“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.
CB radio: The technical basis
But what is CB radio anyway? Here are the key facts:
- CB stands for “Citizen’s Band.”
- This means that it is a so-called everyman’s radio application. Anyone can use it (today) without limit, where with many other radio applications it is necessary to have licenses.
- CB is located at the upper end of shortwave in the so-called 11-meter band. In many countries of the world, the released frequency range is congruent. It ranges from 26.965 to 27.405 megahertz (MHz). This corresponds to a division into 40 different and, in the case of CB radios, fixed channels – so you cannot freely select the frequencies on these radios, only the channels.
- In most countries the channels are available in the modulation types AM and FM. Recently, so-called Single Side Band (SSB) modulation has been added more and more frequently.
- Germany takes a little special path. Here, the CB frequency range extends from 26.565 MHz to 27.405 MHz. This means that 80 channels are available on FM.
- In many countries and also in our country, transmitting on FM and AM is allowed with 4 watts, on SSB 12 watts are allowed.
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.
CB and Trucker: A logically connected story
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.
CB in today’s truck: More than just nostalgia
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:
- At the loading ramp at foreign companies. Instead of having to call the right person via cell phone, communication is much simpler via radio.
- On the road. Unlike cell phones, CB radio can be used legally behind the wheel. This pays off when chatting with other drivers on the same route as well as against boredom in the thickest traffic jam – since CB is “open”, it still has the character of a chat room.
- In convoy. CB radio plays to its strengths especially when communicating with escort vehicles – for example, because it has a much greater range than PMR handheld radios.
- As a cell phone substitute. Regardless of whether roaming does not work abroad, whether in a dead zone or when the battery is flat: CB radio offers a fallback solution that does not incur permanent costs.
Today’s truckers may not be able to spend the entire tour “on air” due to a lack of remote stations. But it would be wrong not to at least have the technology on board – especially since, as mentioned, it’s easy and inexpensive.
Implement CB radio: Here’s how
What do you need for CB radio in a truck? In principle, very little:
- The radio itself. Good radios without SSB cost up to 150 euros, although prices start at around 60 euros. SSB devices cost about 200 to 300 euros. It is important that the device can be set according to the different country standards. Then 80 FM channels are available in Germany, while after crossing the border it can be switched to the more usual 40 channel standard. It is essential that the device has a VOX function. In the meantime, the microphone must not be picked up at the wheel. VOX functions as a hands-free device: The device transmits as soon as you speak and then automatically stops again and switches to reception. Important: Not every, but many devices run on 24 volts.
- The antenna. The longer, the better. In the radio sector, length is referred to as a function of fractions of the wavelength. In the trade, truckers therefore find terms such as ¼- or ½-lambda (λ-¼ and λ-½, respectively). It is important for the antenna to have as high-quality a connection to the vehicle ground as possible. If you can’t or don’t want to drill through the cab roof, you can find options with magnetic feet or clamp mounts for the outside mirror or roof rails. Truckers can expect to pay no more than 50 euros for these. For this, very high-quality antennas are already available.
- A standing wave meter. To ensure that the radio and antenna are in perfect harmony, the length of many antennas can (and must) be adjusted. A standing wave meter (approx. 20 Euro) helps.
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.