CB (Citizens’ Band) radio popularity peaked in the late 1970s when “Break 19 for radio check” could be heard everywhere. The times have changed and nowadays I usually ask: “Is this radio working?” on which a trucker will say either “It’s working, driver”, or “No, I can’t hear you”. In both cases I reply with some form of gratitude, for they are confirming it’s OK.
CB Is Still Alive
Many people believe that the CB phenomenon is dying, mostly because the market is full of the license-free FRS/GMRS two-way radios (Family Radio Service/General Mobile Radio Service walkie-talkies), and people buy them for skiing, RV-ing, ATV-ing, snowmobiling, boating, they buy them to their kids as toys, etc. However, if you try to use one of these radios from within a car you (and your signal) won’t get far. External antennas for FRS/GMRS radios are illegal and these devices don’t have an external antenna connector, thus they are useless in a car. The basic advantage of CB radios is that they allow external antennas, which is the only way for your radio signal to get out of a Faraday cage like the metal car chassis. An average CB car radio with a good external antenna can still reach people miles away from you, while the modern two-way radios are good only when they are used outside within a line of sight. CB is far from dead, but its use has been reduced to normal. Most big trucks have a CB radio and they use it to warn each other about road conditions, ask locals for directions and to communicate emergencies and ask for help with mechanical or any other problem. The good thing about reduced CB traffic is that these radio waves are not in heavy use today, unlike in the late 1970’s when there were too many people transmitting on too few channels so it was virtually impossible to have a normal conversation.
When driving on an open road, I’m constantly tuned to channel 19 and there’s usually little talk, if any. However, if we start slowing down, most of the truckers turn on their radios and start asking questions to the truckers from the opposite direction and the ones who are ahead of us. Inside Chicago you can often hear a lot of conversations, mostly because there’s a lot of traffic jams here and also because some truckers ask for directions.
CB = More Info = Better Road Safety
Long time ago I ran into some accident debris on the highway and nearly got into an accident myself, and it was then that I learned that the truckers are constantly warning each other about bad road conditions, accidents, congestions and speed traps. A truck driver stopped by just before me, asked for help and warned other truckers via a CB radio station. That made me buy a CB radio and a magnet mount antenna for about $60 and start using it myself. From that moment I realized how helpful the highway drivers can be on CB radio waves, and I started becoming friends with other road drivers (I can’t use the term “good buddy” as it nowadays has a different connotation than it used to during the days of peak CB popularity). I got so used to having a CB station in my car that nowadays I feel awkward and endangered if I have to drive on the highway without it. I have a number of CB radios and a number of magnet mount antennas and I feel like there’s no better way of learning about what’s going on ahead of me on the highway.
Channel 19 – Truck Drivers’ Reign
This is the busiest channel and it’s used by truck and other drivers on the highways throughout the USA for communicating any road-trip related information. I am listening and participating on this channel when driving on a highway to hear, warn, ask or answer about road conditions, traffic jams, cars stopped in traffic, closed lanes, accidents, directions etc. If you are lost and don’t have a GPS or need some information from locals, turn to channel 19 and when nobody’s talking about anything important say:”Breaker 19 for local information”. If some locals are listening, they will answer and tell you to ask your question.
If you are traveling in a group of vehicles, don’t use channel 19 to discuss trivial things important to you only. Also if you start an interesting conversation on channel 19 and you’d like it to last more than just a few sentences, propose to the other party to change to another channel where you won’t get on everyone’s nerves.
Several times I have warned people who were babbling on channel 19 that they should change the channel because the rest of us may not be interested in their personal conversation but in information related to our highway trip. Surprisingly, some of them did listen. You should do the same – if they’re going on and on about some irrelevant information and getting on your nerves, they’re probably annoying many others, so warn them politely but assertively.
Although the conversations on channel 19 should be used sparingly for exchanging information about road conditions, traffic and directions inquiries, the CB radio and this channel are not for “the faint of the ears”, as the conversations are definitely not moderated. Aside from regular polite guys minding their own business and listening for traffic related info, there’s also some cursing, politically incorrect subjects, narrow minded talk and topics unsuitable for children’s ears which made me buy an earpiece so my wife and kids can’t hear them. I’d filter out those bullies if I could, but for sake of my family’s safety I prefer listening in case of a life-threatening situation in which everybody shuts up with trivial chatter and switches to serious and helpful information that saves lives.
Warnings and CB Slang
If you have one of these radios you will appreciate warnings you will sometimes hear. They will sound similar to this:
“Go ahead, eastbound!”
“You have a 5 miles long parking lot ahead of you by yardstick 65 with one lane traffic and construction. What did you leave behind?” (Translation: there is a big traffic jam moving very slowly around mile 65. Did you see anything worth mentioning on your way here?)
