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RV Defensive Driving: Getting There Safely

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

It was a lovely, sunny date. Traffic on the interstate was light. The Everly Brothers were
in the middle of When Will I Be Loved? on the oldies station. All was right with the world.
With 20-plus years behind the wheel, the driver had the kind of confidence that offered
immunity from danger — he thought.

His eyes were on the road, but his mind was on his motorhome’s nonfunctioning water heater. He decided to call the dealer and get the bad news, so he glanced down to dial the cellular phone — three seconds, at most. When he looked up, he was staring at the blood-chilling sight of a car spinning out of control, right in front of him. At 65 miles an hour, the result was inevitable. Fortunately, this accident left no one seriously injured, but the property damage was extensive, the cost prohibitive and the inconvenience excessive (not to mention the probable increase in insurance premiums). All because of a couple of seconds of inattentiveness. While the number of RV accidents is very small in comparison to those involving the general-vehicle population, defensive driving can decrease the odds.

There are really only three basic principles to remember: (1) The right of way. It’s better to give than receive. (2) Always assume the other guy is going to do the wrong thing. (3) Attitude is your most valuable accessory.

If every driver embraced these principles, vehicle accidents would become a statistical footnote of minor proportions. The right of way is a subject covered on the written part of every state driver’s license test. Those laws are pretty universal. You know the ones: When two vehicles arrive at an intersection at the same time, the one on the right has the right of way; on narrow mountain roads, the vehicles going uphill have the right of way; oncoming traffic has the right of way over left-turning traffic; etc.

Certainly those rules are important and good to know. They are also a good place to start
in helping promote safe traffic flow. At the same time, there is never a necessity for
demanding the right of way. And if you always expect the other driver to follow those
rules, you could be in for big problems. This speaks a lot to attitude, which we’ll cover
when we discuss Principle No. 3.

What we want to stress is that the defensive driver will always offer the right of way whenever it is in question. That may add a couple of seconds to your trip — a couple of seconds that could be the most valuable time you’ve ever spent. Giving the right of way is easy. A nod, a smile or a wave of the hand are quick, easy ways to signal your willingness to let the other driver go first. That friendly gesture is not only the safe thing to do, but it can make you feel good about yourself. It can also put the other driver in a good frame of mind, which in turn could cause him or her to make the same gesture toward others. Not a bad way to start a trend, I’d say. One of the most consistent things you will notice while driving is that other drivers can and will do the most unexpected things. Many of those things are unnecessary and irritating, if not dangerous. The problem grows whenever you let yourself get angry or, worse yet, if you try to retaliate against the guilty driver. Let’s say you’re driving in the right-hand lane of a four-lane boulevard and a car passes on the left, then darts in front of you (without using turn signals) in order to make a right turn, and you have to slam on your brakes to avoid hitting it.

You should:

(A) speed up to prevent the driver from getting in front of you

(B) follow him until you get a chance to do the same thing to him

(C) simply drive on, pitying the poor fool, knowing that such bad driving technique will eventually lead to serious trouble.

The answer is obvious. Unfortunately, you might be so irritated by such behavior it will cause you to be inattentive for a while — and that’s about the worst thing that can happen. Driving is a full-time job! You cannot allow yourself to be distracted by the poor driving of others. If you expect others to do the unexpected, you won’t be so surprised or irritated when they do.

Here are some other things to watch for that can keep your drive a safe and happy one:

  • Whenever another vehicle passes you, watch the driver’s head.
  • If he or she looks back over a shoulder to check your position, he/she is likely to
    move in front of you.
  • When a vehicle on a side street approaches the road you’re on, watch the driver’s
    eyes to make sure you are seen. If not, be prepared to slow down or stop to avoid that
    vehicle if it pulls out in front of you.
  • If a car is waiting to turn left across your lane, don’t assume the driver’s judge
    of distance or speed is the same as yours.
  • When approaching a traffic signal that’s green in your lane, slow a little so, if
    it changes, the momentum of your vehicle will already be decreasing. Drivers on the
    cross street often jump the signal.
  • When you pass another vehicle, do it decisively. There is a blind spot in just
    about all outside mirrors. If you stay alongside a vehicle too long, the driver may
    forget you’re there and change lanes right into you.
  • Don’t expect pedestrians to use crosswalks. They can be just as preoccupied as
    other drivers and step off the curb right in front of you. This is especially true of
    children, whether on foot, bicycles, Big Wheels or roller blades, in any activity on
    any street any time of day.
  • Even though the road seems completely clear and there are no obvious reasons the
    vehicle ahead will have to stop, there might be many reasons in the mind of that driver
    which may cause him to stop. Don’t tailgate! A safe following distance (one length of
    your motorhome for each 10 mph) will get you there only a second or two later than the
    vehicle ahead. It just isn’t worth the risk. Finally, your coach is bigger and heavier
    than many other vehicles with which you share the road. And, most drivers of those
    smaller vehicles don’t have a clue what your rig can and can’t do. They also don’t want
    to get trapped behind you and will do dangerous things to avoid that. In this case, the
    task of defensive driving is definitely on your shoulders. So, you must keep your eyes
    and mind farther ahead than usual in order to give yourself enough time to react to the
    unexpected. If you intend to be a defensive driver (and who in his right mind doesn’t?)
    it isn’t enough to follow the rules yourself. You must expect that the other guy won’t!
    Since you no doubt spend a lot of time in your motorhome, you are probably more aware than most drivers of a number of things others do that point directly to the third
    principle of defensive driving: attitude. There are many things in this life over which
    you have absolutely no control; weather, taxes, the suicidal migration of lemmings and
    your local state lottery come immediately to mind. The one thing over which you have
    absolute control is your attitude. And nowhere is that power more important than when
    you are behind the wheel. We have all known those who, under normal circumstances, are the nicest, kindest, most level-headed people you’d ever want to know. But the minute they take control of a motor vehicle, they turn into a combination of Napoleon, Rambo and Attila the Hun. The power of that vehicle seems to take away all reason and, in their hands, becomes a lethal weapon. The only real defense you have against this
    perilous force is the same thing that makes them so dangerous: attitude. You have
    probably noticed by now that just about everything we’ve mentioned in the first two
    principles relates to attitude. As a matter of fact, attitude may very well be a
    logical synonym for defensive driving. Aside from that observation, though, there are
    some other attitude-related situations. These can be very important in helping to
    maintain a cheerful, positive, safety-conscious attitude:
  • Don’t drive right after a very negative event, such as an argument (especially if
    you lost).
  • Don’t drive after a sad or depressing event, like a death in the family or a
    termination notice at work.
  • Don’t drive if you’re very tired. It’s much easier to be irritated by minor things
    when you’re tired, not to mention the fact that weariness results in reduced reaction
    time and attentiveness.
  • Never respond to another driver’s challenge.
  • Keep your vehicle in good working order. Mechanical problems are irritating as well
    as dangerous.
  • Don’t drive if you’re worried about conditions, such as weather, construction,
    traffic, etc.
  • Don’t drive if you have some temporary physical limitation, such as an arm in a
    sling, a patch over one eye, a severe headache or stomach cramps. Inevitably, however,
    you will occasionally have to drive under one or more of these conditions. Just be
    aware that they can be responsible for a loss of concentration, visual acuity or
    reaction time, so you must exercise extra care. Some of these things may not seem to be related to attitude at all, but they are. If you knowingly and willingly drive under
    the conditions listed above, your attitude is likely one of overconfidence. That about
    covers the points we want to make, except for one final item: complacency. Webster
    defines complacency as “quiet satisfaction, contentment, smugness.” The longer a person drives without accidents or traffic tickets, the easier it is to fall into the trap of
    complacency. When you think you know it all, when you consciously think of yourself as
    an expert driver who is immune from the common mistakes that cause accidents, that’s
    the time you become a danger to yourself and everyone on the road around you.

Defensive driving is the very best tool you can use to insure that you arrive at every
destination safely.

Garry Lyon has driven recreational vehicles of various types for 25 years and for the
past four years has been a professional school- and charter-bus driver. He has been
accident- and traffic-ticket-free for the last 35 years.

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