Become a more courteous, responsible motorhome operator by incorporating these tips and suggestions into your driving repertoire.
By Brian Speer, F236388
“Wow, did you see what that jerk just did?” How many times have you said this while driving? How many times do you think another motorist has made this comment about your driving?
Most folks consider themselves good drivers when operating their car. However, operating a motorhome requires additional learning and reflex adjustment. Just think; the vehicle you are navigating may be up to 45 feet long, weigh 26 tons, measure 102 inches wide, and stand nearly as tall as some houses. Other considerations include increased acceleration, deceleration, and braking times; tail swings and wide right turns; the use of mirrors; backing up; freewheeling; and brake fade during a long descent. You must know how to react in an emergency. Sure, traction control, antilock brakes, steering assist, and other technology may make for safer driving, but they do not make someone an “experienced” driver.
Unfortunately, there are many great deals on slightly used RVs as a result of bad travel experiences that likely stemmed from improper training and preparation. After a long trip to a sunny destination, once-excited occupants arrive at the campground with frazzled nerves and nary a word spoken between them. That’s no way to start what was supposed to be an enjoyable trip. Perhaps you have met these discouraged travelers.
Professional drivers utilize many of the suggestions included in this article. After hearing comments from several of these drivers at fuel centers and over the CB radio, I purposely began watching how RVs were being driven. I found that the majority of RVers drive okay, but some do not.
My wife and I started RVing in 1982, becoming full-timers in 2003. At one time, our home-schooled son kept a diary of our travels for a required course project. After a while, we devoted our attention to the crazy, unpredictable behavior of poor drivers, paying particular attention to those piloting RVs. It became quite the topic of conversation and worthy of a 10-page essay.
We discovered many common mistakes that led to the majority of near misses or accidents. Often the perpetrator continues unaffected without knowing the trouble they may have caused. Some examples of poor driving included following too closely, drifting from lane to lane, speeding, unannounced lane changes, improper highway entries, the use of cell phones and texting, improper use of the passing lane, and fishtailing trailers. Perhaps you have seen examples of poor driving, and may even have been guilty of it yourself. From those experiences, we all can learn to become better drivers. At your next gathering, ask others for examples of the most dangerous things they’ve seen while driving. The responses will amaze you.
Common Road Etiquette
This article includes suggestions, observations, and common practices that should make navigating the highways more pleasant for everyone. Though many of the ideas may seem simplistic, learning just one may help prevent road rage or an accident. Practice these ideas and they can become automatic. It is hoped that the information will help you become a more educated and alert driver, with bonuses of better fuel economy and longer brake life.
Always perform a pretrip inspection, using a laminated checklist as a guide, before inserting the key in the ignition. Once you determine that the motorhome is set, buckle yourself into the driver’s seat, take several deep breaths, smile, and remind yourself that there’s no rush.
Turn on the headlights. Grip the steering wheel at the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock positions. (Some organizations, including AAA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, are suggesting that the wheel be held at the 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock positions to keep drivers from having their arms injured in the event of airbag deployment.) Drive smartly and defensively by taking notice of all other vehicles (even those parked) and pedestrians, and remember to check the mirrors frequently. Always let others know your intentions by using your signals, even in parking lots.
Be observant of the surrounding traffic, plus any that is way ahead of you. If you see brake lights or congestion, slow down until you find out why they are reducing speed. When approaching stopped traffic or a traffic light, learn the art of coasting. Let off the throttle early, coast, and begin braking when it is apparent you will need to bring the motorhome to a stop. Do not wait until the last moment and slam on the brakes. Watch how truckers creep — without stopping, if possible — up to a red light, traffic jams, and other bottlenecks. This alone can help you achieve better fuel mileage.
When approaching intersections where the cross traffic stops but your lane does not, watch the front bumper of the stopped vehicle, not the driver’s eyes. If the vehicle starts to roll forward, tap your horn and be prepared to take action. I used to watch the front wheels, but with the new spinning hubcaps, I was fooled many times.
At four-way stops, make eye contact with the driver, acknowledge him or her, and if both of you arrived at the same time, let the driver go if on your right. As a courtesy, allow a smaller vehicle to go first, as your motorhome will take longer to clear the intersection.
