Tips, hints, and suggestions to keep you keeping on.
By Jim Brightly, Technical Editor
and Cara McDonald, Marketing Coordinator, RV Alliance America
Nowadays, nearly everyone behind the wheel of an automobile has taken a driver’s education course at some point in their lives. Instituted in high schools across the United States in the Fabulous ’50s, “driver’s ed” usually was conducted by an out-of-season sports coach in a car donated by a local auto dealership. The coach and four students would pile into the car for an hour of on-the-road experience. That meant each of the students received at the most 15 minutes of wheel time for each hour in the car.
Of course, many of us actually had started driving much earlier, on Dad’s lap while he worked the pedals, or in an uncle’s car to practice shifting. But for those who hadn’t received family “training,” the first venture into real traffic was a scary experience for the driver and everyone else in the car. Fortunately, we lived through this rite of passage, and as we matured we learned about the great adventure of traveling the open road.
In the 1990s, the growing popularity of RVing as a way of life and as a great travel option revealed a critical need for driving instruction specifically for RVers. In 1997 RV Alliance America, C95, responded to that demand by commissioning Hank Schnelle, F66196, and Roy Stiglich, F132549, to research, write, and present a comprehensive RV safe driving program. In 1998 they made their first presentation at the FMCA international convention in Ogden, Utah. Since then, the RV Safe Driving Course has been presented at an increasing number of rallies and events across the country, with the information consistently being updated and improved each year. The overwhelmingly positive response at rallies and conventions prompted FMCA to co-sponsor the course so that it could be offered to members with even more frequency.
The RV Safe Driving Course “” which is presented at both FMCA international conventions each year and at most FMCA area rallies “” is a six-hour classroom seminar split into two three-hour sessions held on two separate days. The course is presented twice at each convention. The cost is $10 per person, and reservations are a must, as it’s a very popular seminar. While there is no “behind the wheel” time during the seminar, it is very comprehensive, and a large block of time is allocated to a question-and-answer period during each session.
Becoming A Motorhome Driver
Making the switch from driving an ordinary car to controlling a large recreation vehicle can be a daunting experience. The sheer size of the motorhome can be intimidating, and the rules of traveling and maintaining an RV are much different from those drivers may be used to with regular automobiles. All aspects of traveling in such a complex vehicle must be considered, ranging from your safety to the upkeep of your motorhome.
Even if you do not plan to be the primary driver of your motorhome, it’s a good idea to learn how to operate it. Don’t wait until an emergency situation arises before attempting to operate the motorhome for the first time. Even if you don’t drive the motorhome often, the knowledge and experience of piloting it a few times when there is no outside pressure will stand you in good stead. The added stress of being forced to drive it in an emergency will make it even more difficult to operate effectively. Having more than one driver on board also makes it possible to relieve the primary driver for breaks of at least 30 minutes every two to three hours. Long hours of driving may cause a person to become careless and less attentive.
Before You Go
When loading your motorhome for a trip, keep in mind weight distribution and limits. You should be aware of the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) for your motorhome. This is a guideline governing the maximum weight of a vehicle when it’s fully loaded. Exceeding this weight can cause undue wear and tear, difficult handling, and costly repairs. Public weigh stations are available where you can check the weight of your motorhome. Look for a facility with a certified scale, such as those available at truck stops. Ideally, however, each wheel of the coach should be weighed independently, a service offered by the RV Safety Education Foundation at FMCA international conventions and area rallies. More information on this topic, including an RV Weight Information Worksheet (shown below), is available online at www.rvaa.com/articles/load_and_weight.php3. Print the form (or create your own) and then fill it out according to the following instructions. Be sure to carry the completed form with your other important motorhome papers.
Begin by copying the weight rating capacities from your motorhome’s data plate in the left-hand column of the worksheet. The data plate should be found inside a kitchen, bathroom, or bedroom cabinet, and it incorporates information specified by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA). Once you weigh the coach, enter the actual weight figures in the second column and compare the two. If the actual GVWR is higher than the capacity shown on the data plate, your vehicle is overloaded. If the gross combination weight rating (GCWR) is higher than the plate figure, the motorhome and towed vehicle together weigh more than the motorhome was designed to pull.
Here are the different weight ratings and capacities you will find listed on the RVIA data plate:
Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR): The maximum permissible weight of the RV. GVWR is equal to or greater than the sum of the unloaded vehicle weight (UVW) plus the net carrying capacity (NCC).
Unloaded Vehicle Weight (UVW): The weight of the RV as built at the factory. In the case of motorhomes, this includes a full load of fuel, engine oil, and coolants. The UVW does not include cargo, fresh water, LP gas, occupants, or dealer-installed accessories.
