SPECIAL REPORT: California trucker an example of effect of high fuel costs

| 3/17/2004
Feel like you’re working just to pay the tab at the truck stop? You’re not alone.

John Telles, a senior OOIDA member from Pinole, CA, has stopped driving and parked his truck, giving up, at least for now, his regular runs. The reason? Fuel prices.

"It's not that I've given up; it's that I refuse to work for free," Telles told Land Line. Telles was quoted this week in a story in The Los Angeles Times on the effect of fuel prices.

"My truck and trailer are paid for; I've got all new rubber on it and everything. I don't need to go up and down the highway to go broke," he said. "I can let it sit here and turn around and sell it, and get more money with less miles on it and high rubber."

Telles said a combination of factors drove him off the road – rising fuel prices were the biggest and most obvious, but also contributing were the new hours-of-service regulations and brokers that “have got this dollar-a-mile mentality. You can’t drive a truck and supply a driver behind the wheel for a dollar a mile anymore.”

Telles is in a particularly bad area for fuel prices. The average national price of diesel, according to figures released Monday by the Energy Department, was $1.617. But in California, where Telles is based, trucks are paying $1.874 a gallon for fuel – the highest in the United States. 

Telles has been behind the wheel since he left the service in 1966 (“I should’a known by now,” he says), working as a company driver, leased owner-operator and, for the past five years, on his own authority. He drives a long-nose Pete with a 48-foot spread axle reefer. On his regular runs to the Midwest (Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan and other destinations), he hauls a variety of temperature-controlled loads, including produce, frozen foods, cheese and other “grocery stuff,” as well as some dry freight. His backhauls include meat and over-the-counter medicines such as cough syrup.

He pulled his truck off the road as 2004 began, “right after the first of the year when things started to go awry.” He has made only one run so far this year.

Telles said his cost runs about 72 cents a mile. Normally, half of that, about 36 cents per mile, goes just to fuel. Part is what he has to put aside to pay for a new truck. The rest relates to various expenses such as his insurance.

Late in 2003, freight was paying him fairly well. But near the last of that year, things started to change.

"All of the sudden it seemed that after December, it seemed to me like the brokers went to a conference and decided a dollar a mile was it," he said. "Well, that was great when the fuel prices were down at about $1.40. But fuel prices aren't $1.40."

At the 72 cents cost per mile, $1-a-mile freight leaves only 28 cents a mile for Telles to pay himself – and all his other expenses. At that level, Telles said, it becomes difficult to pay for even basic repairs.

"I'm not going to run up and down the highway and wear it out for free," he said. "When you can't make a profit margin out of it, there's really no sense in running it.

"I can go back and work as a company driver . for 46 to 50 cents per mile. Why the hell would I drive my own for less?"

To get Telles and other truckers like him back on the road, the longtime trucker said one of two things would have to happen – either rates have to come up, or fuel prices have to go down.

"We're working for less money now than people were working for 20 years ago in this industry," he said.

"If I can't get a decent rate, it doesn't roll," he said. "These guys who are out chasing that cheap freight, they're kidding themselves. It's just a slow death.

"I've been in here a long time, seen a lot of them go broke."

--by Mark H. Reddig, associate editor

Mark Reddig can be reached at mark_reddig@landlinemag.com.