Professional RV Driving Tips
by Tom Gonser (Updated 10/2011)
[Ed Note: We've reviewed this article with the new owner of the RV Driving School -- who confirms the methods and techniques described below reflect current teaching.]
Some years ago when we purchased our first diesel pusher we concluded that not only finding "the right rig for us" would enhance the experience, but also ensuring that we knew how to operate thenew coach competently and safely. We'd had an earlier brief exposure to some of the professional drivers who comprise The RV Driving School, and had just enough interaction with them to appreciate there still was much we could learn about driving. We've taken editorial positions which support more driver training for RVers, and now it was going to be our turn to be on the receiving end of it. [Note: While the RV Driving School has changed ownership since we took our training, it appears their current offerings continue much the same.]
We contacted the RV Driving School, and arranged to take their full two day course. One of the available locations was near Palmdale, and that would be near where we planned to be on our travels. So we signed up for the course -- not just Stephanie, but very much both Tom and Stephanie. We've both shared the driving time fairly evenly, and have several hundred thousand accident free RVing miles. But particularly with our new coach, with systems which were unfamiliar to us, it seemed prudent that we should take the plunge and make sure we were as competent as possible to be piloting a 30,000 pound motorhome for the extensive travels we're contemplating during the next several years.
On the morning of our first day our instructor, Jerry Ray, came to the park they'd recommended to us, the Californian RV Park in Acton, CA. We'd known Jerry from crossing paths multiple times at the annual Life on Wheels Conference in Moscow, Idaho. We'd both taken his one hour classroom presentation; and Stephanie had spent a bit of time in a short behind-the-wheel practice session. While those experiences were helpful, we knew they would be no substitute for the full course. And we were right.
After recording all the statistical information pertaining to our drivers licenses, registration, insurance, etc., we started at the very beginning. At our request, Jerry skipped nothing on the assumption we certainly would "already know that". [In fact, I think he was a bit surprised at how little I really did know about the coaches mechanical systems!] We started with a walk around the rig, and at even this very first step we learned some important things we probably should already have noticed. For starters, Jerry pointed out that the coach we'd just taken delivery of at the factory came with some tires not having valve caps. It's kind of a little thing you don't focus on when taking delivery of a massive machine. But it can be important. Jerry pointed out that the caps actually prevent particles of material from getting into the valve, potentially causing them to fail. He also mentioned that when getting new ones, to be sure to get the chrome type with "o" rings inside. These apparently help retain air in the event of a valve failure.
We also learned as we made the outside circuit that the aluminum wheels we have are superior to steel wheels primarily because they are not suseptable to hairline cracks. On our coach the four outside wheels are aluminum, but the inside dual wheels are steel. Jerry suggested they be inspected when the wheels were being rotated.
We learned still more about checking the fluid levels in the axles, and about watching for rust spots or streaks coming from under the wheel lug covers. The latter apparently suggests a lug nut which is not properly tightened down.
After picking up a raft of pointers about the daily "walk around", we came aboard and had a very detailed discussion of the coach's air brake system -- something that was new to us. We'd heard that in Canada RVers who operate rigs with air brakes are required to get a special endorsement to their drivers license -- which apparently requires taking a certain number of hours' instruction and passing a test. We now learned that DOT regulations require each driver of a commercial truck equipped with air brakes to perform a series of "tests" of the system each day before pulling onto the road. We were about to learn what those tests were, and how to perform them.
While we will not here go through each of the procedures we learned, suffice it to say the tests are relatively easy to perform, and provide a comprehensive check that ensures both the service brakes and emergency brakes are functioning normally, and there are no leaks in the system. With Canadian authorities seeing this as being of such importance as to require an endorsement to a driver's license, and our own Department of Transportation mandating these tests each and every day for commercial truckers, we think it's essential that all RVers with air brake systems learn how they work, and how to perform the required tests to ensure they're in good operating condition. An article by Bob Gummersall posted elsewhere at this site provides an excellent overview on this subject.
Before hitting the road, our final check was on the setting of the mirrors. The coach is equipped with mirrors on each side comprised of an upper flat mirror, which is electrically controlled by the driver; and a lower convex mirror, which needs to be manually set. Since Stephanie sits closer to the wheel than I, of course we need different settings for the flat mirrors. We found, though, that the convex (wide angle) mirrors could be set to accommodate both of us without change. We took considerable time setting the mirrors for each of us this first time, mostly to ensure that we were seeing precisely what we were supposed to in them. We learned that what we were seeing in the top third of the lower mirror should also be visible in the lower third of the top mirror. Like much of the course we're here describing, this requires "doing it", not just reading about it. Suffice it to say the flat mirrors are essentially to judge distance, while the convex mirrors are for "the big picture", or wide field of vision. The convex mirrors would show a car passing on the right which would be entirely invisible in the flat mirror; but the flat mirror would provide a true perspective of when we'd passed another vehicle by a sufficient distance to make it possible for us to cross back into our original lane. But the examples go on and on...
