Monday, October 22, 2018

Safety Article

Motorhome Driving Safety,
By Butch Jones

 In this issue we will talk about some safety items in the driving of the motorhome. Since most of us will be driving the motorhome sporadically, there are some things that we need to address each time we drive the coach.
 Since driving an RV of any description is a bit different for most RVers, preplanning is a term that we should become familiar. Preplanning begins with knowing which routes you will be using to get to your destination, even if you are using an RV GPS unit. Make sure that your vehicle can be accommodated on the routes you choose. Consider bridges, back road sizes, which can vary from interstates with a width of 14” to some secondary roads that are 10’ or less wide. Speaking of bridges, there are two basic things to consider, first is the height under an overhead bridge and second is the weight capacity of a bridge you may be crossing. I had a neighbor that drove a Suburban which weighed in at 6500 lbs. A bridge near both our homes had a weight limit sign which read “Weight Limit 3 Tons”, I knew that he crossed that bridge every day going to work. I ask him about the bridge and he said “Oh my truck only weight 6500 lbs. the bridge weight limit is 3 tons”. When I was in school 1 ton was 2,000 pounds and therefore 3 tons would be 6,000 pounds. Now I know why McDonalds prints “Caution Coffee May be Hot” on their coffee cups.
 While preplanning we should also preplan fuel stops. Getting gas in a car is fairly simple but an RV of any description presents some things to consider. Most diesel pushers and some gas class A coaches have the fuel fill inlets on both sides of the vehicle or in the center of the rear. This makes getting to the pump easy just remember what is behind you if you are towing a car or trailer. Many quick stop gas stations sell diesel fuel as well as gas so it is tempting to use them to refuel. This can get a bit tricky when the building is perpendicular to the pumps. Your turning radius when leaving the pump just dropped to almost nothing. And if a vehicle is parked in front of the store you may not be able to make the turn without taking out a pump or metal post at the end of the fuel island. So preplan, can I get the complete rig into and out of the station. If you are in a pick-up towing a trailer you may be able to back up and get out, however in a motorhome towing a car backing up is not an option. We must consider the thing being towed every time we think of doing almost everything while driving an RV.
 Preplanning continues during the drive as well. If you miss a turn you must look ahead to a suitable place to turn around or an alternate route to get you back on track. While maybe not true preplanning it falls into the same category, more of looking ahead. Looking ahead is also necessary when making turns.  Making left hand turns is fairly simple as there is usually a wide area for the RV to maneuver. However making a right turn is more difficult. First, you are turning into your blind side. Next there can be obstructions which are ready to jump out into the side of your vehicle. Things such as fire hydrants, power poles, street signs, ditches and storm drains to name a few are there just waiting for the side of your RV or towed vehicle to make contact. As you approach the turn, access the area; make sure that there is enough room for your RV and towed vehicle to make the turn without hitting anything on either side of your vehicle.
 Something to remember when driving a class A coach is that your seating position is a foot or so further to the right than it is when driving your car or pick-up. This tends to cause you to drive a bit more to the right. Not bad in a car but in a 102” wide vehicle the right shoulder comes up very fast. Remember a 10’ wide road is 120” wide. So you have 18” to play with and that is divided by 2 so there is about 9” on each side that you can use to maneuver.
 When you are approaching an entrance or exit from a fuel stop or anywhere, look at the intersection of the drive and the roadway. Is there a dip? If so you need to determine if you are going to drag the tail end of the vehicle when you move thru this area. If you think that you might, try to move into the dip at an angle, this will potentially lessen the amount of rear overhang that drags or it may not drag at all. Also take these dips SLOWLY. Remember most of the front and rear fascia on a motor home are made of fiberglass and trailers are fiberglass and or aluminum so take your time. On a motorhome there is a trailer hitch and tow bar that may drag as well. If you are driving a truck pulling a trailer, the rear of the truck may be a bit lower than when not towing so consider this as well.
 The next item to consider is performing a thorough check of the coach. This includes tire pressures, looking for leaks under the vehicle, checking engine oil, coolant, power steering fluid, transmission and brake fluid if a gas powered vehicle or if your RV has hydraulic brakes. Look for anything hanging loose under the chassis as well as inspecting the condition of the tires. Look for cracks and splits in the entire tire. It may be necessary to move the vehicle a bit to ensure you can see the entire circumference of the tire. Make sure the lug nuts are tight. Start the vehicle and check for unusual noises, smoke or leaks. Check for exhaust leaks. These checks are especially needed if your state does not have an annual state motor vehicle inspection.
Check all of the lights for proper function and the condition and operation of the windshield wipers and washers. Inspect the windshield for cracks as well. Make sure all windows in the RV operate properly especially the Emergency Exits.
 Once the vehicle has been checked move to the generator. Check engine oil level and coolant level. Test run the generator and listen for unusual noises and for leaks. Listen for exhaust leaks. Make sure that all of the generator control switches function properly and that it is producing the proper current. It is good idea to run the generator with a load. This exercises the generator and allows you to ensure that it is operating properly. I have a voltmeter plugged into a 120 volt AC outlet inside the coach that allows me to check 120 volt current.
 The next thing is to make sure that you are familiar with all of the dash switch functions. Since many of us do not drive our motorhomes on a regular basis take a few moments to reacquaint yourself with all of the dash instruments and switches. Make sure that you learn the location of the engine gauges and indicator lights. Most likely your dash does not look like photo 1. If it does you may need a few days of refresher training before getting behind the wheel. However if your dash looks more like photo 2 then just a review may be all that is needed. It is important that you know where the indicator lights are located before they light alerting you to a potential issue with the engine, drivetrain or brakes. Learn where the individual engine gauges are located so that in an instant you can see air pressure, temperature, oil pressure or fuel level.
Photo 1 Dash Complex   
      Photo 2 Dash Simple
 Recently I was asked to assist a neighbor backing their class A coach into their port. When I got into the driver’s seat I noticed that the mirrors were mounted on the front face of the coach and they did not extend much past the side of the vehicle. This presented me with a problem. I could not see the sides of the coach. I found myself hanging out of the window to ensure I was lined up straight as I backed into the port. When I had finished I asked the owner if she had problems driving and she said that she used the smaller convex mirrors to see the side of the coach. I asked her if she had any issues seeing cars coming up on the sides and she said that they disappeared for a second from the convex mirror before appearing in the flat top mirror. I looked at the mounting of the mirrors and realized that the mirrors could be moved outward and the owner said that the previous owner kept the coach in a barn that was narrow. So I surmised that the previous owner had moved the mirrors to prevent them from hitting the door or walls or to make getting past the coach easier when in the barn. This got me thinking about other vehicles. So make sure that you can see down the side of you vehicle as well as the lane on either side when adjusting the mirrors. Remember that most mirror support arms can be adjusted so that you have good side vision. I spoke with another owner who said that his mirrors were in the same position when the coach was delivered to him. He asked the dealer if they drove the coach before he took delivery and the dealer said that they did not. He moved his mirror arm outward to give him a better view.
Photo 3 Coach with Front Face Mirrors
 Newer diesel engine may be equipped with diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) and/or diesel particulate filters (DPF) and/or exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) systems. These will have indicator lights (photo 3) on the dash to let the driver know when the DEF needs to be refilled and when the DPF needs to be cleaned. The cleaning process is called “regeneration” and can occur while driving down the highway. These filters also need a periodic manual cleaning. This is best done by a dealer.
 If the vehicle has an EGR system and is driven for long periods in stop and go traffic it may need a manual regeneration which will require pulling off of the road and stopping the vehicle or driving at highway speeds for about half an hour to complete this process.