At intersections with traffic lights, Murphy’s Law dictates the light will change to yellow or red just before you arrive. Try to develop a rhythm of coasting or accelerating to get to the light when it is green. Pedestrian crossing lights with the countdown timer can help make your decision easier. When stopped at an intersection or when approaching after your light has just turned green, always watch for motorists running a red light as you move forward. Accelerating quickly from a stop usually results in hitting all the red lights, as well as hot brakes and poor fuel economy. Instead, start slowly and build up to the posted speed.
When navigating traffic circles, also called roundabouts, yield to vehicles already in the circle, as they have the right-of-way. While maneuvering through the circle, watch for vehicles entering. Many people do not understand the concept and the chaos they can create.
Speed and distance
When pulling into traffic, consider the extra time and space necessary because of your motorhome’s size and acceleration rate. This is especially important when entering a highway using an uphill ramp.
Allow extra following distance. This is one of the biggest reasons for accidents, overworked brakes, arguments, and the various types of hand gestures you’ll see from other motorists. The laws of physics dictate that it takes longer to stop a heavy object such as a motorhome. Don’t worry or become angry when a vehicle cuts in front of you; you’re still moving forward, not falling behind. Following a motorhome is like sitting behind a cowboy at a movie: all hat and no view. Let smaller or faster-moving vehicles go around if they want.
Watch for height and weight limit warnings, such as the 7-foot underpass outside of Albion, New York, or the 4-ton bridge in the muck lands outside of Batavia, New York. These are meant to alert you to restricted or impassable roads and to find an alternate route. Let me tell you, backing up for 2 miles is not on my list of fun things to do. You also may see restriction signs posted in public parking areas displayed to keep trucks and large vehicles out. I have discovered many of these the hard way.
When driving through larger cities, use truck routes when offered unless you need to go directly into town. These routes generally are longer but result in fewer stops with less congestion, which offers better fuel mileage.
It’s inevitable that your travels will take you into the path of severe weather. That’s why it is wise to invest in a weather alert device. My CB radio has one built in and sends alerts even when the radio is off. It has saved us from driving in bad weather more times than I can count.
Lights are used for communication between vehicles. Practice these and be observant when others signal you. Use them in daytime as well as at night.
By using a vehicle’s high-beam flasher, motorists are able to communicate with others on the road. A single flash or slow flashing means that it is okay to pull in front of a vehicle. Using the lights in this way is useful when a vehicle attempts to merge back into a lane after making a pass. When there is adequate room to pull in front, the driver who has been passed flashes his vehicle’s lights to let the passing driver know it is okay to merge. Generally, when you are the one being passed, it’s better to wait until you can see the driver looking in his or her mirror at your vehicle before flashing your lights.
If the driver behind you flashes the high-beams multiples times, this indicates that he or she requests that you move over as soon as safely possible.
If you see headlights alternately flashing from side to side on a vehicle coming toward you or from behind, it is an emergency vehicle or police officer. You are required (in most places) to pull as far to the right as possible and stop on all streets, except roadways with multiple lanes, where you slow down and pull to the right.
You may not realize it, but you can use your brake lights as another way to signal messages to vehicles that are behind you. Flashing them a couple of times by turning the headlights on and off or by lightly touching the brake pedal is a way to signal a thank-you to the motorist for allowing you to merge in front of them.
When the taillights are flashed numerous times, it indicates that there is trouble ahead and to slow down. It also may be a signal for you to check to see whether your headlights are on, or perhaps your high beams are on and they are bothering the motorist.
Steady, flashing red or yellow taillights indicates that a vehicle’s speed is well below the posted speed on a roadway or some other hazard exists. While it is acceptable to drive with the hazard lights on in some states, particularly if an emergency exists, it is illegal in other states. The AAA/CAA Digest of Motor Laws is an excellent resource when it comes to state and provincial laws. It is available online at www.drivinglaws.aaa.com.
If a vehicle’s taillights are alternately flashing from side to side, this is an emergency vehicle. Should you see an emergency vehicle with its lights on pulled to the side of the road, slow down and move to a lane — right or left — away from the stopped vehicle. Every state, with the exception of Hawaii, as well as the District of Columbia, has some type of “Move Over” law that requires motorists to slow down and change lanes, if possible, to help protect emergency and law enforcement personnel from injury or death while responding to roadside problems.