Once we'd completed our pre-trip inspections and checks, we were ready for some over the road learning. For the balance of the morning we essentially made right turns, and then left turns. But these were carefully measured turns. With Jerry's help, we were each able to identify a reference point in our coach which, when used as the signal to initiate a sharp turn, would ensure the back wheels would consistently clear and track neatly around a corner. The same was true in making left turns, though of course the reference points were entirely different. In each case we were able to track the rear wheels behaving precisely as intended as we made turns into increasingly narrow lanes. While this of course will take more practice to perfect, it provided a superb method for us to gauge precisely how to make tight turns.
After a short lunch break, we were back on the road. Before putting some polish on the right and left turn techniques, we had of couple of interesting surprises. Finding a wide, deserted street with unlimited visibility and virtually no traffic, Jerry asked me to do the following: Accelerate the rig as fast as it would go -- and when he gave me the word, pull up on the emergency brake. I thought about this for a minute, then nodded my agreement to give it a try. We looked around the coach to make sure nothing would go flying if we really skidded to a sharp stop. This accomplished, I turned on the emergency flashers and "floored it". Something approaching 15 tons roared to life as the powerful Cummins 350 powered the rig at a surprising rate of acceleration. Had Jerry forgotten to give the word? It seemed we were now going far to fast to activate the emergency brake -- but just then, the word: "STOP"! I pulled up sharply on the brake handle....and what followed was highly instructive: We came to a very fast -- but smooth -- stop. This, we were told, is precisely what would happen if we ever had a severe air leak: The emergency brake would automatically come on as the pressure reached a critically low point. There would be a warning, though, when the air pressure dropped to a point that was nearing the "trigger" point. So if those warnings should ever occur, we'd want to get the rig off the road as quickly as possible. 'Cause when it stops, it STOPS. And that's where it's going to stay until repairs are made.
The next maneuver went in the opposite direction. First we parked in the very center of a wide, long, deserted street. Jerry asked me to put on the emergency flashers as a precaution (we could have seen any possible traffic for at least several hundred yards). Then I was asked to back the rig for a couple of hundred feet in a straight line. With no close curb, this seemed at first like a tall order. I didn't mind attempting it, as with both the mirrors and backup camera, visibility was quite good. And common sense of course keeps one at a very slow speed. But we got a pointer that would ensure I went precisely straight back. Jerry asked me to pick out an object a couple of hundred yards to the rear in my left (flat) mirror. Then he asked that as I slowly backed up, I keep that reference point precisely aligned with the side of the coach (in the mirror). By doing so, I was able to back confidently as straight as a string. We did the same using a reference point in the passenger side mirror. It worked just as well, but was slightly more difficult -- simply because as we were learning it's easier to use the left mirror than the right mirror because the driver's side mirror is closer.
The balance of the afternoon we drove pieces of the nearby freeway, learning some tips on getting on and off the freeways, changing lanes, passing, and maintaining a safe distance behind the vehicle ahead. That latter "tip" was only one of several "rules of thumb" which had a numerical value: Keep 1 second for each 10 feet of RV length or portion thereof (for us that's 4 seconds) behind the vehicle in front of you to ensure you have room to stop in an emergency. Other rules of thumb numbers we learned during our training exercises included:
- To keep brakes cool coming down long steep descents, try to stay 3 seconds "off" the brakes for every 1 second of brake application (though better is to descend primarily using the engine brake and gears).
- To ensure clearance from a parallel object (such as another vehicle on your right when you're starting a left turn from a stop signal), you'll need 1 foot of separating distance for every 3 feet (or portion thereof) of overhang distance from the rear wheels to the back of the rig.
- While going downhill, if your rig accelerates more than 5 MPH in 5 seconds, you need the next lower gear.
The next day we started off with a review of what we'd learned on Day One. This included some more tight right and left turns. All was going well, so we were off for some new training grounds. The "obstacle course" we'd take this time would be up, over, and down a winding mountain road. I was particularly interested in this piece of the experience -- less based on apprehension of driving the winding grades, but rather on learning to use the Allison tranny as efficiently as possible. Our last rigs have all been 5 speed manual transmission trucks, and the six speed automatic was a new experience. I learned I'd want an uphill gear which would always provide the ability for at least some acceleration. On the downhill run, the objective would be to use the service brakes as little as possible, relying on a combination of the engine brake and a proper gearing selection. If our downhill run was accerating more than 5 mph in 5 seconds, we'd need the next lower gear. One nice thing about doing it in our own rig was that we were able to determine our coach's approximate "target" RPMs for this type of uphill and downhill exercise.
