The CB, or Citizens Band radio has been around since the 1940s. The wattage, licensing requirements and other characteristics have changed.
Also, the amount of available channels has grown from 23 to 40. Even with modern technology, most truckers still have a CB radio in their truck.
Although most truckers still own and maintain a CB radio in their cab, they certainly don’t use them like they once did. Speed limits, speed governed trucks and new technologies answer many tasks the radios were once used for. Let’s look at some examples.
What’s a smokey report? Truckers have always called law enforcement officers Smokey, affectionately after Smokey The Bear.
Using the CB to find the “bears” became the radio’s #1 task in the 70s. As a result of the oil crises in 1973, a maximum speed limit of 55 mph became a national law.
Nearly all freight pays by the mile. This means most over the road truckers are paid by the mile.
This government mandated 55 mph speed limit certainly put a damper on a trucker’s income. The new goal was going faster without getting caught.
Truck drivers became quite good at letting one another know exactly where the speed traps were. “What’s the smokey situation” was heard dozens of times a day over any CB.
Obviously, unmarked police cars, a well hidden cop on a motorcycle, and airplane enforcement still took a toll on trucker’s wallets.
Side note: A licence hasn’t been required to operate a CB radio for decades. The FCC makes it clear who can and can’t operate them.
When Did The National 55 MPH Speed Limit End?
The magic 55 not only saved fuel, it saved lives. These lower death rates, when combined with the great revenue source, contributed in the efforts of many states to keep the double-nickle speed limit in effect as long as possible.
Republicans led the way in killing the national 55 mph law in 1994, 65 mph became the new norm, and speed limits rose from there. Today, we have speed limits as high as 85 mph. Yep! Texas has a few 85 mph highways, but not state wide.
Few Truckers Need Smokey Reports Today
Fast forward from the 70s to 2020, most speed limits are 70 mph and higher. The overwhelming majority of trucks on the road today aren’t capable of breaking these speed limits thanks to speed governors.
Also, smartphone apps do a great job of giving a smokey warning. Many traffic apps and weigh station apps update in real time.
Even if you do get away with running 10 miles or so over the speed limit, today’s electronic log books will record the event. The speeding ticket might come at an inspection station a few days later or at a DOT log book audit.
Is The Weigh Station Open?
Probably the second most common question you used to hear was “what’s the chicken coop doing?” Honestly, I never really understood why truckers call law enforcement officers bears, and yet weigh stations are chicken coops.
If you knew the scale was open, you could always chose to go around it by taking another route. You might also chose to pull off and make sure your log book was up to date.
At the very least, a driver could make sure the seatbelt was fastened, the potato chip bag was removed from the dashboard and they looked good when they crossed the scale.
Again, truckers have a variety of apps to give them the same information. These days, any driver with a brain in his head wears a seatbelt all the time.
Tip for truckers: Be sure the color of your shirt contrasts your seatbelt. Trucks often sit nervously at the scale while enforcement personnel are trying to determine whether or not a seatbelt is in use.
Asking For Directions
Once again, you no longer have to hope there’s a trucker out there who’s been where you’re going. Truck friendly GPS systems are in nearly every truck. Most of these apps provide turn-by-turn directions.
The directions may not always be right, but neither are the ones you might get from that faceless voice on the CB radio.
Saving Lives By Warning Others
By now, we’ve all seen the 50 car pile up videos on YouTube and FaceBook. When slick roads, fog or blinding snow are combined with cars and trucks traveling too fast, bad things happen.
Sadly, these big crash scenes probably can’t be avoided. But the damages and loss of life could be lessened by truckers and their CB radios.
Even though those apps may show a big red line where the accidents are happening, nothing is quite as effective as hearing the warnings from truckers travelling in the opposite direction. When you hear about a big pileup and stopped traffic just a mile or two ahead, you slow down.
When trucks start slowing down and turning on their emergency flashers, the motoring public knows something is wrong. Most will slow down or become more aware. Modern technology hasn’t caught up with word of mouth as far as these situations are concerned.
It isn’t unusual to arrive at a shipper or receiver, only to be told you’ll have to wait for a dock assignment. Sometimes these waits are hours long.
