As diesel prices soar to record levels, the trucking industry is staggering as companies face — for the first time — fuel costs that exceed labor costs and independent drivers struggle to survive.

As diesel prices soar to record levels, the trucking industry is staggering as companies face — for the first time — fuel costs that exceed labor costs and independent drivers struggle to survive.

"Diesel used to be 30 to 40 cents cheaper than regular gasoline; now it's 30 to 40 cents more," said independent truck driver Gordon Gravely, of Helena, Mont., who stopped at the Phoenix Petro Truck Stop Wednesday on his way to Roseburg. "It costs $600 to $700 to fill up one tank now."

Diesel on Wednesday was at an average of more than $4 a gallon in Oregon and Washington and nearly $4.12 in California, according to the American Trucking Associations.

"It worries the hell out of me," said 10-year truck driver Stan Hall, of Salt Lake City. "It just seems like a nightmare. In my wildest dreams, I wouldn't have guessed it would get this bad."

Truck driver Rex Taylor, of Olympia, Wash., who stopped in Phoenix, Ore., on his way to Arizona, said he doesn't expect to receive a pay raise from his company this year unless fuel prices ebb.

"I figure when (President) Bush is out of office they might do that," Taylor said. "It'll be an end of an error."

Hall said his company restricts drivers to certain fuel stations, where it has negotiated discount diesel rates.

"They tell us not to buy fuel in California," Hall said. "We are supposed to buy only as much as we need to get out of there."

Mike Card, president of Combined Transport in Medford, has employed similar measures to cut fuel costs for the trucking company's 388 semi-trucks.

"We are spending $2 million a month on fuel, and we're not very happy about it," Card said. "It definitely affects our profits."

To help offset the costs, Combined Transport has discount agreements with some fuel stops and installs tires and aerodynamic body parts that make the trucks more fuel-efficient.

The company reduced the maximum speed for its trucks from 70 to 72 mph to 62 to 68 mph to save on fuel.

It also installed auxiliary power units, or anti-idling devices, at a cost of $8,000 to $10,000 each. The units use about one-fifth of the amount of fuel used by a truck engine when it idles to power air-conditioning and heating systems while drivers are stopped or sleeping.

But it takes about two years for the units to pay for themselves and begin saving money, Card said.

For small operators, the cost of the units puts them generally out of reach.

"It's not something that's a magic bullet," Card said.

The high prices have taken a particular toll on drivers who own and operate a truck.

"There is a disproportionate burden placed on small business owners who are truck drivers because they depend upon diesel to run their businesses," said Norita Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. "At the same time, there is a low economy, less freight than truckers and volatile jumps in fuel prices which have placed a particular hardship upon them."

Taylor said she's heard from some independent drivers who plan to strike on March 31 or April 1 against the high prices. It was unclear how many drivers nationwide would participate in the strike, but it was not expected to be significant.

Gravely leases his truck to a company, which helps him keep a regular load of work and assists with maintenance and fuel costs.

"It's still tough," Gravely said. "The fuel prices go up; the freight rates go down. It's getting tougher to make ends meet."

To help reduce costs, Gravely tries as much as he can to carry a load on every leg of his travel in each direction.

The American Trucking Association has been pushing for a federal maximum speed limit of 65 mph to help reduce fuel costs, an end to the federal 12 percent excise tax for auxiliary power units and require states to give weight exemptions to trucks carrying the units, which can weigh 400 pounds.

Con-way Freight recently reduced the maximum speed for its 8,400 trucks from 65 mph to 62 mph. The move is expected to save 3.1 million gallons of diesel this year.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.