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High diesel prices squeeze truckers

Independent drivers have been hit especially hard, and some will be forced out of business.

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Hard times: Milton Gaines of South Carolina owns his truck. With diesel prices more than $4 per gallon, he says, 'I can hardly pay my bills.'

Mark Thomson

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Bob Campbell no longer idles his truck while he sleeps to keep the heat or air conditioning on: The fuel it burns is too valuable. "You either freeze or you burn up," he says with a shrug.

Still, he's getting by, which is more than Richard Wood, who's eating fried chicken near Mr. Campbell at the Flying J Truck Stop in Gary, Ind., can say.

Mr. Wood lost his truck last month when he could no longer afford the payments due to the spike in diesel prices. Now he's back to driving for a company.

"In six months, everybody operating on a shoestring will be gone," says Campbell, celebrating his birthday with a senior egg breakfast. "If I had a truck payment, I'd be hurting."

While all Americans are facing sticker shock at the pump these days, truckers have been hit particularly hard, watching the cost of diesel skyrocket past gasoline. The national average for diesel is hovering just above $4 a gallon, due to high crude-oil prices and rising demand for diesel, especially in China and Europe. Truckers often pay close to $1,000 to fill up a tank that might have cost $600 to fill a few years ago.

Independent truckers – those, like Campbell, who own their own rigs – are the ones being hit the hardest. They make up roughly a third of truckers. With little pricing power or ability to collect fuel surcharges, many of them are accepting hauls that barely allow them to break even or that even lose money. Conditions are bad enough that a week ago, some truckers tried scattered protest attempts – strikes, slow drives to tie up traffic, or drives to state capitols – which largely fizzled due to the unorganized nature of the industry.

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