“Thank you driver! I saw one in the middle lookin’ at you at 83.” (Translation: there was a state trooper car parked in the median facing oncoming eastbound traffic somewhere by mile marker 83.)
The truckers also like to warn each other about any situations that may require their attention and vehicle maneuvers :
“Hey southbound, I saw a bear with a customer on the right shoulder here by mile 105”. (Translation: a state trooper with a pulled over vehicle).
Messages like this help them prepare to slow down or change lanes before endangering themselves, the state trooper and the stopped vehicles. Once you master the slang it is good practice to warn other drivers about any abnormal road conditions or danger. I usually warn them even about the vehicles on the shoulder although I am a “four wheeler” (truckers’ term for a regular car and its driver, as big trucks are also known as 18-wheelers). They appreciate it. If you see an accident or anything possibly dangerous and have a CB radio, by all means, get on channel 19 and warn people about it (after reporting it to law enforcement if needed). Tell them where exacly, on which mile of which highway you saw it. The closer you are to that place the higher the urgency and less accurate you have to be. For example, it was Saturday night and I was returning home (downtown Chicago) when a few guys did a “flyby”, passing the rest of us at dangerous speed. I grabbed the microphone and said “several kamikaze drivers just passed me racing westbound at over 100 mph.” That’s a good warning to people with their radio on and driving westbound to be aware of these lunatics. I am not going to cover the CB slang here because there is a good Wikipedia article about it here.
Reporting Emergency on Channel 9
Do not use channel 9, unless you have an emergency! It is a CB channel dedicated to emergency only and some states (Ohio for example) are monitoring it. Channel 9 is held in reserve by the FCC for emergency communications when the immediate safety of an individual or the security of property is threatened. When you believe there is a serious and immediate threat to human life or property you should report the situation. This doesn’t mean that you are limited to channel 9 only. The law states that in case of a life-or-death emergency any person can use any radio on any channel to report such an emergency. By all means, don’t stick to channel 9 – grab your cell phone and call 911, regardless whether you get a response on Channel 9 right away. Also, when seconds can save lives, make a decision what is quicker, grabbing your CB’s microphone and switching the channel 9 on, or stopping and calling 911. After learning that the help is on the way, you may also want to switch to channel 19 and warn the drivers who are listening about the situation.
When reporting an emergency on channel 9 you may start with: “Breaker 9 for any base station or emergency vehicle, I have an emergency” and if any service can hear you they will respond. You can hear something like “State the nature of your emergency”. Then you state your first and last name and location and continue describing the emergency. If there’s no response from anybody on channel 9, call 911 (in the USA) by your cell phone. Call 911 even if you reached someone on channel 9, just in case.
Significance of a CB Antenna
Antenna, preferably external, is the key part of every CB station. I’m not saying you should have a raggedy speaker and microphone, but as far as they are of an average quality, buying a good antenna is usually the best investment you can make to improve your CB station and easily achieve a multiple increase in its range and transmitted and received signal strength. Your CB is practically useless without an external antenna, especially when you’re driving. A good external 3′ antenna like “Little Wil” will increase the range of a CB station multi-fold.
102″ Whip – The Ultimate Antenna
I also have a 102″ steel whip antenna and I sometimes take it up to the roof of our 15 floor building and talk to people who can’t believe how far I am. Moreover, they can’t believe that I’m talking from a hand-held, battery operated CB radio. In order to persuade them, I just unscrew that antenna and use the smaller telescopic one and if they can hear me they will confirm I sound like crap. One guy was about 5 miles away when we chatted and he said that his signal meter was close to the max while I was using the big antenna, while he could barely hear and understand me with the telescopic one.
Although nothing compares to the 102″ whip which makes any average CB station sound like an engineering marvel, this monster is nearly impossible to mount on a normal passenger car (I have seen some fanatics mount it on a bumper, though). My magnet mount antenna of choice is Little Wil, because it is reasonably long for a four-wheeler (passenger car), and still not too tall for low ceiling garages and similar spaces (unless you have a minivan). What’s also important for reasons described below, this antenna has a strong magnet and low air resistance due to its narrow whip.
I’ve used at least five different magnet mount antennas in the past, one almost as tall as Little Wil, but it had a weaker magnet and the antenna was wider so it had higher wind resistance. One very windy day while I was driving quite fast on the highway the wind blew it off my roof and kept me wondering for 10 seconds how on earth it can hail on a sunny day, till I pulled over and saw that the wind was flip-flopping the antenna over my roof as the cable was preventing it from being totally blown away. After that experience I used a much shorter, about 10″ antenna for a while. That one can never be blown off under normal circumstances, but its range and reception quality were pitiful. Then I ordered the Little Wil antenna and finally got what I was looking for because of its combination of length, magnet strength and narrow profile for low wind resistance, and its thin and very flexible whip can get under some low ceilings (always be aware your vehicle is taller than without the antenna). There’s another more expensive model (Wilson 1000) from same manufacturer with a longer whip and some say it is the best magnet mount, but it’s a bit too long (high) for my car. According to my experience and some other reviewers, Amazon.com has best prices for these antennas.
