In its Flashback Friday series, FreightWaves publishes articles that look back at various aspects of the transportation industry’s history. If there are topics that you think would be of interest, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org
By Scott Mall
Citizens band radios… remember them? While the popularity of CBs has declined dramatically since the era of disco and bell bottom jeans, a dedicated group of CB users and enthusiasts is still keeping the dream alive.
In 2019, there are numerous options to CB radios available, including cell phones and family walkie talkies, but CB radios have advantages that still make them a popular choice in certain circumstances.
The History of CB Radios
The CB radio service was created in 1945 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which designated a portion of the radio spectrum for use by average citizens for personal communication. According to the FCC, “the Citizens Band Radio Service (CB) is a private, two-way, short-distance voice communications service for personal or business activities. The CB Radio Service may also be used for voice paging.” (Although the definition cites “private” communications, during their heyday CB conversations were anything but private, which for many was either a blessing or a curse…)
The CB frequencies originally designated by the FCC in the 1940s were hard to reach for most casual users. Subsequently, the frequencies around 27 megahertz (MHz) were designated for CB use by the FCC in 1958. That same year, the FCC designated 23 channels for CB use. This was expanded later to the 40 channels in use now. One channel is legally reserved for the same specific purpose that 9-1-1 is used for on telephones. Channel 9 (27.065 MHz) can legally only be used to call for help in emergencies or “traveler assistance.”
Until 1982, operation of a CB radio required an FCC license. That requirement was discontinued, and anyone can use a CB radio – as long as they are using FCC-approved equipment.
CB radios became immensely popular in the mid- to late-1970s because of a combination of cheaper equipment and pop-culture exposure through songs, movies and television programs.
The film White Line Fever was released in 1975. The number one hit on the Billboard chart in 1976 was “Convoy,” a song about a convoy of truck drivers who evade speed traps and toll booths across the country. Smokey and the Bandit was released in 1977, and it became the third-highest grossing movie of the year, bested only by Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Burt Reynolds, Sally Field and Jerry Reed starred in Smokey and the Bandit, but CB radios were their co-stars. Another 1977 film that featured CB radios prominently was the aptly named Breaker! Breaker! It starred Chuck Norris, and posters for the movie used the tagline “...he’s got a CB radio and a hundred friends who just might get mad!”
CBs were everywhere at that time; they were not just used by truck drivers, but many others who wanted to listen in to what was happening on the highways and byways of the United States.
Alternatives to CB Radios
CB radios’ popularity waned, largely due to new technologies that provide different features and improvements. Of course, cellular telephones are CBs’ biggest competitor. Cell phones can be used to talk coast-to-coast, compared with CB radios, which have a limited range (local communication). Cell phones also allow you to have a private conversation, while CB conversations can be heard by anyone within range who is listening in on the particular channel/frequency. Cell phones with traffic and weather apps provide information about road conditions. Cell phones’ with GPS navigation (or separate, stand-alone GPS systems) provide that critical information. Radar detectors (or apps) warn of law enforcement use of radar nearby. Nonetheless, despite their widespread use and popularity, cell phones and other technological improvements have not completely replaced CB radios.
Who Uses CB Radios and Why?
CB radios have been used by truckers for decades, but they are also used by off-roaders, RV owners, those who ride motorcycles and all types of hobbyists. CBs can be used to keep groups organized and in contact during events. In fact, CBs are required for most trail rides, because cell phone reception is unreliable (or unavailable) in remote areas. Some drivers (of both trucks and cars) use CBs to identify speed traps, even though dash-mounted radar detectors are more extensively used than in past decades (although these may be illegal in some states).
Drivers who use a CB radio do so for a variety of reasons: they can help find an alternate route in a traffic jam; warn of road blockages ahead; provide real-time weather reports and severe weather warnings; provide information about traffic enforcement activities; and provide assistance in cases of a mechanical breakdown or medical emergency. For drivers on long trips, a CB radio can provide comforting and helpful noise and conversation that is stimulating and may help keep a driver awake and alert.
Truckers Still Use CBs to Communicate About Special Circumstances
Although most truckers have moved most of their conversations to cellular telephones, they still use CB radios to relay important road-related information. Moreover, truckers have specialized words and phrases to discuss or inform others about certain information. According to CB World, among the words and phrases used are:
"Brake checks" – any slowdowns or delays, including accidents, construction zones and congestion
"Bear reports" (think “Smokey and the Bandit”) – police activity, especially situations in which police are stopped on the side of the road, requiring traffic to slow down or move over
Truckers also use their CB radios (instead of cell phones) to provide information relevant to other truckers in their area. Examples of this include: when it's safe to pass or merge; how to avoid confusion at intersections or tight traffic areas; and the status of weigh stations and scales.
In these instances, CBs are preferable to cell phones, because information is local, immediate and up-to-date. Even the best apps may not have specific traffic conditions; truckers listening to their CB radios will get the information as soon as the first trucker hits the condition, and even though the range of CB radios is limited, the information will be relayed onward.
On the road, most truckers use channel 19 to relay general information. In some locales (particularly California) truckers use channel 19 for east-west travel-related issues and channel 17 for north-south travel-related issues.
And despite the many technological advances referenced in this article, CB radios are heavily utilized during disasters and emergencies; there is a wealth of empirical data that they have saved lives. Law enforcement agencies, emergency and first responders, volunteers and many others use CBs to communicate when infrastructure is damaged or literally nonexistent.
So while the heyday of CB radios has passed, they are certainly not passé.