Net Carrying Capacity (NCC): The maximum weight of all occupants, personal belongings, food, fresh water, LP gas, tools, dealer-installed accessories and, for motorhomes, the tongue weight of the towed vehicle that can be pulled by this RV. (To calculate the weight of water in pounds, multiply number of gallons by 8.33; to calculate the weight of propane in pounds, multiply number of gallons by 4.5.) NCC is equal to GVWR minus UVW. The term cargo carrying capacity (CCC) has replaced NCC on the labels in newer RVs.
Cargo Carrying Capacity (CCC): Comparable to the NCC, CCC is equal to the GVWR less the UVW, the weight of fresh water in the holding tank and water heater, the weight of propane in the tank, and the sleeping capacity weight rating (SCWR).
Sleeping Capacity Weight Rating (SCWR): This capacity is calculated by multiplying the number of sleeping positions as defined by the RV manufacturer by 154 pounds per position.
Gross Combination Weight Rating (GCWR): The value specified by the manufacturer as the maximum allowable loaded weight of the motorhome with its towed vehicle.
Always consult your motorhome’s owners manual for specific weighing instructions and towing guidelines.
Just as important as finding out the total weight of a motorhome is realizing how that weight is balanced and distributed. Although it isn’t included on the RVIA data plate, another weight definition and rating that motorhome owners need to be aware of is the gross axle weight rating (GAWR). The GAWR is the maximum weight an axle can carry, determined by taking the lowest combined value of the axle rating, springs, air bags, suspension, and tire rating. The GAWR is based on the weakest link or component in the system. So, when having the coach weighed (fully loaded for travel), be sure to weigh each of the axles and compare these weights with the GAWR of each axle. Also, keep in mind that, by definition, the GAWR assumes that the axle is loaded equally on both sides. This is seldom the case with RVs, but the weight should be as evenly distributed as possible. Having the motorhome weighed wheel by wheel is the best way to analyze the weight distribution and allow you to redistribute items as needed.
When you pack the motorhome, always secure items inside the motorhome and in its storage compartments so they do not shift around when in motion. An overweight condition, improper weight distribution, and heavy items shifting during travel can negatively affect handling, ride quality, chassis components, and braking.
Other checks you should make before departing include the tire pressure, all fluids, the headlights, the taillights, and the turn signals. Make sure you’ve removed all chocks from around the tires, and ensure that the towed vehicle’s wheels turn freely when pulled and the hitch is secure. Be sure you are familiar with the dash gauges and monitors, and know what the normal operating range is for each of them. A trip checklist is available online at www.fmca.com/motorhometravel/checklist.asp. Again, print several copies of the checklist and keep them with your motorhome’s papers for use before each trip.
Before you hit the road on an RVing excursion, there are some driving maneuvers you’ll want to practice until you have them perfected.
Practice Makes Perfect
Turning. Wide turns are among the most common causes of accidents involving motorhomes. To make an effective right turn, delay the start of the turn to avoid hitting the curb or any other stationary items. Bus drivers and truckers call this “squaring the corner.” Check your side mirror constantly to make sure that no one is sneaking up on the right side of your vehicle, and use your rear wheels as your pivot point “” they must clear any objects as they follow through with the turn.
It is also important to remember the overhang or tail swing factor of your turn. The rear overhang is the portion of the motorhome from the rear axle to the rear bumper. In turns, the rear overhang moves in the opposite direction of the turn. Don’t turn with the opposite side close to the lane marker, because the overhang will swing into that lane as you turn. If you start too close to the adjacent lane, it is very easy to clip a vehicle passing by in the next lane.
Stopping. Since your motorhome is much larger and heavier than the average car, stopping time and distance will be dramatically longer. On average, a motorhome traveling at 55 mph will take 65 percent longer to bring to a complete stop than a car traveling at the same speed. Therefore, a six- to eight-second following distance is recommended for regular road conditions, and more during inclement weather.
Practice abrupt stopping in a large, empty parking lot “” this will allow you to become accustomed to the distance needed to stop, as well as the feel of the motorhome’s brakes, which may be different from those of an automobile. Many motorhomes have auxiliary braking systems, such as an engine brake, exhaust brake, or transmission retarder, which you should become familiar with before beginning your trip.
Backing. The size and limited visibility on all sides of a motorhome make backing one of the most challenging tasks a driver faces.
