Working Iron Blog
CB radio

Breaker, breaker … still got a CB?

Ah, the citizen’s band radio – is there a more iconic and ubiquitous piece of equipment trucking, I ask? Just like diesel engines, 18-speed gearboxes, and fifth wheels, you mention the “CB” in conversation and everyone instantly draws a connection to trucking.

Heck you can’t talk working iron without talking about CB radios – it’s a technology that’s deeply woven into the sinews of this industry, especially the language.

[You know, I think that’s Jim McCarter talking on the CB to the right – one half of that unique highway couple “The Keys Truckers.”]

Or is it? I mean, these days, one would think a driver probably relies far more on a cell phone and satellite connections than radio signals for his or her communication needs on the road.

However, Charles White doesn’t think that’s the case.

Though he’s biased – after all, White is VP of brands and marketing for RoadPro, which makes a wide assortment of CBs and accessories – he pointed out that interest in CB radios remains high even among new drivers.

“Go on any truck driver forum and you’ll see questions from new drivers about the CB radio,” he explained recently. “Those raised on satellite TV and smart phones seem to regard the CB as a sort of technological artifact, like rotary phones. ‘Do I really need a CB?’ the new drivers ask.”

White said veteran truckers always answer “yes,”  with one going so far to stress that the CB “is not a dying tool; it's a forgotten tool by many drivers. Any trucker that gives a **** has a CB.”

It’s also a bit strange for those now long in the tooth (like me) who clearly remember that stretch of time in the 1970s when everyone and their mother’s uncle thought they needed a CB – heck, my dad had one in our station wagon, with the long whip antenna on the roof providing us with due warning about “parking lots” and speed traps set by “Smokey Bear” down the road ahead of us.

[And when you can get famous models such as Rene Russo at left to hawk your product line, you know you've hit the big time.]

Heck, the CB fostered an entire lingo specific to trucking, with the term “parking lot” referring to traffic jams and “Smokey Bear” being a state trooper.

“For those who weren’t alive to experience it, the CB radio craze of the 1970s must seem inexplicable,” RoadPro’s White added. “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’ and ‘What’s your 20?’ enter the vernacular? Why did people who never drove anything with more than four wheels adopt ‘handles’?”

He noted that even First Lady Betty Ford adopted a CB handle – First Mama.

“Sometimes fads are inexplicable (Pet Rocks, anyone?), but the CB radio mania was largely fueled by the 1973 gas crisis,” White recalled. “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.”

And did they ever partake.

Today the 1970s are often viewed as the “hey day” for trucking; the pinnacle of pop culture appeal within the American psyche.

White aptly noted that C.W. McCall’s eponymous Convoy hit No. 1 on the pop and country charts in 1975 and later became a movie. Yet the seminal trucking movie rolled into theaters back in 1977: Smokey and the Bandit, which is ranked 405th on the list of top grossing movies in the U.S., boasting box office receipts of over $126.7 million.

That opened the cinematic floodgates for a while, with movies such as White Line Fever hitting the big screen, followed by TV series such as Movin’ On and B.J. and the Bear.

And of course everyone went ga-ga for the CB, White emphasized, with truckers suddenly finding the airwaves crowded with people who just wanted to chat, preach, tell dirty jokes and generally waste time. However, he stressed that 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,” White pointed out. “On Channel 19, people could assume new identities, communicate with friends and strangers, argue and share whatever information they cared to pass on.”   

Yet like all pop-fueled fads, the CB radio craze eventually died out. The novelty wore off and people favored different movies like Star Wars (which by the way also came out in 1977 and is ranked 7th all-time in terms of U.S. box office receipts) and Cabbage Patch Kids.

These days, White readily admits that relying on the CB radio to communicate while plying the highways and byways are long gone. Smart-phone apps and GPS units provide directions, while cell phones let drivers stay in touch with family and friends. Indeed, White said truck cabs are “just stuffed full of electronics” nowadays 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,” stressed Gary Hill, RoadPro’s category manager for CB accessories brands. “They’re still an important safety tool for drivers.”

Hill said any long-haul trucker knows there are big parts of the country with poor cell phone reception, particularly out West. He also believes a CB remains 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,” hill added. “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,” he noted, adding that, unlike cell phones, CB radios don’t come with monthly bills.

Thus while truckers might keep the volume low to avoid “radio Rambos” looking for arguments and people talking to hear themselves talk, White strongly believes they’ll still need the CB – and he’s got stories from the road to prove its worth.  

Several years ago near Pittsburgh, White said, 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,” White noted.

That’s a big 10-4, indeed.

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