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Driving Tips

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

Winter opens up a host of motorhoming possibilities, such as snowmobiling, cross-country or
downhill skiing, snowshoeing, photography and ice fishing. The crowds are gone, traffic is
light, and off-season rates are often in effect. Although driving any vehicle on slippery
roads can be tricky, using your motorhome in winter can be safe and fun if you follow a few
common-sense safety tips. Think like a pilot. Pilots plan their trips thoroughly and check
weather advisories both en route and at the final destination. Listen to radio stations or
weather-monitor channels. If you are traveling to an unfamiliar area, you can get advisory
telephone numbers regarding closed-road and impending road-closure information from either
the state highway patrol, the local phone or a source book such as the Trailer Life
Campgrounds, RV Parks & Services Directory. Or you can check online weather info at
http://www.weather.com. Be sure to bring your cell phone, if you have one, and use your
ham, GMRS or CB radio to talk to motorists driving in the opposite direction. Winter
conditions can change rapidly. A road can become a sheet of ice in minutes. Sudden snow
squalls can reduce visibility to near zero in seconds. Safe driving begins with thorough
vehicle preparation. Make sure your windshield wipers work well. Also refill the windshield
washer container with a winter-safe solution so you can clear slush and dirt without
freeze-up. To maintain good visibility, heaters and defrosters have to work satisfactorily.
Cold temperatures also affect the engine, fuel, cooling system, brakes and tires. Along
with the cold, you may encounter inclement weather. Be sure the engine oil is the correct
viscosity for the temperatures you expect to drive in. You may want to use a 5W-30
multigrade oil (refer to the owner’s manual for the manufacturer’s recommendation). Also
check and/or change the antifreeze. If you’re driving a diesel, you may need to use an
additive to counteract gelling of diesel fuel in extreme cold. Air brakes also need to be
checked because water that builds up in the system could freeze. Motorhomes are, of course,
larger and heavier than cars, and their greater length, width and height should affect how
you drive. As road surfaces become wet, the traction decreases by about half. That makes
concrete traction about 50 percent and asphalt about 45 percent of normal, at best. Inspect
your tires; you’ll need all the tire tread possible to ensure the best traction as you
drive under adverse conditions. On snow- or ice-covered roads, traction can be almost nil.
If you will be venturing into these conditions, be sure to have tire chains and/or snow
tires. Always refer to state and local regulations. When driving in slick and icy
conditions, be extremely careful while braking. Many diesel engines have exhaust brakes,
which should not be used while driving on extremely slick or icy roads. Their use could
cause the drive axle to lock up and result in an unexpected skid. Avoid any abrupt
maneuvers. In the past, we were told to pump our brakes on slippery surfaces to keep
control, which is still valid if your coach doesn’t have anti-lock brakes. Some motorhomes
now have anti-lock brakes on one or more axles; these require a different way of braking.
With anti-lock brakes, you must use continual pressure; don’t lift up when these brakes
pulsate. Drive smoothly and steadily. Slow down well before entering a curve. While
applying brakes, use light and even pedal pressure. This light application should still let
the wheels roll, so you can maintain control. Air brakes grab with less foot pressure
applied to the pedal. If you panic while driving, especially with air brakes, they could
easily lock up and cause a major skid. If the curve is a constant radius, keep your speed
steady through the turn. Decreasing-radius turns require that you slow down as you proceed;
these are the trickiest. Increasing-radius turns allow you to accelerate lightly as you
exit them. When brakes become wet, they tend to grab, apply unevenly, or pull to one side.
While driving through water that’s deep enough to get onto the brakes, hold your foot
lightly on the brake pedal. This friction on the linings helps dry them. When you exit the
deep water, check for traffic behind you and, when it’s safe, test your brakes before going
on. Skidding occurs whenever the force applied to the tire (from braking, cornering or
acceleration) by the vehicle exceeds the tire’s traction. Tires deliver the most force to
the road surface just before they “break loose” and begin to skid. Once they start to skid,
you lose both tractive force and directional control. Therefore, your goal must be to keep
the tires below the threshold of skidding. Once a vehicle starts skidding sideways, so it’s
perpendicular to the direction of travel, it is almost impossible to recover. Hence, you
have to work quickly and decisively to stop a skid. The dynamics of skidding and recovery
are the same on any surface, although tires will skid easier and at lower speeds on
slippery surfaces. Abrupt turning maneuvers and overreacting with the brakes cause most
skids. Many drivers panic when a vehicle starts to slide and then slam on the brakes
reflexively. This is usually the worst thing you could do. There are several types of
skids, and by understanding them, you can react more effectively. The ones that occur while
driving straight are usually caused by braking too hard for the available traction (even if
the road is dry). If you find the coach skewing sideways without braking, it’s usually
because of extremely slippery surfaces, such as “black ice,” combined with a wind gust or
other unsettling force, like a bump or unintended driver input. Skidding in a curve is
usually caused by excessive speed, excessive braking (for available traction) or a
combination of the two. To prevent a skid on slippery roads, drive slowly, and steer and
brake more smoothly and with less force than on dry roads. Vehicles respond to a skid in
various ways, depending on factors like tires, loading, balance and available grip.
Oversteer is the term used to describe “tail swing,” when only the rear wheels skid and the
back tries to pass the front. It’s called oversteer because a small steering input seems to
produce a large change in direction of the body. Rear-wheel skids often occur when a driver
brakes heavily or applies too much power on a slippery surface. Understeer describes a
front-wheel-only skid where turning the steering wheel seems to have little effect. The
vehicle just seems to continue “plowing” forward and refuses to turn. Most front-wheel
