Truckers disrupt traffic to protest fuel prices

NEW YORK Tue Apr 1, 2008 6:09pm EDT

A customer fills a car's tank at a gas station approximately one mile from the White House in Washington March 11, 2008. REUTERS/Larry Downing

A customer fills a car's tank at a gas station approximately one mile from the White House in Washington March 11, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. truckers caused minor traffic snags in parts of the country on Tuesday to protest soaring costs for diesel, according to members of a major trucking association and law enforcement officials.

The mild disruptions from New Jersey to Chicago came in the midst of a week-long effort by independent truckers to get federal help easing the strain of high fuel prices through public protests or work stoppages.

"Our fuel costs have doubled over the past five years and the cost of doing business has doubled," said one Florida-based driver. "Our industry is in ruins and the rest of the economy is going into a huge tailspin."

On the New Jersey Turnpike, one of the most heavily traveled highways in the United States, hundreds of people took part in a protest at a service area and truckers reportedly were driving at slow speeds to back up traffic.

"There are some localized minor disruptions. We have taken enforcement actions which resulted in issuing summonses," said Lt. Gerald Lewis, a spokesman for the New Jersey State Police.

Police also handed out tickets to a few truckers driving below the legal minimum speed on a three-lane interstate near Chicago, while other small protests were reported in several other states.

The protests, however, did not appear widespread. A spokesman for the California Highway Patrol said there was no evidence of any disruptions in the state, which has some of the nation's worst highways and biggest ports.

In Florida, four dozen truckers gathered near the Port of Tampa to rail against high fuel prices but no attempts to block traffic were reported.

"We haven't experienced any traffic delays or any protests," said Lt. Ron Castleberry, at the Florida Highway Patrol headquarters in Tallahassee.

DIESEL SQUEEZE

The protests by independent truckers -- who make up 90 percent of the U.S. trucking industry -- came amid a 50 percent spike in diesel prices since last year that has brought the cost of a gallon to nearly $4 on average nationwide, according to the latest U.S. government survey.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents many of the truckers taking part in the protests, said it wants Congress to mandate a 100 percent pass-through of fuel surcharges to drivers as well as full transparency from trucking brokers to match loads and drivers.

The OOIDA has about 161,000 members, slightly less than half of the 350,000 independent truckers in the United States. The group said it does not call for strikes and gave no estimates of now many of its members might participate in protests or work stoppages this week.

The protests are loosely organized over Internet chat boards, members said, with truckers opting for the level of participation that suits their needs -- including just putting up protest signs on their trucks.

"If you have an obligation to a customer and can't stop driving, you can put up a sign even if you can't come off the road," said an independent trucker.

One South Carolina-based independent trucker, who said he pays thousands of dollars up front for fuel, said he has not worked for three weeks.

"There is not enough money to take my truck on the road," he said.

Mike Schermoly, a spokesman for OOIDA, warned that without help easing the strain of high fuel costs on the trucking industry, prices of groceries and other goods could rise.

"Some drive home, some find another job, some go fishing," he said. "Whatever they do the effect is to take the more trucks out of the market and there will be a shortage of trucks. Price of milk, lettuce will continue to rise."

(additional reporting Nick Zieminski in New York, Andy Stern in Chicago, Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, and Jane Sutton in Miami; Editing by David Gregorio)

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