Trucker Robert Griffith is on the road three weeks out of four, pulling oversize loads like crane booms, railroad ties and air-conditioning ducts. One of his biggest worries: How he'll find the money to buy his daughter a prom dress.
As the cost of diesel fuel doubled over the last four years, his take-home pay has plummeted, from $50,000 to $11,000 last year. He's literally burning money; he spent $64,000 on diesel fuel in the last eight months. Since he canceled his satellite radio, he's on citizens band radio constantly (handle: Instigator) talking about what needs to change so truckers like him can survive.
"I had to learn to live totally different," said Griffith, 41, of Lebanon, Tenn.
No more $150 family outings to Shogun sushi. No more weekly washes for his Western Star 4900 EX truck. No more health insurance for him and his family.
"It hurts," he said. "I'm a man who's trying to make a living for my family and I'm not succeeding."
Trucking's owner-operators, the self-employed drivers who haul everything from Hummers to hay, are suffering.
Many say they're running on the edge of bankruptcy, about to disappear unless they get help. While a wave of trucking failures now might be invisible to consumers, when the economy rebounds, it would push up shipping rates, helping increase prices.
The housing downturn and decreased consumer spending have cut into loads; the extra trucking capacity is pushing down freight rates. Diesel prices, which are always higher in the winter, have hit such highs that Truckinginfo.com runs ads for thief-stopping fuel-tank locks.
"If you can run all week without a flat tire, you're a little bit ahead. Otherwise, you're basically just running to put the money right back into the fuel tank," said trucker Benjamin Stanley, 40, of Spotsylvania, Va. "Truckers are in the same spot farmers were in a few years back."
Reposessor Nassau Asset Management repossessed 110 percent more trucks in 2007 than it did in 2006, according to president Edward Castagna. And it's taking less time to pick up a truck, which he sees as a sign that there's less work to keep them on the road - and out of his repossessors' reach.
"It used to take weeks, now it takes days or hours," he said.
Industries that depend on independent truckers, like logging, are starting to suffer. Maine Gov. John Baldacci declared a civil emergency at the end of November, speeding fuel tax reimbursements for logging truck operators and asking the Department of Transportation to identify roads that could tolerate logging-truck weight, allowing truckers to take more direct routes and save fuel.
About 9 percent of the nation's 3.4 million truck drivers are independent owner-operators, according to the Department of Labor.
Without the independents, trucking will turn into a group of "regional and national oligopolies" that would send shipping prices higher when the economy improves, said John Saldanha, who teaches logistics at Ohio State University.
A Baird & Co. research report said the one positive note is the likelihood of more bankruptcies could eventually push freight rates up for the survivors.