Portable CB Stations
Besides one cheap but good Midland dashboard mount CB station picking up dust in my storage, I have two different portable CB stations, Cobra HHROADTRIP and Midland 75-822. Both have weather channels and both compare well to each other and to the above mentioned dashboard unit. Cobra Roadtrip is nice, but Midland 75-822 is much better, for multiple reasons listed below.
Cobra HHROADTRIP 40-Channel CB Radio
Cobra Roadtrip CB has some flaws. It is much heavier when compared to the Midland 75-822 portable listed below, and I need both hands to comfortably work with it, especially if I have batteries in it, so for usage while driving I recommend buying the external microphone or a combo earpiece/microphone headset. I also bought a BNC to standard VHF antenna adapter so I can attach my “real” home and car CB antennas to it.
– Reasonably good reception and signal strength
– NiMh batteries last forever and I don’t ever connect it to my car’s 12 V lighter output any more.
– Two different power connectors, one for charging the batteries and the other for just using the car power. The provided cable is good only for using the car power and it doesn’t charge the NiMH batteries (not included). The charging cable is not provided. Why not use the same connection for both?
– It’s quite heavy with 9 AA batteries in it, so in case of an accident it can become a projectile and hurt someone.
– Questionable static noise filters (when plugged into my car power outlet I can hear my Honda Odyssey engine rpm changes through its speaker and this is why I use it only with rechargeable batteries instead of plugging it in. The Midland portable works just fine through the plug)
– Its squelch feature doesn’t work well (can’t tell whether it’s just on my particular unit or whether this is a flaw of all of these). You have to set your squelch level unreasonably high (missing a lot of conversations further away from you). Whenever someone is right on the edge of squelch threshold, you will hear a lot of unusually loud noise coming from the radio, almost as if it is undecided and it keeps oscillating back and forth from passing and blocking the signal. This sounds like a driver next to you is pressing and releasing the PTT button 4-5 times a second, so it can be annoying, either killing your eardrum when on an earpiece, or bothering when wife and kids are asleep.
The manufacturer claims that Soundtracker “…dramatically improves the sound quality of the transmission and reception of CB radio signals.” I can’t see a big difference.
All in all, it’s a nice portable, but I don’t recommend it for usage while driving without an extra headset.
Midland 75-822 40 Channel 2 Way CB Radio
This is the second portable CB station I bought and it is my portable of choice.
– Very small without the batteries, size of a standard CB power microphone
– Very good design of the included 12 V power plug/cable with external antenna connector
– Two different add-on battery compartments, the bigger for NiMH batteries and the smaller for standard AAs.
– Great battery life according to some reviews (I haven’t had a chance to use it on batteries except during a short test)
– Better electrical noise protection than on the Cobra HH (no engine static noise coming through the speaker)
– Good for easy mods with descriptions online (SSB and power mods, but that’s illegal so I didn’t do that)
– None I can think of after several years of usage
Why Every Car of Mine Needs a CB Radio
Can you tell I’m about to get my HAM license? I have been using CB radios for ages and I love it, but a radio amateur license opens many new doors and ways to communicate and reach people far beyond just a few miles, and goes as far as hundreds and thousands of miles away, even to astronauts on the ISS. Big deal, you’ll say, I can call anybody by cell phone or Skype or Tango. True. But in case of a longer power outage or a disaster, who can you call?
CB’s advantage over licensed radio amateur stations is that it’s accessible to everybody without any exams or licenses required. Its advantage over cell phones is that you can listen to many people at once while driving instead of just having a one-on-one conversation. CB has saved me from some traffic jams, because thanks to my inquiries with drivers going in the opposite direction I was often able to make route changes and arrive at my destination sooner than the others. The most important thing is, I keep listening, contributing and sharing information in channel 19 because of what I’ve learned from that truck driver from the beginning of this post, who stopped by an accident, called for help and warned everybody who could hear his radio. A driver like that (and there’s a number of helpful people out there) can someday save our lives by warning me about an accident ahead on the road in the fog or icy bridge, or just by stopping by and helping with a defect or life threatening situation. When besides following other safe driving tips I also have a CB radio with channel 19 on while driving on the highway, I feel like I’m doing everything I can to protect my family from risky conditions on the road ahead. That’s what drives me.
(Some of information in this post I originally wrote in my CB equipment reviews on Amazon.com)