Driving Tips 'N Techniques

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Many experienced RVers already do, without even thinking about them, many of the tidbits mentioned in this section. However, for the "newbies" just entering the wonderful world of RVing, hopefully these tips will be enlightening.

Driving an RV, whether it be a motorhome or a truck pulling a fifth-wheel trailer, is not (as the "newbie" quickly learns) quite the same as jumping in the family car for a quick trip to the grocery store.

Once you are out on the open road, the driving task seems almost the same as driving the family car, but getting your RV out of town, especially in metropolitan areas, can be a white knuckle and "puckering" experience for the first-time RV driver.

Driving an RV is like any other new experience—often terrifying at first, but after awhile seems to be not so different after all.

Use Transmission to Slow Down. It is far too easy to fall into the habit of driving your RV just like you drive the family car—your foot is either on the gas pedal or on the brake pedal—and hopefully not both feet on both pedals at the same time.

Driving your RV in the same manner as your family car will quickly wear out your brakes and possibly compromise your safety.

Almost all RVs today come equipped with automatic transmissions, and most trailer-towing folks choose an automatic transmission for their tow vehicle. Those folks with manual transmissions are already familiar with gearing down when descending steep or long grades, but many RVers either don’t know or have forgotten that they should use their transmission for added braking power.

If you are continually stepping on the brake pedal, you are in too high a gear and need to shift down. When descending long grades, it is suggested that you first shift out of Overdrive, then shift down to Second gear, and possibly even First gear—using the engine and transmission to help slow down your RV instead of your brakes.

Those of you with diesel rigs know that the compression braking effect is much less, and equipping your rig with an exhaust brake can help you to slow you down on steep grades. If you have a diesel rig (either tow vehicle or motorhome), you are urged to seriously consider adding an exhaust brake to your rig if it does not already have one.

When descending a hill, if shifting out of Overdrive still causes your RV to pick up too much speed, hit the brakes and slow down until you are safely able to shift down into Second gear without over-revving the engine. If the rig still picks up too much speed, hit the brakes again and really slow down, so that you can safely shift into First gear.

You need to become familiar with your particular engine and transmission combination— and learn what RPMs you are turning at what speed. (For my particular RV, I can safely shift down into Second gear when I am going less than 50 mph, but I must slow down to almost 25 mph before I can safely shift into First gear—without my engine screaming in agony at being over-revved.

Don’t Ride Your Brakes. Another important rule to remember descending mountain grades is to not ride your brakes to keep a constant speed. Riding your brakes will cause them to get hot and eventually fade—leaving you with little or no braking power when you need it the most.

TIP: graphic of a light bulb Learn a trick from experienced truckers. When you need to slow down on a long grade, step firmly on the brakes and slow down about five miles per hour or so, and then get off your brakes—let ‘em cool down. When your speed gradually picks up again, step firmly on the brakes again to slow down and then get off of them. If you are doing this every half minute or so, then you are driving in too high a gear and should slow down and shift down.

Stay on Top of Your Engine’s Torque Curve. Take the time to find out where your engine is putting out the most torque. For you techie types out there, max torque and max horsepower don’t occur at the same rpm—but it is torque that will get you up the grade.

If your transmission doesn’t shift down by itself when you are climbing a steep grade and the engine RPMs start to fall off the torque curve, help your engine to stay on top of the torque curve by manually shifting the transmission down into Second gear.

In my motorhome, I have a Ford V-10 engine and the best torque range is between 2850 and 3200 RPM. I usually “help it out” by manually shifting down (if the tranny hasn’t done so already) when the RPMs get down to just below 3000.

Many RVers who have newer diesel pickups as tow vehicles for their 5er opt for after-market “chips” that reprogram the engine computer to yield more torque and sometimes better acceleration. These chips are rather expensive, and not everyone who gets one is satisfied with the results.

Use Same Gear When Climbing and Descending Steep Grades. It is a good rule of thumb for RVers to remember that usually you descend a grade in the same gear that you needed to climb it. This is especially true on most of the mountain passes in the western states. If you need First gear to climb the grade, then use First gear to descend the other side. You can always shift up if you deem it necessary.

Put Transmission in Neutral When Stopped on an Uphill Grade. To save your transmission from getting overheated (any more than it already is), shift it into Neutral if you find yourself in stop and go traffic on a grade and are stopped for more than a minute or so. Doing this takes some of the “load” off your transmission, and it will not heat up as much. Leaving your transmission in “Drive” while the RV is stopped continues to build up heat—although not as fast as when you are climbing a steep grade.

It is also much too easy to overheat a transmission by using the gas pedal to keep your rig from rolling back instead of your brakes. You may do this in your car without even thinking about it, but please don’t do it in your RV—unless you like to rebuild transmissions.

And, please, don’t be a two-footed driver. Always use your right foot for both the gas pedal and the brake pedal. If you are a two-footed driver, it is far to easy to unintentionally have your right foot pushing (even slightly) on the gas pedal while your other foot is firmly on the brake. This action just causes your transmission to slip and unnecessarily heat up—and sometimes leads to transmission failure.

