A two-day RV Driving School class helped an anxious new driver become comfortable and proficient behind the wheel.
By Hugh Connolly, F255857
Julie, my wife, had always intended to learn how to drive our old gasoline-powered 32-foot motorhome. But, as things turned out, she never did. I guess preserving our marriage was better than having a second driver. By October 2000, we had moved up to a 36-foot diesel pusher. I still was doing all the driving, and we had committed to embarking on a six-month trip. But what would happen if I got sick, or worse?
After some discussion, Julie called Dick Reed, owner of the RV Driving School, C6198. We had attended presentations he had given at an FMCA event in Indio, California, and also at an RV dealers’ show in Sacramento. His driving school, based in Applegate, California, is well-known, and we knew that his instructors were always in great demand at those events. When Julie reached him, she found out that neither he nor any of his instructors in California would be available until after we were scheduled to leave.
However, Dick said that an instructor in the San Antonio, Texas, area would be available around the time we would be traveling in that area. John, the instructor, had a long and varied background, including extensive driver training. He also taught motorcycle safety courses for the University of South Texas, and was able to use a private training site to allow his students to get the basics down before moving onto the road. It all sounded great. Dick gave Julie the instructor’s phone number, and we scheduled a two-day driving session in San Marcos, just north of San Antonio.
On the appointed day, John arrived at the San Marcos RV park where we were staying, as we were finishing breakfast. He and Julie hit it off immediately. Julie had been instructed to bring her driver’s license, proof of insurance, and other necessary paperwork. While she produced these items and filled out the necessary forms, I disconnected the utilities, retracted the slideouts, pulled up the leveling jacks, and cleaned the dishes. John then presented an overview of the areas of driving Julie would be learning during the next two days.
The first sequence was an air brake and air suspension checkout procedure, which was conducted with Julie at the controls. This was a great sequence that revealed a delay in the pressure buildup and indicated that an alarm was set a bit high. John gave us a copy of the procedure sheet so that we can periodically perform this procedure ourselves. I noticed that Julie was sitting behind the wheel she had once been afraid of, and she appeared to be very comfortable.
I grabbed a novel, my coat, and a hat, prepared to spend a relaxing day of reading elsewhere rather than cowering in the back of the coach. But John said it would be better if I went along. Though I tried to bow out gracefully, he persisted, and away we went.
Rather than being a scary experience, it was a fun and educational day. I drove the motorhome to the training facility. I was sure my every move was being watched by the instructor, calculating what bad driving habits I might have been pawning off on Julie.
Once we arrived, I got involved by moving cones around. John had Julie set the mirrors and showed her how much she could see based on the cones. Then he had her move the coach around, showing her how it moved in relation to the cones. She was engrossed in the driving and not the least been intimidated. She had good touch with the air brakes, a feat that had taken me months to learn. Then he had her do turns in a single-lane route around the headquarters building, complete with curbs. I had specifically avoided this route upon our arrival. I did some spotting for her as she first made right turns, then left turns. I was impressed by how nicely she was maneuvering such a large vehicle through the turns within minutes. Now, I’m using the same techniques.
My next job was to set up the cones to create an RV park driveway, with left-angled back-in spaces. Julie and I had tried every communication technique we had heard of to help back the motorhome into the campsite, but none had ever seemed to work well. We’d even bought the handheld communication radios in an effort to preserve a civil, peaceful relationship. But all they did was add audio to the hand-waving, aggravated looks, and fist-shaking. As you might have guessed, the instructor had Julie back into the spot based on his positioning of the coach and simple hand signals — and she got it right the very first time. The process took a full 20 minutes, with her stopping at each position to see from both inside and outside where the coach was going as she responded to his hand signals. I was learning the hand signals, too.
Then it was my turn to climb into the driver’s seat and let Julie help me to park. It was important, John said, for Julie to see how it worked. I got in and drove around for an approach. Unbelievably, she backed me in on the very first try. And we were smiling! The rest of the morning, we took turns helping each other to back in the coach. I noticed that she was handling the motorhome with calm, comfortable ease.
After lunch, Julie drove the coach to the freeway. Before entering the highway, she told the instructor that she was afraid that passing trucks would cause her to lose control. After some reassurance, she was driving naturally and comfortably. In fact, soon she was seeking out big rigs to pass her so she could get the feel of them. After an uneventful ride, we made our way back to the RV park. We had no trouble parking the coach that evening.
The next morning, we hooked up the towed car and Julie drove back to the training center. With the car hitched, John again used the cones to show how it moved during turns. Then he had Julie perform the same maneuvers as she had the day before. Watching from outside the coach, I was amazed at how little I knew about what the towed car was doing behind the motorhome.
We then unhitched the car, and John and I set up the cones for the RV park driveway and back-in exercise again. This time they were arranged to initiate a right-side turn. When compared with a left-side turn, there are differences in how to position the coach and where the person outside stands. At first I found myself using the wrong front and rear hand signals. At one point, as I was gesturing with no results, I heard a toot from the horn. Julie couldn’t see me. After she got the hang of backing in, I drove and Julie signaled me in.
I had mentioned that we would need to fuel up the next morning before heading to Laredo, so John suggested that we stop on the way back to the campground. He pointed to a gas station I had dismissed two days earlier as not having enough room in which to maneuver the coach, even with the towed car unhooked. But he had Julie pull in — making a left turn on a busy, four-lane road with the towed car attached. John and I got out of the coach and helped her maneuver up to the pump, then make a half-circle back toward the street. She also made a left turn out of the gas station. John then instructed Julie to pull into a shopping center for lunch, and they discussed what options she needed to consider in selecting a spot to park.
Finally, as we returned to the RV park, John found a tree and told Julie how to gauge heights in relation to the size of the coach. His explanation was something I’ve never seen in writing.
The next day, we left the RV park and began our journey to Laredo, during which we encountered intermittent rain and crosswinds. Julie drove for more than an hour and a half. I must say, that was nice.
The RV Driving School
The RV Driving School, C6198, was developed in 1991 by Dick Reed, a truck driving instructor and an avid RV travel enthusiast. Since the school opened, approximately 1,800 students have received instruction on the proper habits and driving skills necessary to safely and confidently maneuver large recreational vehicles.
What started as a one-man operation in Southern California has grown to include eight other instructors, all with extensive truck or large equipment training. Each instructor employs his own teaching methods, but follows the school’s specific lesson plan, which covers numerous areas of RV driving. These include the use of mirrors; turning and cornering; proper use of the engine, gears, and brakes; lane control; backing; judging height and distance; entering and exiting highways; and maneuvering in a campground, in addition to many other aspects of RV operation. Besides providing driving training, all of the instructors have RV backgrounds and can help to answer questions about the vehicle. Classes are available in one- or two-day courses using the student’s RV, and can include one or two students per session.
Prices range from $200 for a single-day, one-person lesson to $475 for a two-day combination course. Discounts are offered to FMCA members. Although the majority of the school’s instructors are based on the West Coast, opportunities also exist for training in other parts of the country when the instructors are traveling in those areas.
The RV Driving School is headquartered in Applegate, California, having recently moved north from Ontario. For more information, or to schedule classes, call (530) 878-0111, or visit the school’s Web site at www.rvschool.com.