Obviously, the primary reason for using the turn signal is to indicate to other motorists that you intend to make a turn. However, for the signal to serve its purpose, you should activate it well in advance of the turn — 100 to 200 feet before all turns and lane changes. This is the distance required by law in most states and gives the motorists behind a chance to slow down or change lanes if necessary. The signal also lets approaching motorists know of your intention. Remember, they help others when used in parking lots, at congested fuel stations, and at other events.
Should you see the turn signal of the vehicle in front of you flash on and off a few times but not remain constant, check your own turn signal, as the driver could be trying to let you know it has been left on for a while.
Trucks can weigh as much as 80,000 pounds and their transmissions can be shifted up to 18 times, requiring more time and distance in traffic than motorhomes. Most company trucks have governors that restrict their speeds anywhere from 62 to 68 mph. This also limits their flexibility in traffic. Keep this in mind when you are driving, as the truck driver cannot change it. This may explain why they cannot accelerate when passing a vehicle traveling at 61 to 67 mph or why they require a significant amount of time to accomplish the pass.
Sometimes the hardest part about driving on an interstate or highway is just getting onto the road. As you approach the highway via the entrance ramp, accelerate to highway speed and signal to blend in. Use your mirrors to judge where the approaching traffic is and adjust your speed so that you can merge in front of or behind the traffic in the right lane.
Once you are on the highway, try to maintain a consistent speed. If your motorhome is equipped with cruise control, use it, as it helps the flow of traffic following you. You may recall times when you became aggravated by the actions of another driver whose speed bounced back and forth between 45 mph and 75 mph. Don’t be that driver.
When approaching an entrance ramp while on the highway, move over a lane, if possible, to help other vehicles entering the highway. If the other lanes are occupied, speed up to give the entering motorist space behind you, or slow down and flash your headlights to let them merge in front.
Before changing lanes, activate the turn signal and double-check your mirrors, especially the blind spots, then proceed smoothly to the desired lane. However, don’t speed up to pass a vehicle, pull in front of it, and then slow down so that the driver of the other vehicle has to pass you. This back-and-forth passing can become frustrating for both drivers. If this happens more than once, either speed ahead or reduce your speed to create some distance between the vehicles.
Use the passing lane — typically the far left lane — for passing only. If you do not need to pass, move to the right. Just because you’re driving the speed limit does not mean it’s okay to use the left lane. It’s not your right to restrict others, and it’s unlawful in many states to stay in that lane.
In city driving on freeways of six or more lanes, if you are going through and have no intention of exiting the highway, use the center lane(s) to avoid vehicles that are entering or exiting the highway.
When navigating the highways, don’t become so distracted by a conversation or the scenery that you stop paying attention to your driving. Be observant of what the vehicles around you are doing. If someone is riding close to your bumper or flashing his or her headlights, move to the right if traffic permits and allow him or her to pass.
Watch for highway signs indicating that a particular lane — typically the high-speed lane — is restricted in use by any vehicle with six or more tires (including RVs in some states).
In congested areas with multiple lanes, the Department of Transportation will sometimes narrow the lanes from the standard 12-foot width down to 9 feet, leaving little wiggle room. That is why you will see signs suggesting that large vehicles use another route instead of the main interstate. Interstate 75 through Atlanta, Georgia, is one such area in which it is recommended that trucks and large vehicles use Interstate 285 and not I-75 through downtown.
Should traffic slow down and stop on the interstate, turn the CB radio to channel 19 and listen to the truck drivers, who will provide updates concerning the slowdown, which lane you should be in, and possible detour information.
Traveling on fairly straight and smooth interstates is an easy task for most drivers as long as the weather is okay and the traffic is not exceptionally heavy. But there will be occasions when your nerves and driving skill will be tested. One is when encountering another large or long vehicle. When you see one approaching or are passing one yourself, prepare for the buffeting that will occur. You may feel your motorhome get a slight push, and then feel it being pulled toward the lane in which the passing vehicle is traveling. Maintain your speed and control the motorhome steering with slight, smooth movements. Do not overreact and jerk the wheel. If possible, move over a little within your lane to allow more space between vehicles when being passed.
