We are so dependent on "just in time" deliveries that a strike by hauliers could halt factories, offices, shops, pubs, hospitals and waste collections, and bring Britain to a standstill within days.
Research will this week cast doubt on the economy's ability to cope with a repeat of the lorry drivers' strike of 1979 or the fuel crisis of 2000 - though the retail industry contests this view.
To mark National Truck Week, a study calculated shops would introduce food rationing within three days of an all-out stoppage. And without deliveries, scores of companies would go bust in a week.
Heriot Watt University's logistics research centre found that retailers were keeping smaller stocks than ever because of pressure on storage space. Shops rotated stock seven times a year in 1986, but 10.5 times in 2001. The average tonne of freight travels 57 miles by road, compared with 21 miles in 1953.
Alan McKinnon, who wrote the report, said: "Although people don't like lorries, we are totally dependent on them. Without them, our standard of living would collapse within a few days."
Within 48 hours of a strike, many hospitals would have to cancel all but essential operations because of difficulty in obtaining linen and catering supplies. After three days, city centre pubs would run out of beer, and, by the fourth petrol pumps would run dry. By the end of a week half of Britain's 24m cars would be off the road. Manufacturers, construction firms and retailers would begin laying off workers to cope with a cashflow squeeze.
A spokesman for the Freight Transport Association said: "This is the way life works these days. There is, quite rightly, an emphasis among businesses on lean operations and stripping out inventory."
Steve Hounsham of the environmental pressure group Transport 2000 said the economy had become "shockingly dependent" on road traffic. He said: "Everything is being kept on huge warehouses on the motorways. We'd like to see a greater degree of localisation, so we don't have to move things so far."
David Southwell of the British Retail Consortium, said: "The idea that after three days the country would resort to rationing is wrong. We've seen temporary disruption before and dealt with it - this is a panic-mongering suggestion."