skids are caused by braking harder or driving faster than traction conditions allow. If the
front and rear axles all slide equally, it’s called “neutral” handling. To recover from a
skid, you have to reduce the input(s) that caused the skid (braking or turning) and then
get the wheels rolling again to regain control. For example, if overbraking started the
skid, ease off the brakes. Then, if the motorhome is still traveling straight, reapply the
brakes just below the threshold of skidding. If the tail swung out because of too much
throttle, ease up on the accelerator, but don’t slam on the brakes. If the motorhome is
sliding sideways, turn the steering wheel in the direction of the skid enough to get the
wheels turning again. When only the front wheels are skidding sideways (understeer) due to
cornering, reduce the angle the front wheels are turned until they regain traction. As the
vehicle comes back on course, you may need to countersteer, or you might skid in the
opposite direction. After you get control of the steering again, use the brakes carefully
to get speed under control. Practice on a flat, empty snow- and ice-covered parking lot
where there are no curbs, dividers or other obstructions like trees. Drive around to get
the feel of your coach, and try sudden braking and turning maneuvers to get the feel of how
it reacts. Then practice skid recovery until it becomes an automatic response. Heavy or
blowing snow and snowdrifts can obstruct your vision and orientation. As snow accumulates,
it will cover the lane markings, and you can drive off the side of the road or into
approaching traffic. Drifts can cause you to lose control and drive over a ditch or
embankment. When driving in a heavy snowstorm or icing conditions, the best driving tip is
to find an RV park or campground until the storm has passed. Expect icy conditions any time
the outside air temperature reaches 40 degrees F or lower. Although water freezes at 32
degrees F, road surface can freeze when the air temperature drops to 40 degrees or less. An
important place to watch for this condition is on bridges. Bridge surfaces are exposed to
the wind and cool off faster than the rest of the road. You should also prepare for icy
conditions on roads through shaded areas where a cold wind can freeze a wet road surface.
Snow that has been compacted during the day and has slightly melted will freeze at night.
Usually this white ice can be seen on the road. When traveling on white ice, drive very
slowly. If you cannot find a place to park until conditions improve, install tire chains
for better traction. Black ice, clear water that has frozen on black pavement, usually
forms below overpasses, on bridges, in areas that are surrounded by landscape or on a
source of water running across pavement. Black ice commonly occurs in low, shaded areas
and/or when the road surface starts to freeze at night. You usually cannot see or feel this
ice until the vehicle is already on it. You may not expect a patch of ice because you’ve
been driving on dry, clear pavement. It may be an area where melting snow or a roadside
spring caused water to run onto the road and freeze. If you are not aware that the water
has frozen, you could lose control and the vehicle could skid. Some state laws require you
to drive with your headlights on while driving in rain, and it’s a good idea wherever you
are. The first few minutes of a rain can be extra dangerous because of the slippery road
surface caused by oil and rubber buildup; driving is especially hazardous until the surface
contaminants wash away. Rain also may cause hydroplaning, which occurs when the tires can’t
channel the water away fast enough, causing them to start running on top of the water
instead of on the road. Traction will be lost and a skid is likely unless you slow down.
Fog is usually found in low places or areas surrounded by trees, hills or mountains. Slow
down and turn on your low-beam headlights wherever you encounter fog. Make sure you can
stop within the distance that you can see ahead clearly. For speeds under 40 mph, allow at
least one second of travel time between yourself and the vehicle ahead for every 10 feet of
your vehicle’s length. At speeds over 40 mph and especially under unfavorable weather or
road conditions, add one more second to the total; as conditions worsen, increase your
space ahead. Any time you drive off a paved road that is wet or after it has been raining,
prepare for mud. Some soil textures cause a vehicle to sink; others will make the surface
like driving on ice. Try to keep the motorhome moving slowly and steadily forward in gear.
If you feel the wheels start to spin and lose traction, let up on the accelerator slightly.
This should allow the wheels to regain traction. If you stop in mud and try to restart
quickly, you could dig the wheels deeper into the mud. If you do get stuck in mud, make
sure your front wheels are pointed straight ahead. Try rocking the vehicle forward and
back, but don’t spin the wheels. If this fails, place some type of friction material under
the wheels — pieces of wood, burlap, carpet, small rocks or anything with a rough surface.
Call for help if you can’t free the vehicle with these techniques, rather than risk
damaging the drivetrain. Anticipate wind gusts by looking for signs such as tree movements,
dust or blowing snow or leaves. The best advice for driving in windy conditions is to slow
down. When passing trucks, move slightly away from them whenever possible, as this reduces
gust effects. Winter drivers should carry the following: reflective warning triangles,
extra warm clothing, an orange vest, a shovel, at least two fire extinguishers and possibly
tire chains. The shovel will help you remove dirt, mud and ice from around your wheels and
also can be used to place dirt or sand around the tires to increase traction when you’re
stuck in mud or ice. For most snowy or icy roads, use single chains on just the outside
dual tires and drive between 20 and 25 mph. On very icy roads you may need to mount another
set of inboard chains plus some on the steering axle to improve traction. Carry an extra
set of old warm clothes to put on while working outside of the vehicle. An orange vest will
let other drivers see you clearly. If you plan ahead and know what to do, you can take your
motorhome year-round on fishing, hunting or skiing trips, traveling to the mountains and
across the country — any place you wish to go. However, you are responsible for the safe
operation of any vehicle you drive, and sometimes the right (and safest) thing to do is
park it and wait out the weather. For specific how-to RV driving instruction, contact the
RV Driving School, 1512 E. Fifth Street, Suite 149, Ontario, California 91764; (909)

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