Up to this writing, scattered trucker demonstrations against high fuel prices have been generally peaceful. And unlike other oil crises, this one seems to have generated public sympathy for the whole trucking industry.

That's a far cry from what's happened in the past. Even the media has taken a kinder, gentler approach to covering trucking's current plight, departing from its traditional demons-of-the-road portrayal of trucks and truckers.

Websites and the CB continue to call for trucker protests, but mostly urge unity and so far have been generally non-combative. That, combined with the public and media's realization that truck owners are harder hit by fuel prices than anyone, may explain the more favorable press we're getting.

That all could change if a big enough group of truckers decides to launch an in-your-face shutdown, as happened in late 1973.

It started when several Arab states halted oil shipments to the U.S. after the Nixon administration sent aid to Israel, which was under attack. Gasoline and diesel supplies here tightened and prices soared; diesel went from 27 cents a gallon to 45 cents, and truckstops began limiting sales.

Owner-operators claimed big carriers could get the fuel they needed, while the independents were held to 50 gallons - sometimes less - per stop.

The CB, just coming into its own as truckers' main line of communication, crackled with angry chatter. The shutdown started with a blockade of I-80 in Pennsylvania and spread through much of the eastern half of the country. In many cases truckers parked on main arteries and just walked away from their trucks.

Nixon's White House retaliated, calling them "thugs" and sending the National Guard to back up police and drag rigs off the roads. The government had no idea who to talk to, so turned to drivers like a guy who called himself "River Rat." He convinced authorities of his leadership status, and even claimed he had a couple of hundred armed, angry truckers headed for Washington, DC.

It wasn't exactly trucking's finest hour.

Finally, cooler heads prevailed. A group of independent leaders formed a unity committee and negotiated for a fuel price rollback. But the best they could do was a 6 percent fuel surcharge and amnesty for shutdown participants. Meantime, two truckers were dead and dozens of others injured.

The most positive result for the owner-operator cause was the emergence of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association as a legitimate force representing their interests.

OOIDA, by the way, wisely does not endorse a new shutdown, saying a strike would not gain anything economically. In addition, any organized group that launched a shutdown could be vulnerable to federal antitrust charges. That could get ugly.

Instead, OOIDA is pushing for legislation to require all shippers' fuel surcharges to be passed on to whoever buys the fuel to deliver the goods. Makes sense to us.

Painful as fuel costs are, there's a positive effect here. Truckers are making real efforts to save fuel - like slowing down - instead of burning tankloads of diesel driving to Washington in hopes Congress will "do something" about fuel prices.

E-mail Doug Condra at [email protected], or write P.O. Box W, Newport Beach, CA 92658.