Before beginning, personally check around the vehicle to ensure that there are no obstacles, such as low-hanging branches or items in the road. If possible, use an assistant outside the motorhome to guide you when backing up. Always back into, rather than out of, a campsite, unless, of course, it is a pull-through site; the same goes for a garage. Whenever possible, back into the site from the left (driver’s side). By doing so you can use your left-side mirror to keep the hookups in plain view throughout the backing maneuver. Your assistant can help you avoid any obstacles on the right side of the vehicle that you may not be able to see. Back the motorhome into the site slowly and carefully, making steering adjustments as necessary. Backup cameras can be useful, but be aware that they can distort the distances of objects.
On the road. While traveling across the country, you will likely encounter mountain passes with major ascents and descents. When climbing a steep grade, ease up on the accelerator; don’t keep it to the floor for the entire ascent. Keep an eye on your temperature gauges, and if the motorhome begins to overheat, manually shift to a lower gear to reduce the engine temperature. In brief, the proper gear selection combines horsepower and relatively higher engine rpm to cause the fan to turn at a faster speed (pulling more air through the radiator) if either a fan belt or a drive that corresponds to engine speed controls it. Consult your owners manual for specific recommendations regarding your engine.
To fully understand the mechanics of a proper descent, you need to ascertain your vehicle’s maximum speed with the transmission in each of its lower gears. This is important because if you should exceed the maximum speed of a gear during a mountain descent, your vehicle’s built-in safeguards may force the transmission to upshift into the next higher gear (this safety feature protects your engine and transmission from overstressing due to excessive rpm).
To determine what these speeds are, find a flat, level surface and drive as fast as you can safely go in each of the transmission’s lower gears to find out at what point the revolutions per minute max out. Memorize these top speeds so that when you are going down a hill, you know where your speed limits should be. Usually you’ll want to downshift a gear or two to safely descend. This action creates a hold-back condition that will allow you to use your service brakes occasionally, if necessary, rather than continuously, which could result in a complete loss of the service brakes.
Night driving. Driving at night becomes more difficult as we age, because our eyes require more light to see clearly. Most seniors need twice as much light as a 20-year-old to clearly discern an object. Even so, there are some helpful adjustments you can make to improve your vision at night.
Before starting any trip, clean the windshield “” inside and out. During fuel stops, use the service station’s windshield washer to remove bugs and other road debris from the windshield, especially areas that your wipers can’t get to.
Also make a regular habit of cleaning off your headlights “” bugs and dirt can cloud their effectiveness. Properly adjusted headlamps can make a huge difference in visibility. To check them, pull up in front of a wall and make sure both lights shine in the same direction and at the same height. Consider replacing your regular sealed-beam headlamps with halogen bulbs, which are brighter and enable you to see farther ahead; however, they do have a narrower field of view. Also, if you enjoy driving at night when there is less traffic, consider adding supplemental lights to your motorhome. Kits with wide-beam fog lights and/or narrow-beam driving lights can be wired to a dimmer switch in your motorhome and are available at local auto parts stores.
To avoid being momentarily blinded when driving, do not look directly into the headlights of oncoming traffic (the resulting vision loss could cause an accident). Instead, observe the oncoming traffic out of the corners of your eyes while you watch the right edge of the road.
Adverse weather conditions. It would be great if the weather were always clear and dry for the best possible driving conditions. Unfortunately, we cannot control the atmosphere. In any adverse weather conditions, turn on your headlights, slow down, and allow more space between you and the vehicle in front of you. In some states, the use of headlights is required whenever the windshield wipers are on.
The road is especially slippery during the first 15 minutes of rainfall when water mixes with oils on the road. In wet weather, do not use cruise control or engine/transmission retarding devices, which may cause you to hydroplane and go into a slide.
In the case of fog, keep your beams low and your speed slow. Keep an eye on your speedometer, as people tend to speed up inadvertently in the fog.
Wind conditions can make a motorhome unstable on the road. When this occurs, it’s best to reduce speed, keep a firm grip on the wheel, and try not to oversteer to compensate for the wind. Be especially cautious in unprotected areas such as bridges and open stretches of highway.
In slippery conditions caused by snow, sleet, or hail, reduce your speed, use the brakes lightly, and increase your following distance. Many motorhomes do not have sufficient rear wheel clearance to accommodate chains; however, if you think you may be forced to drive in snowy conditions, try finding a set of chains that will fit on the back tires. In icy or snowy conditions, pull off the road at a safe location and wait out the bad weather if possible
Regaining control. The hope is that you will never have to worry about losing steering or traction control of your motorhome, but if you find yourself in a slide, there are some things you can do to regain control. But your reaction will depend on the cause of the slide. (Note: On motorhomes equipped with an antilock braking system (ABS), read and follow the braking instructions in your owners manual, as the procedures are different than those mentioned here.)