One way of handling this is to have all the drivers turn their CB radio to a predetermined channel, then wait for their turn to be called. It works well for the warehouses using this tactic, but not so well for the truckers.
A driver could have dozens of trucks waiting for a dock before his or her assignment. Instead of being able to rest, take a nap or get some exercise, they’re stuck sitting in their truck, listening to every single call until they are finally appointed a dock.
Cell Phones Win This One
Today, even if asked if you have a CB in your truck, just say no. They’ll ask for your cell number instead. Drivers can sleep or get out of the truck without missing their turn at the docks.
Passing The Time And Miles
Before cell phones, streaming services and satellite radio, a driver only had 3 options for entertainment while driving.
- AM/FM radio
- Cassette or 8 track tapes
- The CB radio
Whether it’s tapes you’ve brought from home or music on the radio, it will never replace conversation.
Truckers could travel hundreds of miles of highway while carrying on a conversation with fellow truckers.
Even in the early days of cell phones, roaming fees, a finite amount of minutes on most cell phone plans and limited access to quality signal strength caused most drivers to use those mobile minutes wisely.
Today, the cell phone and a high quality bluetooth headset allow any trucker to talk with friends and family from just about anywhere. Even Facetime, Skype or other video platforms allow truckers to see friends and family while away from home.
Friendly Reminder: Using video while driving is not only dumb, it’s illegal.
Do Any Truckers Use A CB Radio Today?
Of course, this is somewhat anecdotal, but I made a 4,500 mile road trip just a few months ago. Leaving from Green Bay, Wisconsin, I drove to Portland, Oregon and back.
Although I took the trip in my Chevrolet Trailblazer, I did bring along a 40 channel CB and magnet mounted roof antenna. With the antena planted dead center on the steel roof, my signal was strong.
My radio of choice for passenger vehicles is a Cobra 75 WX ST
This compact unit takes up little space, but is packed with features I love. Not only does it have full weather band service, it has a 40-channel scan feature. I can hit the scan button and it will just scan through the channels until it hits a signal.
Covering 4,500 miles in 12 days, I pinned down who wasn’t using the CB radio today. I also paid attention to when channel 19 was being used. Channel 19 is pretty much home base for long haul truckers.
Line-haul drivers could be found on channels other than 19. Line-haulers are generally trucks that go out and back, from one town to another. They’ll drive out, drop their trailer and pick up another one, then drive back.
Mostly passing time and complaining about their jobs, I probably eavesdropped on a dozen conversations over the miles. But it was good to hear them using the radio.
Dump trucks and construction trucks also displayed hope that the CB radio is alive and well. These drivers used more than one channel.
The scanner might pick up a conversation on channel 6. As the trucks approached a job site, they would switch over to a predetermined channel or company channel. There they would receive unloading or reloading instructions and then go back to the other channels.
Off roaders, overlanders and RVs traveling in groups were also overheard, but not as frequently as the trucks. I caught the off roaders in eastern Oregon and central Idaho.
The RV owners were mostly around Yellowstone, although I did here a pair talking to one another while climbing and descending Lookout Pass.
Where Channel 19 Is Alive And Well
My destination was Burns, Oregon. Leaving the interstate at Ontario, Oregon, only 130 miles of 2 lane highway separate the 2 towns, State Highway 20.
Highway 20 runs through mountains and valleys, up and down some pretty steep hills. It’s also quite isolated. 130 miles of travel, but 90 miles of no cell service. In fact, there’s little service available of any kind.
Big trucks are a common site on this stretch of highway. Much like the old days, the eastbound trucks were in conversation with westbounders. “What’s behind you” was the most common question.
With family in Burns, this stretch is familiar territory. I’ve seen snow, rain and bad accidents tie up traffic for hours here. I’ve even seen mudslides bring traffic to a halt. I get why the truckers are concerned about what lies ahead.
Times change and technology advances. The CB radio doesn’t get the workout it once did, and many of us miss those days, but the CB is still a staple in trucking, recreation and the American culture.
I’ll leave you with this question though. If the smartphone is so great, why do people waiting beside a big truck in a traffic jam ask the driver if he knows what’s going on ahead? Google may show you a solid red line, but the truckers know exactly what’s going on.