on the pop and country charts in 1975. Movies such as Smokey and the Bandit, Convoy and White Line Fever were in the theaters and B.J. and the Bear and Movin’ On were TV series.
Newcomers installed CB radios in their wood-paneled station wagons and stay-at-homes monitored their base stations. Truckers found the airwaves suddenly crowded with people who just wanted to chat, preach, tell dirty jokes and generally waste time. Genuine truckers, who used CBs for their intended purpose, were baffled by the craze and frustrated by the suddenly crowded airwaves.
In hindsight, CB radios were a precursor to social media. On Channel 19, people could assume new identities, communicate with friends and strangers, argue and share whatever information they cared to pass on.
Like all fads, the CB radio craze eventually died out. The novelty wore off and people moved on to Star Wars and Cabbage Patch Kids.
The days of drivers having to rely on the CB radio to communicate are long gone. Driving apps and GPS units provide directions. Cell phones let drivers stay in touch with family and friends and cabs are stuffed full of electronics to allow communication with dispatchers, who can track truck locations.
But that doesn’t mean CBs have joined flip phones and VCRs in the ever-growing heap of obsolete technologies, said Gary Hill, category manager for CB accessories brands at RoadPro Family of Brands, which manufactures CBs and accessories under the RoadPro, RoadKing, Wilson, K40, Astatic and Francis brands.
“They’re still an important safety tool for drivers,” said Hill.
Any long-haul trucker knows there are big parts of the country with poor cell phone reception, particularly out West. A CB also is the fastest way to notify other drivers of traffic conditions, road hazards and bad weather. CBs also let drivers alert each other if they spot something wrong on a truck they pass. And some terminals still insist on communicating with drivers through CBs.
“Truckers no longer have to rely on it to do everything, but nothing else does exactly what it does,” Hill said, adding that, unlike cell phones, CB radios don’t come with monthly bills.
While truckers might keep the volume low to avoid “radio Rambos” looking for arguments and people talking to hear themselves talk, they still rely on the CB. And it’s still proving its worth.
Several years ago near Pittsburgh, a man veered off the road into the woods. He called for help on his CB and was overhead by a base operator who called police and directed them to the stranded motorist. Incredibly, it turned out the two had communicated by CB 20 years earlier when the motorist was a trucker.
And then there’s this extraordinary story from Tennessee about how a group of truckers, using CB radios to coordinate, boxed in a motorist who had snatched his son and was fleeing the state.
So while the public is unlikely to ever go through another CB radio craze, truckers will continue to use it the way it was intended to be used.
About the Author: James Sweeney is a veteran journalist. He has worked for a variety of newspapers and magazines and has written about trucking and other topics for a number of clients. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.