If you are passing another vehicle, signal; pull out smoothly; wait until the lane beside the vehicle is clear and then accelerate past. If you are being passed by another vehicle, you may have to slow down slightly and allow it to pull ahead a safe distance before signaling the driver that it is okay to pull in front of you. You can then return to your original speed. In both cases, avoid driving alongside a large vehicle for an extended length of time. Either pass the vehicle or allow it to pass you.
If you tow a trailer, you may feel or notice in your mirrors that the trailer seems to be wandering or you may experience a sort of a tail-wagging-the-dog sensation. This is called fishtailing and typically is caused by excessive tongue weight, speeding, or buffeting. To correct the problem, activate just the trailer brakes lightly while maintaining your speed. When the trailer stabilizes, reduce your speed for the rest of the trip. If traffic permits, slowly accelerating sometimes will help to stop the fishtailing. Once the trailer straightens, return to a slower, safer speed.
Another situation that can lead to anxious moments is when descending a long and steep hill. A large motorhome will gain momentum as it rushes downhill, and your first thought may be to push hard on the brakes. Unfortunately, using only the brakes during a long descent can cause them to overheat and potentially fail. Instead, you should use other methods for slowing the vehicle.
Owners of a diesel motorhome with an engine or exhaust brake should use this device as much as possible. This equipment is critical in controlling downhill speed, where many accidents occur due to high speeds and overheated brakes. If your diesel or gas motorhome is not so equipped, you should slow down considerably when encountering a long, steep descent (and consider having this equipment installed). Do this by downshifting one or two gears and applying the brakes hard for no more than a few seconds. Then let off the brakes for three to four times as long as they were applied.
When descending a grade in any heavy vehicle, it is critical to use the engine and transmission to keep your speed even — neither speeding up nor slowing down. If you must use the service brakes, apply them firmly and long enough to allow the transmission to drop into a lower gear.
The one thing you can’t control when driving is the weather. Great weather is always preferred, but you know that will not always be the case. Even on the nicest days, you may need sunglasses or sun visors to help with the glare, especially during the morning and early evening hours. Shooter glasses (with yellow lenses) help on rainy or cloudy days.
There will be times when bad weather requires you to slow down and possibly pull off until it clears. If you’ve experienced a severe rainstorm in the South, you know how difficult driving is under those conditions. Truckers sit high above vehicle watershed spray — much of which they produce — providing them a better view as they speed along.
Occasionally a vehicle will stop on the road without pulling off, which can lead to a big accident. If you feel the weather is bad enough to stop, exit the highway and find a parking lot to pull into, or navigate the motorhome completely off the roadway and onto the emergency lane with your hazard lights on.
Another weather-related issue common in northern areas is black ice. These dangerous slick patches first appear on bridges and overpasses, but they can form anywhere there is standing water and freezing temperatures. Black ice is hard to detect, although sometimes it produces a glossier appearance than surrounding surfaces — but not always. An outside temperature gauge, easily seen from the driver’s seat, can alert you to the magic 32-degree danger zone. Black ice can send you on a frightening ride. Should you experience freezing rain, get off the road immediately, as the roadways can quickly become coated with ice. Heavy snow on untreated roadways also can lead to treacherous driving conditions.
Be sure you have a roadside safety kit. These kits include reflective triangle markers or road flares to place behind the vehicle if stranded on the roadside. You hope that you will never need such a kit, but you will be glad to have it should the situation warrant.
No matter the weather, road, or traffic conditions, one of the most important things you can do is to take regular breaks to make sure you stay awake and alert. Welcome centers are the perfect places to refresh and talk to others.
Other Driving Tips
Many motorhome accidents involve new motorhomes and novice drivers. This indicates a lack of training and or experience.
Education and experience
New and veteran drivers alike should attend an RV driving class before heading down the road, especially on today’s interstates. Real-world experience is the best teacher. Realize that odds are great you will scratch, dent, or back into something at some time or will cut someone off.