- A braking slide is caused by locking up the brakes, making it nearly impossible to slow down or steer the motorhome. To counter this type of slide, take your foot off the brake and either reapply it or pump the pedal easily. Steering to a rougher portion of the roadway may help your tires achieve better traction.
- The rear-end-breaking-loose slide is caused by heavy throttle application and/or harsh steering, which results in the rear end of the motorhome becoming unstable. To regain control, turn the front wheels into the direction of the slide; slowly remove your foot from the accelerator; and countersteer when the rear comes around.
- The momentum slide is the most difficult from which to recover. It occurs when driving too fast for road or traffic conditions. This type of slide causes the momentum of the coach to carry it forward, rendering the steering unworkable. To counteract, return the steering wheel to the direction the vehicle is pointed; slow down; and gradually try turning the wheel again.
- The power slide usually occurs when starting from a stop. It is caused by sudden heavy throttle application, which makes the drive wheels lose traction. To stop the motorhome from sliding, remove your foot from the accelerator; raise the tag axle (if applicable) to apply more weight to the drive wheels; and slowly apply the throttle again.
Beware of outside influences that can affect your ability to drive safely. Medication, fatigue, and distractions such as talking on a cell phone or eating while driving are serious safety hazards on the road. If you are taking prescription medication, be sure to discuss with your doctor any side effects that may impact your driving. Fatigue can sneak up on you and impair your ability to react. Remember to keep your eyes moving as you drive, and take breaks every couple of hours.
Cell phones can be lifesavers for RVers; however, they are a distraction while driving. If you need to use your phone “” and your navigator can’t make or take the call “” pull over until your conversation is finished. New York has made this a state law, and many states have pending legislation. Also, beware that certain local jurisdictions have banned cell phone use while driving with penalties up to $300.
Finally, one of the most difficult decisions you will have to make is when to quit driving for good. None of us wants to face the inevitable fact that someday we will not be capable of effectively operating a motor vehicle. However, your safety and the safety of others depend on your ability to assess your own driving skills. If you have had many small accidents, made errors in judgment, suffered a lack of concentration, or experienced times when you have lost the sense of where you are, then it may be time to consider hanging up the keys. Your doctor and family can be helpful in making this tough decision.
RV Alliance America’s qualified instructors teach the RV Safe Driving Course many times throughout the year and at numerous rallies across the United States, including at FMCA conventions and most area rallies. Participants receive a certificate that may entitle them to a discount on insurance premiums. For a list of upcoming RV Safe Driving Course dates and locations, visit www.rvaa.com/ontheroad.
27 Safety Tips You Shouldn’t Drive Off Without
Before heading out on your next motorhome adventure, take a few minutes to read this list of driving tips adapted from www.rvaa.com. This advice may help you to avoid an accident or protect you should you be involved in one.
1. Always wear your seat belt while operating your RV. Seat belts function primarily to keep you in the vehicle, even in the seat, if the vehicle leaves the highway or is involved in a collision.
2. Side-view mirrors should be adjusted so that you can just barely see the side of your RV. This reduces the size of your blind spots. Adjust the convex mirrors to include blind spots, keeping in mind that objects may appear farther away than they actually are. Rearview mirrors can have the same effect.
3. On two-lane roads or during inclement weather, use your headlights to make yourself more visible to oncoming traffic.
4. Back in, not out. When you pull out front-forward, you can see the traffic conditions and are not dependent upon another person. In addition, most times it’s easier to maneuver the motorhome in tight places by backing in.
5. If you must back out, step out of the motorhome and look things over before doing so. Confirm that there are no overhangs, low branches, or anything protruding from the ground that you might run over or that could damage the undercarriage of your RV. Many hazards are not visible from inside the vehicle.
6. Maintain a steady, consistent speed, close to the speed limit when weather, traffic, and road conditions permit.
7. When turning corners, use the push-pull steering method. Place one hand at the 12 o’clock position and pull down while pushing up with the other hand.
8. If your right-hand wheels leave the roadway, do not jerk the steering wheel to try to bring the wheels back onto the roadway. Instead, remove your foot from the accelerator, apply pressure to the brake pedal in an effort to slow the vehicle, and keep your steering wheel in a straight-ahead position. Slow the vehicle enough to enter the roadway without swerving onto it.
9. If you see traffic building up behind you, the first thing you should do is place your vehicle to the far right of the lane you are traveling in to let the vehicles behind you clearly view traffic without pulling out into the lane of opposing traffic. Find a safe place to pull over and let the vehicles pass, even if you are traveling the speed limit. Remember, on multilane highways, if you’re being passed by cars in the right lane, move to that lane once the passing cars have cleared. Be courteous to the other drivers.
