The modern trucker has an array of communications technology at his or her fingertips. I’ve heard one estimate that half of long-distance drivers carry laptops, 80-90% have cell phones, and some even pack iPhones.
This is not to mention company-issued equipment like satellite-tracking, electronic on-board recorders (EOBRs) and two-way radios.
But the faithful CB remains an important part of the highway driver’s tool kit. One would have thought this archaic and low-tech device would be obsolete by now, if nothing else because of the nationwide fetish for hands-free devices. But almost universally across the continent, jurisdictions have granted exemptions for the commercial use of two-way radios.
The CB is still the best way for truck drivers to communicate with each other while they’re rolling down the road. But I suspect that the Ontario government’s recent five-year extension (see related story, opposite page) wasn’t done because they admire CB radios.
Rather, business communication tools like two-way radios and mic phones fall in this category and a disruption in these services would be unthinkable.
This should give the industry and equipment suppliers more time to solve the problem of hands-free microphone use.
Bluetooth technology has been a boon to drivers wanting to talk and drive, but FCC regulations prohibit the use of wireless mics during CB operation (Canada is in lockstep with the FCC on this one).
A few products are currently available for hands-free CB transmission, but these are wired solutions with remote microphones and buttons, not activated by Bluetooth.
So for the next five years (in Ontario, at least) truckers will be able to grab the microphone and yap away to their heart’s content. And really it’s nothing different from what they’ve been doing for more than 40 years: talking about Smokey bears, road conditions and whether or not the chicken coops are open; blabbing about their big iron; bitching about their jobs; and complaining about other drivers.
But baby boomers will remember the golden age of the CB radio. For about 10 years in the 1970s, the general public connected with the romance of trucking, and the Citizen’s Band radio was part of the package.
In those days, “Breaker One-Nine” was as likely to draw as quick a response from a four-wheeler with a 20-foot whip aerial, as it would from a fellow trucker.
The stereotype of the rugged, frontiersman-like trucking hero caught the public’s imagination, and was reinforced by Hollywood which cranked out movies like Convoy and Smokey and the Bandit, and TV series like Movin’ On. CB radios and the accompanying jargon gave everyone a chance to discover their “inner trucker.”
CB stores sprang up overnight and the units sold like hotcakes. In 1978, another 17 channels were added to the original 23, for a total of 40, which is how it remains to this day.
The innovation of single side-band allowed the splitting of those 40 channels into upper and lower modes, giving discerning users more distance and clearer frequencies.
During the blizzard of ’78, when a huge weather bomb blanketed eastern North America, I was stranded in Woodstock, Ont. My little Hino wouldn’t run after the van had been almost split in half by a grocery chain tractor-trailer that ran into the back of me.
It was bitterly cold and the 401 was a wrecking yard with three-foot drifts between the rubble. Of course a major catastrophe like this sparked the snowmobilers and CB clubs in Woodstock into action.
Earlier in the day, I’d borrowed a Schneider driver’s CB and managed to finagle an invitation from a home base operator who offered me a place to stay.
So that night, when a front-end loader and a passenger van came down the highway to take us all to the Blandford Mall, I talked a snowmobiler into giving me a ride to that address.
For the next day-and-a-half, I stayed with a young couple and their kid in a Woodstock townhouse. They weren’t prosperous (the young man was a gas pump jockey) but they fed me and were good company.
Their neighbours had also taken in stranded truck drivers and it seemed everyone had a solid state CB at home.
The home base sets were rarely turned off.
At the time, it was an exciting new way to express oneself and whole families enjoyed the technology. Housewives would chat with each other and exchange recipes.
The next afternoon the 401 was finally re-opened. Since my truck was wrecked and impounded, I arranged for a ride with a Canadian Tire trucker back to Toronto – and all of this done over the CB.
I remember him clearly to this day, his handle was “Peter Goat” and he owned a classic Dodge cabover, which were becoming rare, even back then.
One has to remember how pervasive CB culture was in those days. Signs along the highway informed us that the police were monitoring Channel 9.
Over the years I can recall receiving a couple of calls from the OPP from their big towers along the 401 warning of road closures or wrong-way vehicles.
“It never went away,” a technician at Durham Radio in Whitby, Ont. told me.
Truckers are his steady customers, and he estimates that his company sells several CBs per day, and they usually repair a few during the same time.
And the demographics of CB culture has shifted as well. The big manufacturers like Uniden, Galaxy and Midland are still in business but the pie has shrunk. Cobra Electronics, for instance, no longer makes home base units. Instead they’ve turned to augmenting the basic 40 channels by adding Bluetooth and weather channels.
And yes, they still offer a Channel 9 flip switch for “emergency communications.”
For this story, Cobra sent me its 29XL model with Bluetooth, which is a souped-up version of its standard 29 model. It paired easily with the factory-issued CB aerial package in my 2012 Volvo and I was getting 8-10 kms of range on the highway. If it was a permanent installation I’d connect it to an external speaker, but the existing speaker was adequate enough for slip-seating.
The airwaves are a lot quieter than I remember. Many of the dabblers and hobbyists have moved onto the Internet and cell phones. But Channel 19 comes alive when there’s a wreck or an emergency. This week I heard about a truck fire that had closed Hwy. 401 half an hour before I got there. The CB can be invaluable during road closures.
The scanning function on the radio picked up all kinds of private conversations on other channels. It’s nice to hear so much French spoken; the francophone truckers running the corridor usually contact each other on Channel 12, while Channel 10 is used as a call channel in Quebec.
We’re moving into an active time of sunspot activity and some instances of skip these last few weeks have been notable.
Recently, I’ve picked up signals from big radios in Napa Valley, Calif
., Flagstaff Ari., and even Jamaica. A friend of mine who runs a 50-ft. dipole antenna connected to software on his computer, regularly picks up calls from Europe and the South Pacific.
It’s worth noting that many of the home base operators have moved on to “freebanding,” utilizing frequencies usually slightly above the allotted 40 channels. The practice exists in a kind of “grey area” assigned to other radio services, including HAM.
The advantage of freebanding is that it gives one a clear channel that can reach much further than the limited range of the standard 40 channels that are awash with static.
Typically, freebanders will make contact on the international call frequency 27.555 Mhz (slightly above CB channel 40 at 27.405 Mhz), and move to another frequency to chat, somewhere above Channel 40.
It is strictly illegal to transmit on the 10-meter band without a HAM radio licence, and this activity drives the licensed operators crazy.
Enforcement is lax in this netherworld, though, and some truckers have tricked out their sets. Freebanding is a growing phenomenon and has attained a cult-like status among some truckers.
Years ago, you had to be an electronics whiz to figure out how to access these frequencies. But the process is much easier nowadays, and all you need is a high-end set that can easily be converted by snipping a wire. There’s also a huge black market in this field, just check online.
Lastly, if you’re really interested in staying abreast about what’s happening on the roads, you might want to invest in a digital scanner. It’s completely legal to have one of these in your truck; just ask any tow truck driver.
They’re not cheap, though. A modern “trunked” scanner, which is what you need to monitor police and emergency calls, starts at $300.
And although it’s legal to listen to police, ambulance and fire calls, you’re not allowed to tell anyone what you hear. Be careful, or you might end up in slammer, yourself!
Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio.
With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude. All posts by Harry Rudolfs