Lazydays (www.lazydays.com) presents its “RV Driver Confidence Course” in Tampa, Florida (866-703-3076), and Tucson, Arizona (800-306-4069 ext. 6309). The RV Driving School (www.rvschool.com; 530-878-0111) offers classes at different locales across the United States.
The RV Safety and Education Foundation (RVSEF) presents its RV Driving Safety Program at FMCA Family Reunion and Motorhome Showcase events each year. During this two-part session, seasoned motorhome operators provide participants with driving and safety tips to help them become better drivers.
An Internet search may reveal other possibilities. Taking a driving class also may make you eligible for a discount on your motorhome insurance. Contact your agent to find out the specifics.
No matter whether you decide to take a driving class, all inexperienced drivers should find a large, unused parking lot to practice their driving. This is the best way to become familiar with your motorhome while avoiding damage and embarrassment. Bring your driving partner, patience, and perhaps an experienced motorhome operator. Keep it lighthearted and remember your sense of humor. Set up a type of obstacle course that requires turning, backing, and stopping. You may find it helpful to videotape the session so you see what you’re doing from a different perspective.
Increasing Fuel Mileage
Challenge yourself to achieve better mileage and reap the advantages. The obvious suggestions work for both gas and diesel motorhomes.
One of the best ways to save fuel mileage is to determine the most economical speed for your motorhome. Do some trials to find your engine’s “sweet spot,” the speed or rpm at which it delivers the best economy and fewest downshifts. Generally, a faster speed when traveling through hilly/mountainous areas is best, while a slower speed is better when traveling on flat highways. The manufacturer of your engine can recommend the optimal rpm to achieve greater fuel mileage.
Today’s transmissions and computers do a great job of keeping your engine in its sweet spot. Check with your dealer for software updates for the engine and transmission. Allison recently updated its programs, including those for older transmissions.
A good tool to help determine your mileage if you have a diesel motorhome is an engine management system (EMS) such as the SilverLeaf Electronics VMS, Caterpillar Messenger, or Cummins RoadRelay. These show instant and long-term miles-per-gallon information, making it possible to observe the results while driving. You will be amazed at the factors that can affect your mileage, such as changing speed by just a few miles per hour, the weather, following a semi-tractor trailer, long uphill climbs, and those jackrabbit starts.
If your diesel motorhome does not have an EMS, use your turbo-boost gauge. It’s very simple: higher boost, lower miles per gallon; lower boost, higher miles per gallon. Watch this gauge as it fluctuates.
Use your vehicle’s cruise control whenever safely possible. Set the control to soft/smart cruise if your motorhome is so equipped. It will help you to achieve better fuel mileage and it automatically makes throttle adjustments in hilly terrain.
If your diesel motorhome does not have soft control, try a little more throttle before an uphill ascent to spin the turbo boost up. As the engine starts to slow down, the turbo boost will already be on, causing less of a slowdown. Approximately 50 to 100 feet before the crest of the hill, slowly let off the throttle to allow the motorhome to return to the desired speed.
Adjust driving habits
Today’s motorhome engines require minimal time to warm up, just enough to allow air pressure to build in diesels with air systems. Drive the motorhome moderately until it is at operating temperature. Avoid jackrabbit starts whenever the motorhome has come to a complete stop, and drive as though an egg were under your accelerator foot.
While navigating over hilly terrain, you may notice trucks slingshot by you downhill using a technique referred to as the Texas overdrive. This is used to help improve mileage and build speed for the next hill during which time the truck will slow considerably. You can do the same with your motorhome.
The less you use your brakes, the better. Think of your brakes as a credit card. Sometimes you have to use them, but they will cost you each time. Whenever you slow down or come to a stop, it takes a lot of fuel to get the motorhome moving again. Instead, try coasting whenever applicable.
While I tried to provide a comprehensive list of driving recommendations, others require little more than common sense. As suggested earlier, when getting together with friends, talk about your experiences on the road and the dangerous driving behaviors that you’ve seen exhibited by other motorists. Talk about situations in which you’ve had to make a split-second decision, and the outcome — good or bad. The topic may make for an interesting seminar or discussion group at your chapter’s next gathering.
The open road is just waiting for you to enjoy and explore. RVing is a wonderful lifestyle, so choose your destination and travel safely.