Leave Extra Space in Front of Your RV. When driving your RV, please get in the habit of leaving lots more space in front of your RV than you think is necessary. Remember that your RV cannot stop nearly as rapidly as your car.

Yes, I am well aware that in a metropolitan traffic environment, three cars will dart around you and try and fill the space, but slow down and be safe. Please don’t adopt the taxicab driver mentality when you are behind the wheel of your RV.

Watch Out For “Attack” Trees. When driving down city streets or country lanes, watch out for “attack trees.” Attack trees are those with low hanging branches that are closer to the ground than the height of your rig—and don’t forget the air conditioners or cargo pods on the roof.

This same advice holds true for many of the older gas stations that have low overhangs or roofs. If in doubt, have your co-pilot get out and check to be sure that you won’t wipe out the roof of your rig or the florescent lights in the gas station overhang. After some experience on the road, you will soon be able to tell, right from the driver’s seat, whether the overhang is too low for your rig to safely clear it.

Square Your Corners. If you are driving a motorhome and pulling a toad, you don’t need to swing nearly as wide around street corners as you imagine. You don’t need to mimic the truckers and pull out into the opposing traffic lane to turn the corner without ripping up the stop light on the corner. But this same advice does not apply to RVers pulling a long fifth wheel trailer.

When you start turning in your motorhome, the rear end tends to swing away from the direction in which you are turning, taking the front end of the toad with it. In almost every case, your toad will track inside the rear wheels of your motorhome—meaning that if your motorhome made it around the corner, your toad will also.

I know that this seems foreign to many people—and it did to me, too, before I was shown how it really worked. When starting to make a right turn, go slightly ahead into the intersection until the middle of your passenger side-window is even with the street corner. Then, moving ahead slowly, turn the steering wheel sharply to the right, so that you are making a sharp turn around the corner rather than a gentle arc. You will find that your motorhome clears the corner by a good foot or more, and your toad will obediently follow around the corner, too—and you haven’t had to pull into the opposing traffic lane to make the turn.

This technique depends a bit on the wheelbase of your rig (the distance between the front and rear wheels), so practice this a few times on a large empty parking lot or in a neighborhood that doesn’t have a stop sign or light pole right on the corner.

Check Toad After an Unattended Stop. A few RVers have been sadly awakened to the fact that sometimes people like to play pranks on RVers. All of us pull into a WalMart, large mall, or grocery store parking lot to do our shopping. However, I don’t think there are too many of us who, when returning to their RV, take the time to be sure that everything is OK with their toad.

It is especially important to check over all of your tow equipment and connections. Pay particular attention to the pins that hold your tow brackets onto your toad, the pins that hold your tow bar to the adapter brackets, and also your hitch pin (if you don’t use a lockable hitch pin). Kids have been known to pull the pins “just to see what might happen.”

Check your safety cables, breakaway, and electrical connection to the toad to be sure that they have not been disconnected. If you don’t lock your tow bar tongue to your motorhome, also check to be sure that it is firmly seated and latched.

Also, be sure that you remember to put the key back in the ignition of your toad after your stop—so that it will continue to obediently follow you down the road.

While you are checking things over, take a look and be sure that all of your tires seem to be properly inflated—especially your toad tires. In all my traveling, I have never found a problem with my toad—but other RVers have—so be on the safe side and always check before you jump in your RV and take off down the road.

I use a locking hitch pin, lock my tow bar tongue to my hitch ball, lock my tow bar to the adapter brackets, and also lock my adapter brackets to the toad base plate—and I also remove the toad ignition key and lock the door when I am away. This gives me at least a little sense of comfort that my toad can’t somehow (without great effort) disappear while I am inside shopping.

One night, we pulled into a campground after dark (and had stopped along the way to replenish supplies), and I was definitely displeased to find that part of a popsicle stick had been jammed into the lock on my hitch ball. (After finally figuring out why my key would not go into the lock, it seemed to take "forever" to dig the wood splinters out enough to disengage the toad from the motorhome.)

Be Alert When Trucks Pass You. One of the “facts of life” to RVers is getting passed on the highway by 18-wheelers usually going much faster that your RV is moving. When you see a large truck coming up behind you, be sure that you have both hands on the steering wheel.

As the truck is almost even with the rear end of your rig, you will feel a fairly strong push toward the shoulder of the road. The wind wake of the 18-wheeler is trying to push you off the road, so you need to compensate by steering slightly in the direction of the truck—to counteract his wind wake. Then, as the truck finally passes the front of your rig, you will feel a pull in the opposite direction. The vortex behind the 18-wheeler will suck you over toward the truck, so you need to compensate by steering slightly away from the truck.

Always be alert and have two hands of the wheel when you are about to be passed by an 18-wheeler. Sometimes you will be quite surprised by the amount of counter-steering that you have to do to stay in the center of your traffic lane.

