The song "Convoy" came up on random shuffle on my iPod the other night. The 1975 trucker anthem, which topped both the country and pop charts, was a reflection of the times, when the slightly rebellious, independent hero was a romantic and admired figure. (Like the irreverent TransAm driving Burt Reynolds and his trucker friend Jerry Reed in the 1977 movie "Smokey and the Bandit.")
A lot of things from the song "Convoy" have changed. We no longer have "Jimmy" (GMC) heavy trucks, or "cab-over Petes." Electronic logs are soon going to replace "swindle sheets" (paper log books.)
One thing that's still around, though, is the CB radio.
"Convoy" (which was turned into a movie itself in '78) capitalized on the CB radio craze. Forty years ago, the nation was crazy for CB radio, an until-then niche tool used largely by truckers.
Housewives bought base stations and adopted handles; Hollywood churned out songs, movies and TV shows. Phrases like “10-4, good buddy” and “What’s your 20?” entered the vernacular. Even then-First Lady Betty Ford had a handle – 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 dropped its license requirement, it became a cheap way for non-truckers to partake in an exotic culture.
You could view CB radios as 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.
The craze died down, eventually, as fads moved on to Cabbage Patch Kids and Star Wars. But CBs never went away. Though truck drivers now a use a host of electronics, including smartphones and GPS and in-cab tracking and communications systems, there is still a place for citizens band.
“They’re still an important safety tool for drivers,” says 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.
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.
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. 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.
“Truckers no longer have to rely on it to do everything," Hill says, "but nothing else does exactly what it does."