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Keven Moore: Know the risks and seek proper training before hitting the road in that new RV

It’s the middle of July and Americans are in the thick of the vacation season, with travel expected to approach pre-pandemic levels, according to AAA.

More than 47.7 million Americans are planning to engage in some type of vacation adventure. The RV Industry Association says 65 million Americans plan to take a recreational vehicle (RV) trip within the next year, with many of them RVing for the first time.

A fifth-wheel towable camper (Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had a devastating impact on many parts of the travel industry. Airline travel was down approximately 75 percent in the U.S. and hotel occupancy plummeted while many of the vacation hotspots were closed or had severe restrictions in place. 

Vacationers determined to get out of the house and away from the COVID lockdowns opted to rent or purchase mobile COVID bubbles, resulting in a boom in the RV sales market both new and used. According to Nasdaq, total RV sales went up by more than 53 percent last year and the market was filled with innovation and new products.

According to GoRving.com, the latest projections show a total of 576,065 units shipped in 2021, representing a 33.8 percent increase over the 2020 year-end total of 430,421. According to ITR Economics, the strong forecast is attributable to three main factors: relief from supply constraints; OEM plans to expand capacity; and robust consumer demand outpacing very low inventory levels.

Poster from the movie RV (Image courtesy Rotten Tomatoes)

The fact is every summer brings out a new batch of ‘Griswolds’ and ‘Bob Munros’ driving RVs and towing campers. If those names do not ring a bell, let me suggest that you go past go and directly to Netflix jail!

With the influx of all these RV, travel trailers and fifth-wheel drivers hitting roads and interstates, I am a bit concerned, as a safety and risk management professional. These are not experienced truck drivers with Commercial Driver’s Licenses, but people that woke up one day and said, “Hey, let’s go buy an RV.” Most have little or no prior experience in safely piloting or towing a vehicle as tall and wide as an RV, and in some cases as long as 40 feet in length.  

Summer road trips are the norm for most Americans, and many will be traveling in RVs and towable campers. As a former owner of a 31-foot 1971 Air Stream who bought it on a whim back in 2005, bent on providing my kids the experience of camping, I was able to quickly identify with the Bob Munro (Robin Williams) character in the movie RV when it first hit movie theatres.

I can still remember that day well. I was driving through the back roads of Spencer County when I ran across that Air Stream with a big for sale sign on it out by the road, priced just right for a new family adventure. The seller had purchased it at an auction and had some medical issues and never got to use it and was selling it for a steal. And all it needed was a little love. I purchased it on the spot and quickly drove home to grab a wad of cash and my V-8 SUV to tow it home.

After a short “You did what!” conversation with my wife, I did not give much thought about towing it back. After all I had a 2-inch ball hitch just dying to be used. 

There wasn’t an owner’s manual, but I did ask the seller if I needed a sway bar after quickly googling it online. He said, “You will be fine, just take it slow.”  After checking to see if the brake lights and turn signals were working, I was on my way.  

A motorhome (Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

Everything was just fine until I got up on the Bluegrass Parkway and hit 55 MPH. I started to notice why sway bars were called sway bars, and why google knew more than the seller.  

Luckily as a trained professional with that “what was I thinking” thought, I quickly recognized that this trip home was going to take me a lot longer, as I drove white-knuckled the rest of the way at 50 MPH.

I ordered an owner’s manual, a set of sway bars. But we did not take the silver bullet out on its maiden voyage until this rookie spent some time studying up on how to tow a fully stocked 5,000-pound mammoth of a camper safely.

Far too often many owners of new and used RVs and towable campers do not invest the time to learn how to safely drive these vehicles on open highways. This results in damaged overhangs as many new RV drivers will mistakenly pull into a fast food or bank drive-thru. 

Some leave a trail of carnage and mayhem like Bob Munro with broken side-view mirrors as the oversized vehicle sideswipes a row of parked cars while navigating a narrow roadway.

Most states do not have special requirements or restrictions for new RV and towable campers owners. 

The question most new drivers ask is whether a regular driver’s license is enough to drive an RV, or do you need a CDL for an RV? A CDL, or commercial driver’s license is required in the United States to drive a commercial vehicle, such as a tractor trailer truck or a bus for business purposes. However, an RV is not a commercial vehicle, but can still be very large. The rules and regulations surrounding the size of an RV in relation to the need for a commercial driver’s license can be a bit complicated. 

Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He is also an expert witness. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both Lexington and Northern Kentucky. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com

Most RVs weigh below the CDL commercial vehicle threshold of 26,000 lbs and do not require any special kind of license. They can be driven straight off the lot, and on the interstate, without any prior training or proof of competence. That’s scary when you really think about it.

In most states, if the RV is under that 26,000-pound limit when fully loaded, and has less than 16 passengers, you will not need a special license. Only a handful of states reguire a special license of larger RVs over the 26,000 lbs. limit.

Most RV dealerships will provide a walk-through and spend the time to educate new buyers on how to operate the slide-outs, generators, stabilizers, awning, and lights. But who teaches new RV owners how to drive on the open road? Many times, these customers shake hands with the dealer or the previous owners, are handed a set of keys, and wave goodbye before the ink has even dry on the check. 

Far too often new RV owners will find themselves with financial loss or injury because of unfamiliarity with operating such a large vehicle. Many do not know how to complete a basic safety inspection to ensure that the vehicle tires are properly inflated, lights are operational, or mirrors are properly fixed to minimize the blind spots. This is a scary proposition especially when you consider the number of new RV and towable campers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

There are many resources available at reasonable rates for new RV owners to get a hands-on lesson on operating their new RV or camper. But it is not a one size fit all type of training. Some educational resources will even take you to a local campground where they help instruct you in safely pulling your rig into a campsite.  

The cost for such training will be less than the deductible on the insurance you carry on your new shiny RV or camper. An added advantage of taking such a course is some insurance companies will offer a discount if you present them with a certificate of completion.

You can find RV training courses online, or you can ask your local RV dealership for recommendations. If you can’t find the time or resources to travel to a hands-on class, there are other options to learn safe driving techniques such as RV driver DVDs and downloads from places like www.rveducation101.com.

Whatever you do after buying that RV or towable camper, don’t rush straight home and load up the family like Bob Munro did and take off. Get to know your that investment, take it on short drives and learn how it handles before venturing out on that next family adventure.

Be Safe My Friends.

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