Photo 4 Emission System Warning Lights

Many motorhomes have a number of switches in the driver’s seat area. Some are necessary for the operation of the vehicle on the road and others are used primarily when the vehicle is stationary. Some can be used in either situation. You will need to be familiar with the location and function of these switches. Pay particular attention to the “Generator Start/Stop” and Emergency/Auxiliary Start as these switches may be beside each other and you do not want to confuse them.  The photos below show some types of side consoles. You will note that some coaches have a lot of switches and some have very few. Make sure that you are familiar with any of these that you may need while driving and note any that could cause a problem if activated by mistake. The photos below are examples of more complex switch consoles.

        Photo 6 Console Switches
 Before pulling out make sure that all of the rear view mirrors are adjusted so that you can see properly. If you have any additional mirrors (I have one so I can keep track of Mitzi in her seat belt) make sure that they are adjusted so you are not tempted to make adjustments while under way. Check your seat position to ensure it has not been moved since your last trip.
 I have created two checklists. One I use when moving the coach if the slideouts have not been deployed and one if the slides have been deployed. This has more than once kept me from forgetting something important (i.e. expensive).
 Most towed vehicle connections are fairly simple but if it has been a few months since you have made the hookup you may need to review the steps.  Once connected, have your spouse or significant other check all of the lights on the coach and towed vehicle. It is not a bad idea to move up a few feet and then check everything one more time to ensure that everything is properly connected and the tow bar arms have extended and locked properly.  
Once you are on the road, check your gauges often. This can help you see a rise in engine temperature (transmission temperature and exhaust temperature if your coach has those gauges), changes in oil pressure, voltage and any other functions that are monitored by gauges. When the warning lights come on it is usually time to pull over and shut it down.
Most back-up cameras only come on when in reverse but can be turned on and left on. When I am towing a vehicle I turn my camera on all the time. This allows me to monitor the towed vehicle. I look for smoke and anything that indicates a problem with it as I am traveling.
 I also use the camera when passing a vehicle.  As I see the towed vehicle pass the other vehicle I begin to count. I count “one, one thousand, two, one thousand and so on to the five, one thousand. This will usually get the coach and towed far enough to check my mirrors and safely move back into the lane. Many times if passing a tractor trailer the driver will flash his lights when it is safe to pull in head of him/her. If they do that it is good road etiquette to flash your emergency flashers or rear marker lights (if your coach has a switch) two or three times once back in the travel lane to thank him/her for the consideration. This is becoming a lost tradition with many younger drivers. I usually give them a couple of flashes even if they did not signal me to come over. Some older coaches may have a “Flash to Pass” or “Marker Light Flash” momentary switch which activates the rear marker lights when moved, usually to the up or on position. The photo below is a Freightliner switch to flash the rear marker lights
Rear Marker Light Flash Switch on some model coaches
Photo 7 Rear Marker Light Flash Switch

