Dirt started sticking to the sweat on Ronnie Owen's face at 8:30 a.m. as the cab of his dump truck began its daily summer transformation into a bone-rattling oven on wheels. The radio refused to play.

The workday's prospects for Owen, 28, a freelance hauler of gravel, asphalt and dirt, were no different that Friday than any day he drives in Washington's swelter. There was more dirt as the day wore on, more heat, and the radio refused to respond to Owen's fist.

When his 10-hour driving ordeal ended, Owen did what he usually does. He drove 110 miles to his home near Charlottesville to sleep 5 1/2 hours and start all over again at 3 a.m.

Owen is one of hundreds of truckers from rural Virginia towns who own dump trucks and put in 16-hour days of commuting and trucking to move the dirt being displaced by Washington's building boom.

The frequently overloaded dump trucks are common sights on the Capital Beltway and other major highways, where they intimidate commuters and spill dirt.

The rural truckers curse the Washington traffic. A trucker from Fredericksburg calls the small foreign cars that venture near his truck "little sons of bitches." Local commuters have been known to call dump trucks worse names.

With Metro subway excavation, the Northern Virginia housing surge and the rapid pace of office building construction in the Washington area, contractors say there is a seller's market for independent dump truckers.

For their fatigue and tedium, the truckers earn the right to keep themselves and their families from living near an urban area they say is crowded, frenzied and unfriendly.

They make about $1,000 a week, which, after the cost of fuel and truck maintenance, turns into a yearly salary of about $27,000.

And the dump truckers are free to decide when to work and when to tell a sharp-tongued contractor to stick his dirt-hauling job in his ear.

"When something ain't right, you can go home," Owen said. "But you gotta like to ride. When I'm in my truck I feel independent. Like I say, you gotta like to ride."

Owen begins his daily 2 1/2-hour ride to work at 3:30 a.m. The Virginia countryside is quiet in the predawn hours. Moths flutter in the white glare of headlights and dead rabbits lie on the narrow roads he travels. The commute, although long and tiresome, is the easiest part of Owen's work.

The hard part is putting up with the constant heat in the dump truck, the jarring ride that hurts Owen's lower back, and the traffic.

When their trucks are loaded with 30,000 pounds of dirt and rolling at 55 miles an hour on the beltway, Owen and other dump truckers complain, Washington commuters don't pay them enough respect.

"I've had people in those little cars cut me off so I had to pull off the road. A loaded truck is like a train - it's got brakes, but they don't work right away," Owen said.

E. V. Adair, 47, a dump trucker from Fredericksburg, said the most dangerous people on the road are those who don't understand what dump trucks must do.

"You'll be loaded and gotta go up a hill and they (commuters) will be poking along in one of those little sons of bitches (Toyota, Datsun, etc.). They'll be jabberin" and paying no attention. They just about drive me crazy," Adair said.

His advice to commuters: "Keep as far away from my truck as you can."

Virginia Del. Warren E. Barry (R-Fairfax), who has had his windshield broken by a rock that fell from a dump truck, contends that it is the dump trucks, not ignorant commuters, that cause traffic hazards in the Washington area.

It is a real safety problem. These trucks spew sand, gravel and crushed stone. When the stuff hits the ground it bounces and hits cars," Barry said.

For nine straight years, Barry has introduced legislation in the Virginia General Assembly that would force dump trucks to put tarpaulins over loads of dirt, gravel and sand. Barry claims that lawmakers with connections to the building industry and trucking have kept the bill from becoming law.

Maryland, too, has been unable to pass a law requiring tarpaulins.

While some local politicians have continued to complain, the number of independently owned dump trucks operating around Washington has increased steadily, especially in the last three years, according to area trucking firms.

When they realized it was cheaper not to own dump trucks, many truck firms began acting as agents, lining up independent dump truckers from as far away as Richmond and Charlottesville for hauling jobs and taking a cut from the truckers' wages.

"If you buy a dump truck, get your tags and insurance, we can put you to work in the morning," said Mark Mathany, who dispatches up to 200 dump trucks a day for A. G. Van Metre Jr. Inc., a Fairfax firm.

Ronnie Owen was a mechanic in 1975 making $3.25 an hour at an auto parts store in Charlottesville when he quit and bought his first dump truck.

"I always liked the way trucks looked," said Owen, the son of a mechanic. "I wasn't making nothing at the time, anyhow."

In the last four years, Owen has owned four trucks. He says he spends so much time in his present truck - a 1973, 20,000-pound Custom Chevrolet with nine forward gears - that he doesn't have enough time for his wife, his 16-month-old son or his health.

For his decision to avoid living in Washington's "rat race," Owen has paid the price in seemingly endless exhaustion. He was hospitalized for fatigue last winter.

It is about this time of year, he said last week, when the long hours start to hurt.

"Sometimes now I feel tired even before I leave home," he said. CAPTION: Picture 1, Front-end loader fills Ronnie Owen's truck with dirt, which he hauls to another part of town house project. By Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Owen checks latch on bed of his truck after dumping fill dirt.; Picture 3, He takes a break with fellow trucker Lankson Howard. Photos by Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post