As we approached one rather narrow corner, Jerry was telling us to learn to "read" some of the unwritten signs on the road. As an example, he pointed to the guard rail we were nearing. It was in pretty ugly shape. Why? Reflecting on that momentarily we correctly answered because this narrow, blind curve had seen its fair share of vehicles scraping the guard rail attempting to avoid cars coming from the other direction. While there were no signs with words, this one seemed to say quite plainly that we'd better approach this curve slowly, and be especially watchful for traffic coming from the other direction. Reading this type of "sign" is something we'd not previously considered -- but it makes a great deal of sense.
Stephanie drove back over the same hill, at first somewhat apprehensively. It wasn't going up that bothered her -- it was the anticipation of coming down. When I'd been on the descent, Jerry kept asking me if the speed I was going, which was determined in large part by the gear I'd selected, was "comfortable" for me. In each case I said yes. As Stephanie started down, Jerry again queried whether she was "comfortable" at the speed she was driving. She quickly shifted down one gear below the one I would have chosen, and then declared herself "comfortable". This was an interesting teaching point: The "right" gear for Stephanie was different than the "right" gear for me, because the "comfort zone" was really the determining factor. I was getting even more information to reinforce the conclusion that the "right" way to drive depends in part on who's driving!
With the mountains now tamed, we turned to a subject I'd been waiting for -- backing into an RV site. While I was used to accomplishing this chore, it was too often a story of trial and error. And as far as Stephanie was concerned, if the gear was "reverse", the driver was "Tom". She was quite certain there was no possibility she'd ever be able to back the rig into an RV spot.
But the techniques we'd learn would prove that "certainty" completely wrong. For starters, we'd need to know where the rear wheels were by using the mirrors. Mind you, we can't really "see" the rear wheels in the mirrors. But, as we learned, we could find a reference point on each side of the rig which is visible, and which would help us to know where our rear wheels were when we were backing. In our case, there's a side light just above the rear wheels on each side. So by checking the position of each of those lights, we'd know approximately where our rear wheels are.
Learning to back is clearly a "show and tell" kind of thing, and is best done in one's own rig. Suffice it to say we learned to go forward just past the end of the rig; to go straight back until our rear wheels were just abeam of the point we wanted to pivot around. Then we'd take advantage of the ease of electric mirrirs, and adjust the flat mirror down so that we had a clear view of the ground near the corner we'd be going around. At that point we'd start our turn, keeping it just "sharp" enough to "follow" the imaginary line we'd set up for making the corner. The mirror was a crucial tool for this, but by using it effectively we both found we could track an almost perfect radius into the selected spot. Jerry used some pylons to simulate the width of the street we'd be turning from, and the width of the site we'd be backing into. While we did the reverse turns both from the left of the site, and from the right of the site, we quickly learned why we'd prefer backing around from the left. Again, this is a learn-by-doing, and not a learn-by-reading technique...
We took turns doing the backing exercise until we both felt quite comfortable with the technique. We also recognized that it will take practice to approach perfection here, and Stephanie now looks forward to doing just that. What a change!
Our final "stage" was driving the busiest of the urban streets in the Palmdale/Lancaster area. We were directed, quite purposely, onto the very types of streets we would ordinarily avoid. With frequent traffic lights, very narrow lanes, and lots of speeding traffic we learned to simply take our time, use common sense, use our mirrors extensively, and watch for traffic trying to sneak past on the right. On one occasion I found myself in a left turn lane, waiting for the light to change, when another large motorhome pulled up alongside on my right. They were not more than 18 inches away. We didn't know what the traffic light sequence would be -- but as it turns out I got a green left arrow and the motorhome on my right still had a red light. We're not talking big wide streets here, and my left turn needed to be started fairly soon. I was acutely aware that if I turned sharply left the back end of our rig would be right into the side of that stationary motorhome. So I inched forward slowly, giving the light enough time to let the motorhome go straight ahead, and then executed the turn. What seemed surprising, in hindsight, is that the driver of that other motorhome obviously had no idea that by stopping so close to a left-turning rig he'd just set himself up for an accident.
By the end of the second day we both felt we'd learned a great deal; but that the real benefit of what we'd just learned would really only be fully realized if we continued to practice what we'd learned. Driving a rig of this size is serious business. And we think most RVers would find there is a lot to learn about how to operate their rigs safely. With more big rigs sharing the roadways these days, quite frankly we hope more of them will take the time to learn how to drive them properly. And if they don't, we hope they won't be driving anywhere near us!
[Ed Note: The driving tips included above are but a small portion of what learns by actually taking the type of professional RV driving course -- and are no substitute for taking the course!]