It is generally an accepted practice that emergency flashers are not used while traveling on interstate highways unless you are traveling more than 20 mph under the posted speed limit for your vehicle. Some highways will have a lower speed for trucks. So in that case it would be 20 mph less that the truck speed limit. It is not a bad idea to use the emergency flashers after entering a highway until you get to your traveling speed if the entrance is not visible for long distance. This will allow vehicles in the lane you are entering to realize that you are not getting up to speed very rapidly and they can adjust as needed. Remember that if your coach may use the same bulbs for turn signals and emergency flashers so if they are the same, do not use them together.  I also use the emergency flashers when all traffic ahead of me is slowing down. I use them until I see traffic behind me slowing or there are a few vehicles behind me at my same speed.
 Something else to remember is that most coaches are considered to be truck with regard to highway speed limits and other limitations. If you are towing a vehicle and your coach has one rear axle the total number of wheels in your combination is 10 so if you see a sign that says “vehicles with over 6 wheels must use right lanes” this means you. If you have a tag axle you have 12 wheels so the same applies. When driving a car many people do not pay attention to signs for trucks and thus don’t realize when driving on a highway with three lanes in each direction that many times trucks are not allowed to use the left lane. So if you are driving below the speed limit in the middle lane and there is traffic in the right lane a truck coming up on you is not allowed to use the left lane to pass you so you either speed up a bit and pull over to the right lane or pull over to the right lane as soon as safe to do so. If you don’t have a badge, it is not your job to control traffic. Traveling is much safer and easier if we remember that. My wife, Liz used to say that she enjoyed riding in the coach because I was calmer driving it. She may have been right.
 As far as I know there are no states that require motorhomes to go thru truck weigh stations. And most states exempt motorhomes from agricultural inspection stations. However, some tunnels require you to stop and turn off your propane tank. Some have inspection stations to verify that the tank is off before you enter the tunnel.
 The Global Positioning System is a wonderful thing. But unless you have a unit that is designed for motor homes or big rigs it can be frustrating. Many of these units now allow the inputting of the vehicle length, width, height, and weight so it does not route you where you should not and cannot go safely, most of the time. Even using a GPS unit, it is important to know where you are going. More than once my GPS has gotten me into a situation that I had to unhook the towed vehicle and back up and/or turn around.
 When driving a motorhome especially when towing a vehicle or trailer you must plan many of your moves well in advance. Planning fuel stops and side routes can help prevent some sphincter tightening situations. Most interstate highway and U.S. highways have bridge heights that will accommodate motorhomes, however know what your coach height is to the tallest roof attachment and watch the height signs on overpasses. I have found that railroad overpasses can sometimes be a problem as some do not have height signs or they may be faded or obscured.
 If you have a problem on the road, use caution when pulling to the side of the road. Make sure that the shoulder can support your vehicle. Most states require flares or reflective signs to be displayed if your vehicle is disabled.
Safe Travel Distance between You and the next Vehicle
 While on the subject of state laws, most require trailer (or towed vehicle) brakes for anything 3,000 pounds or more. In addition, although your state may not require a breakaway switch, most adjoining states will require them. An interesting fact I found is that 28 states allow triples. That is pulling two trailers. This would allow you to two a car and a boat.  Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Florida are among those that do not allow this type of towing.
 If you are traveling with other motorhomes in a caravan try to leave enough room for other vehicles to get between you and the motorhome in front of you. This will help prevent an impatient driver from trying to squeeze in between two motorhomes especially when nearing an exit.
 When driving a large vehicle it is helpful to drive well ahead of your vehicle. This means look at what is well ahead of you (where the horizon would be is a good position) not just the vehicle directly in front of you. You must also keep an eye on that vehicle also, but looking ahead will allow you to see traffic issues developing so you are not reacting to the taillights of the car in front of you. It will also help you keep your vehicle centered in the travel lane. Looking at the road directly in front of you tends to pull you toward the dividing lines which cause you to make constant corrections.
 Our goal is to have an uneventful drive and arrive ready to get set up and relax.  So until the next issue, Keep Safe and Get Back on the Road Again.

Butch Jones