The nation's independent truckeers, angry and going broke because of the gas crunch, met yesterday with government officials to gain relief.
They drove away as glumly as they had come, predicting the demise of their kind unless the energy crisis eases and forecasting serious consequences for the U.S. as a whole.
"We roll by wheels," declared Alex Carlucci Jr., spokesman for an ad hoc committee representing the country's rougly 100,000 owner-operator truckers. "If the wheels stop, the country will stop."
According to one Interstate Commerce Commission estimate, about 20 percent of the nation's independent truckers already have been forced out of business in recent months, unable to absorb price jumps in diesel fuel averaging 28 percwnt since January.
Other truckers have sidelined their rigs intentionally to protest high gas prices, in some instances attempting to shut down truck stops.
tSo far, such efforts have been fragmented and generally nonviolent. But truckers warned yesterday they were approaching a boiling point.
"A lot of us are getting hot under the collor," said Loretta Carlucci, who, like her husband, is an officer of the Council of Independent Truckers of New Jersey. "We are starting to get riled up."
Independent truckers s represent about a quarter of the nationa's regulated trucking force. They are especially important for transporting most of the country's agricultural goods.
Crowded around a long conference table in a hearing room at the ICC building, the truckers putt their case calmly but emotionally before ICC chairman Daniel O'Neal and Phil White, a Department of Energy official, both of whom responded by reciting relief actions recently put into effect by the government.
In particular, O'Neal said the ICC has accelerated procedures allowing truckers to recover fully whatever more they are paying now for diesel fuel.
But the truckers maintained that many of the major carriers with whom they contract have not bothered to apply for the surcharges, which have been available since June 1. It was suggested that some carriers want to hold down their costs to shippers in order to edge marginal carriers out of business.
Even those carriers that have applied for the cost refunds, it was alleged, have not been passing them on to their independent trucking contractors.
In addition to price relief the truckers asked the government to put them on a priority allocation list to receive 100 percent of last year's allocation. Few truckers reportedly have not been able to find fuel, but like passenger cars, they often have had to spend hours hunting for available sources and are sometimes forced to buy fuel in exorbitantly priced spot markets.