Two years ago, Duane Ridings was working more than 50 hours a week hauling building materials to Washington area construction sites as an independent truck driver. These days, he says, he's lucky if he works a few hours a month.

Since his business fell off last spring, Ridings gets up every day and prepares for work as he did when his services were still in demand. He drives from his Manassas home to a Springfield manufacturing company where he parks his 18-wheel truck.

"I usually go down to the plant and hope that something will come up," said Ridings, who is taking care of his family with money he and his wife, Lisa, had saved for a house. "That's the way I have been making most of my money since August. Hopefully, somebody forgot to order something and now they need it right away and I'll get a load. It's hit or miss, but that's what I have to do."

Ridings, 37, is one of 1.5 million truck drivers -- 350,000 of them independents -- who haul everything from fruits and vegetables to cement and wooden beams across the country. Trucking industry analysts estimate that 75 percent of the goods Americans consume arrive via trucks operated by independents and large firms.

As the economy has worsened, independent drivers have found it increasingly difficult to stay in business. The jump in fuel costs after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait 5 1/2 months ago worsened the hardships truckers had been suffering since the economy began to sour last spring.

"If a shipper can't sell it, he won't be putting it on a truck," said Kenneth Simonson, vice president and chief economist for the American Trucking Association's tax policy center.

Ridings once hauled as many as 15 loads a week between Maryland, Washington and Virginia locations. Most days now, he spends his time doing maintenance on his truck, remembering the satisfaction he felt when he began paying for the $38,000 vehicle in 1979.

At the time, Ridings worked for a publishing company hauling printed materials from Rockville to Mississippi. A few years later, when he became an independent, the recession of the early 1980s struck, leading to hard times that lasted until the housing boom started in the mid-1980s, Ridings said.

"I just barely did make it that time," he said. "It was to the point that when the last payment was due on the truck, I shut it down and hung wallpaper for two months."

Simonson said truckers have gotten some relief recently as fuel prices have started to go back down. The association's figures show diesel fuel jumped from an average of $1.10 a gallon in July to $1.60 in October. Diesel now sells for an average of $1.40 a gallon, Simonson said.

Ridings said he averaged 200 miles a day, using 50 gallons of fuel, which cost him $50 or less. Now, he pays at least $70 for the same trip.

The housing slump was "the straw that broke the camel's back" for a lot of independent trucking companies, said Jim Johnston, president of the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association. "Some have gone out of business, but there are even more who are teetering on the edge." Many independent truckers, he said, once relied on construction-related hauling in areas with booming development.

Now, a large number have chosen to park their vehicles and take part-time jobs because they have been unable to break even. Others have sold their trucks and left the business permanently, said Rita Bontz, president of the Independent Truckers and Drivers Association. One of Bontz's members now sells cars in Baltimore.

Virginia State Police Trooper Dan Coffey, a weight enforcement officer at the Interstate 66 scales in Fairfax County, said he has noticed a decrease in trucks through his tracking of vehicle maintenance and weight violations. According to records, 445,550 trucks passed over the scales in 1990, down from 497,142 in 1989. The number of weight violations has fallen; at the same time, minor vehicle maintenance violations have increased, Coffey said.

"As far as the weights go, they are not carrying as much, and there are not as many trucks," Coffey said. "A lot of times, they are coming back empty from a trip. They are saying they can't afford to keep the trucks up the way they used to."

Said Bontz: "I have seen people really dropping out . . . . A lot of people don't know it, but almost all the food we eat is trucked. If someone is hauling strawberries from California, they have to stay with that load until it gets to the East Coast . . . . These are not people who work 10 hours a day. The jobs are very demanding. If they can't make enough hauling those strawberries, they are not going to haul them."

Despite the difficulties, Ridings isn't ready to change occupations. He's looking for something temporary. Someday, he said, he'll return to trucking full time.

"I'm looking for just about anything that doesn't have anything to do with the construction or trucking industry," he said. "If I were to go to a {trucking} company, if business starts getting slow they will just start laying off anyway."