10. If you must pass another vehicle on a two-lane road, consider how much time it will take to get around that vehicle. Rather than waiting for a clear area to pass and then accelerating to passing speed, drop back and start accelerating so you are already at passing speed when it is clear to pass. This will help you to get around the other vehicle more quickly.
11. When entering a freeway, use the first portion of the on-ramp to look back and find a gap in traffic to move into. Use the second portion of the on-ramp to build up speed so you can move into the gap at approximately the same speed that traffic is moving. Merging can be difficult with an RV. You must take into consideration your vehicle’s additional weight and slower acceleration and ease onto expressways very carefully.
12. A solid white line on an entrance to a freeway is a traffic control line and should not be crossed.
13. When exiting a freeway, move into the far right lane half a mile to a mile before your exit. Doing this avoids your having to find a gap in traffic to move into at the last minute. Waiting usually means slowing down in the second or third lane, which makes the process of moving over more difficult.
14. When the white line markers that separate the lane you are in from the lane next to you begin to appear more frequently (more than twice as many white lines), that means your lane is separating from the main highway. If this happens and you do not want to exit, signal and try to move over one lane as quickly as possible, but only if it is safe to do so at that point.
15. When traveling in the right lane on the freeway, do not attempt to slow down for traffic entering a freeway, unless required by law. Maintain a steady, consistent speed and allow entering motorists to adjust their speed to the speed of traffic. This prevents you from slowing down the traffic behind you and allows for an overall smoother flow of traffic. However, if you see that the merging vehicle is not going to yield, lift your foot off the accelerator lightly to slow the motorhome. Use your brakes only if necessary. Although you have the right-of-way, defensive driving will keep you and your motorhome safe. If the lane to your immediate left is clear, move into it temporarily to allow ramp traffic to enter the expressway uninhibited.
16. Be prepared for any possibility when you see a vehicle stopped by the roadside. Give that vehicle a wide berth. Someone could open the door and get out; someone could suddenly come around from the other side to make a driver change; or the vehicle could suddenly pull out into traffic without warning. If possible, move to another lane until you have passed the stopped vehicle. To protect police officers, emergency workers, and occupants of stopped vehicles along the highways, many states have passed laws that require motorists to move out of a lane that’s adjacent to one with an emergency vehicle whenever safely possible.
17. The most common complaint drivers have about other drivers is their failure to use turn signals. Turn signals are valuable for communicating your intentions to other drivers. If you don’t signal, other drivers have no way of knowing what you are going to do.
18. Whenever you see a condition ahead that may force you to make an unplanned stop, tap your brake pedal three or four times to warn vehicles behind you that you may make a quick stop. Remember that following cars can’t see around a motorhome because of its large size. Use your brake lights to communicate to traffic behind you.
19. Use your horn as a warning device when necessary. Honk two or three times before backing up if your vehicle is not equipped with a backup alarm. A light tap can also be used to warn someone who doesn’t see you, such as a pedestrian or cyclist. In dangerous situations, such as an impending head-on crash, you can use a constant pressure on the horn to warn other drivers.
20. Use your emergency flares to warn other motorists that you are broken down and parked on or near the highway surface.
21. Position your vehicle so that other drivers can easily see it. Avoid traveling in others’ blind spots. When you must travel through another operator’s blind spot, do so as quickly as legally possible.
22. You should be able to recognize road signs by their shapes and colors.
23. To help provide an additional margin of safety and make you aware of impending danger, look ahead to where you will be in at least 15 seconds or more. That way you’ll have advance warning if you need to take action.
24. Stay aware of what is going on behind and to the sides of you as well. Check your mirrors frequently.
25. If you are uncomfortable in heavy traffic and want to avoid traffic bunch-ups, one of the easiest ways to do this is to drop your speed to about two miles per hour less than the prevailing traffic speed. Once the bunch moves on, you may be able to resume your old speed and travel between bunches.
26. RVs are larger and heavier than autos and, therefore, take more time and distance to stop. Maintain at least a six- to eight-second interval between your vehicle and other vehicles. You can determine this distance by observing the vehicle in front of you. When the rear bumper passes an object, such as a sign or mile marker, start counting. You should be able to count four seconds “” one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three, one-thousand-four, etc. “” before your front bumper reaches the same marker.
27. Cover your brakes. When you approach a situation that makes you uneasy, place your foot over the brake pedal without actually touching it. This reduces reaction time if your hunch proves correct and you need to quickly apply the brakes.
RV Weight Information Worksheet
Weight on Data Plate Actual Weight