City Freeway Driving. For those of you used to the country life and not too much traffic, driving through a metropolitan city on congested freeways can be a harrowing experience. However, if you are aware of some simple techniques, you can survive megalopolis.

Because of heavy congestion, slow-moving traffic, and usually unfamiliar roads, interchanges and on-ramps, you are advised to always try to avoid driving through large cities during rush hours—either morning or evening. In some areas, the rush hour can last more than two hours, so just pulling over and waiting can seem an interminably long time.

Be very aware that most city folks are in a big hurry to get wherever they are going, and, in their minds, a big lumbering motorhome should never be slowing their progress. City folks also don’t know what it means to leave a safe stopping distance between them and the car in front of them.

You need to be constantly on the alert for cars suddenly darting in front of you and then slamming on their brakes. If you leave a safe stopping distance between you and the car in front of you, be prepared for two and possibly three cars to cut into your safe space. There is not much that you can do, except slow down some more and still leave yourself some stopping space.

Be very aware, also, that freeway traffic can suddenly come to a stop. You are advised to keep a sharp lookout several cars in front of you and watch for a sudden burst of brake lights. Also be aware that freeway stopping can be very sudden—don’t expect traffic to gradually come to a stop.

As you are passing on-ramps, be on the alert for cars suddenly zooming up the ramp and darting in front of you. And the same goes for cars that suddenly change lanes, jump in front of you, and then zip down the off-ramp. City drivers always have the me-first syndrome, especially when they see a large truck or motorhome.

Most large city freeway systems have more than two lanes going in the same direction. When that is the case, you are advised to move over and travel in the. middle or second lane from the right. By staying in this lane, you are less impacted by the drivers that are scurrying to get on or off the freeway. Never travel in the fast lane, especially if there are only two traffic lanes in your direction of travel.

The most difficult part of city freeway driving, especially in rush-hour traffic is trying to change lanes. Hopefully your co-pilot can give you adequate warning, maybe even a couple of miles ahead, that you need to be in a different lane. Even with your turn signals flashing your intention, very few of the local drivers will give you the courtesy of falling back and giving you the room needed to change lanes. If you are fortunate to be just in front of a trucker, most of the time he will fall back and give you the room to change lanes. But sometimes, you will not be able to get over into the other lane. Just keep trying, and you can always reverse direction and come back to the exit that you missed.

Be very aware, though, that trying to “play chicken” with your motorhome and toad against a seasoned freeway commuter will almost always result in you losing. Some freeway maniacs can be forced onto the shoulder and they still will not yield the right-of-way. Just be patient, and be thankful when you finally get out of the mess.

Loss of Lane (i.e, three lanes to two lanes). In many metropolitan areas, the number of traffic lanes often changes—usually to a smaller number. The most common lane reductions are 3-to-2 or 2-to-1. In an RV, you can easily see the warning signs (unless you are right behind an 18-wheeler) in plenty of time to plan your lane change. However, the smaller vehicles following behind you won't see the lane reduction sign until they are almost past it.

Don't do the typical mindless driver stunt and simply start to move over when you run out of lane. Most drivers in the lane to your left won't be paying any attention to the loss of your lane. However, when you suddenly start moving over into the next lane, an ugly situation might easily develop that involves both you and another driver.

Look and think ahead—and use your turn signals plenty early. Most metropolitan commuters are going to ignore your turn signals and speed up to try and get in front of you. However, your turn signals are telling drivers in two lanes (behind you and to your left) that you intend to merge to the left. But, don't wait until the last minute (when you have run out of space in front of you) to start merging.

Watch your side mirror and try to anticipate a small break in traffic (but, during commute hours there won't be any break). Some drivers will courteously slow down to allow you into the lext lane, but sometimes you have to think like a long-haul trucker and start slowly merging even if there is no traffic break. Your RV is bigger, wider, and heavier than most other vehicles, and eventually even a seasoned commuter is going to let you into the next lane.

The important thing to remember is to use your turn signals early—and not wait until the last minute. Let the other drivers around you know what you intend to do (before you do it).

Use Hazard Flashers as a Warning Signal. Sitting in your RV, you usually have a good vantage point for seeing the road ahead (unless you are right behind an 18-wheeler). Sometimes traffic flow changes very suddenly, and you see a sea of brake lights coming on in front of you—and you realize that the traffic ahead is either slowing rapidly or maybe even coming to a sudden stop. You can see the situation developing ahead of you, but the drivers behind you only see the rear of your RV.

When you see an unexpected rapid slowing or stopping of traffic ahead, turn on your hazard flashers as a sign to those drivers behind you that something is going on. Most drivers will react to seeing your hazard flashers by slowing down—just what you want them to do. After several cars behind you have slowed down or stopped, then turn off your hazard flashers (they did the job—as long as some inattentive idiot didn't rear end you—which, unfortunately has happened to us).

If you are involved in stop-and-go commute traffic, don't use your hazard flashers. But, if you are traveling down the road at a good clip and see an unexpected sudden slowing or stopping of traffic, then use your hazard flashers until the vehicles behind you have also slowed down or stopped.

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