“Breaker one-nine, this here’s the Rubber Duck” is a phrase that at least cineastes among truckers should know. It comes from the 1978 road movie “Convoy” with Kris Kristofferson and the accompanying soundtrack. And maybe you’ll find a song called “Ruf Teddybär 1-4” on the playlists in many a cab.
The connections mentioned here between typical CB radio slang on the one hand and truck drivers on the other are almost archetypal – not only in Germany and the USA. Admittedly, anyone who is stuck in a traffic jam today or has completed the day’s driving time usually reaches for their smartphone. Not only does it provide entertainment, but it also enables communication with people of all kinds, regardless of range.
Chat with people at home via WhatsApp; exchange ideas with other drivers on digital trucker platforms; play games and join communities; write and talk to completely anonymous people on platforms like Omegle. With enough data volume, distance communication is now possible in countless variations and on just as many topics, even at the loneliest rest stop.
From today’s perspective, CB radio seems almost archaic and rather limited. It is a long time since every driver’s cab was emblazoned with an antenna indicating the appropriate radio in the dashboard or overhead console. But at least in the history of long-distance driving around the world, this type of radio has left deep traces – also of a cultural nature. Moreover, it is indeed worthwhile to this day to be able to pick up the mic; even if this is made somewhat more difficult by laws.
But what is CB radio anyway? Here are the key facts:
So far the technical core facts. But what’s the use for the trucker? Well, since it is a shortwave application, the range does not only depend on antenna length, transmit power and the medium and immediate environment as usual. Due to physical properties of this wavelength, signals can be reflected at the ionosphere (“space wave”). Under certain weather conditions, overranges of many hundreds of kilometers are possible.
Even in normal operation (“ground wave”) CB is not to be sneezed at. In contrast to other everyman radio applications such as PMR-446 (which is used by the vast majority of modern walkie-talkies), typical mobile antennas on trucks can cover ranges of up to 80 kilometers – depending on the environment in terms of geography and buildings, of course. With 12 watt SSB, even more is possible; however, not every CB radio is capable of this mode.
What CB is in principle has been explained. But where does this deep cultural connection with trucking come from, especially among long-haul truckers? Well, in the U.S., the 11-meter range was cleared for everyman applications starting in 1958. At the same time, radios became much more compact with the introduction of transistors.
Accordingly, many long-distance truckers in the far reaches of the U.S. used CB radio to communicate with each other relatively early on. However, radio did not become a real trend until the 1973 oil crisis. At that time, fuel was scarce at many gas stations, and speed limits were strictly controlled – and sanctioned – for the first time.
Although U.S. CB radio operators still had to obtain a (very inexpensive) license at that time, compliance was hardly monitored. Accordingly, more and more truckers used the devices to exchange information about speed traps, gas stations, good and bad rest stops, traffic jams and much more – and, of course, to combat loneliness in the cockpit.
In (West) Germany, the situation was similar. Here, CB radio was released in 1975. At that time, only on channels 4 to 15 AM and with a maximum of 0.5 watts for mobile devices. Even if there is no such loneliness in Central Europe due to enormous distances, CB radio was able to establish itself quickly among the local truckers for the same reasons.
In the course of the 1970s, it became a real hype. At the same time, more and more regulations were dropped, more channels were released and higher power levels were permitted. For truck drivers in particular, CB radio remained the most important mobile voice connection until mobile radio became a seamless and relatively inexpensive alternative in the mid- to late 1990s.
But just as the white spots on the mobile communications map became fewer and fewer, CB radio at the wheel became less and less important. Cell phones scored with virtually unlimited range, and when the smartphone emerged with its constant Internet connection, it seemed that CB radio had outlived its usefulness outside of escort vehicle operation.
Is the CB radio just another piece of history similar to cabs decorated with hundreds of incandescent lights? Well, partially. True, really not every trucker is on the radio anymore. On the other hand, however, CB radio is really low-threshold in terms of cost and technical requirements (more on this in the following chapter). In addition, since only one channel needs to be known, not a telephone number, CB offers strong advantages in transport practice:
What do you need for CB radio in a truck? In principle, very little:
It is strongly advised to buy all this from professional radio stores (on the Internet). There are a lot of cheap fakes of inferior quality at the big web mail order houses, especially for antennas.
CB radio is less “plug and play” than a cell phone or normal walkie-talkie. But if you learn the basics and perhaps read and write on the existing CB radio boards, you will be able to get deeply involved in the subject within a few hours – and perhaps even today you will be able to have some interesting conversations on the road as you once did when such series as “Auf Achse” were still on TV.
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