Did you know that the Washington State Department of Licensing does not require any classes, certifications, or endorsements on a driver’s license to drive a Class A motorhome? As if you weren’t already, stay away from those things on the highway!
I spent many years as a liability defense attorney, and I defended my fair share of serious and often fatal motor vehicle accidents; there was no way I was driving Nellie without some training. Now, I towed a trailer for eight years, so that gave me a little bit of a leg up. Still, that trailer was only 10 feet long from stem to stern, and I could open the blinds in the front and rear windows and see traffic straight out the back!
Two days after Nellie arrived from Canada, I took a three-hour class with Gene McNaughton from Shield Driving School in Seattle. I was referred to Gene by Gary Lewis at RV Basic Training. The best thing about the course is that they come to you, and you learn in your own RV. Gene arrived in a Hummer, dressed all in black with military pants and tee shirt; he had a firm handshake and relaxed demeanor, and I liked him immediately.
Gene is a police officer and driving instructor, and he also directs traffic at major sporting events in town. He is an RV owner, and as we walked around the rig he was very complimentary of my purchase. It made me feel good to know that someone who understands RVs thought I got a good deal and a solid rig.
The first thing we did was measure Nellie. She is 33′ 10″ long, and her tallest point is the top of the air conditioning unit on the roof at 12′ 8″. Gene recommended for clearance purposes that I never attempt to go under anything less than 13 feet tall.
For the next hour Gene described the various doors and nooks and crannies of the RV’s basement area – this is your battery bay, this is where your refrigerator vents, etc. We checked the water levels in both the coach and chassis batteries, and he recommended that I top them off with distilled water. Then it was time to move inside.
Gene began the driving portion of the instruction by creating reference points with tape on the windshield and mirrors. On the interior of the windshield two pieces of tape represent the lines I must stay between in order to be in my lane. On the side mirrors, if I line up the tape with an obstacle in the mirror, I will avoid hitting it while turning or backing up. Those little pieces of blue painter’s tape gave me so much courage!
Gene next explained how a rear camera can distort distances. With a black wax pencil I marked on the rear camera monitor five feet, 10, 15 and 20 feet.
It was time to pull out of the neighborhood. I was scared shitless. The streets in my old neighborhood are fairly narrow and lined with parked cars. The traffic circles are small, and there are many overhanging tree limbs. The perspective from the captain’s chair of an RV is very skewed, and from where I was sitting it look like my left side view mirror was going to hit everything I passed. I was driving a maximum of 15 miles per hour, when Gene nonchalantly look to his right, looked back at me and said calmly, “Hug your side.”
We drove first to the parking lots at Golden Gardens Park to practice backing up. Gene placed an obstacle in the parking lot, reminding me that if I lined the obstacle up to the tape on my side mirror as I backed up, I could cut the wheel at that point to avoid it. It worked like a charm! We practiced backing to the left and to the right, although backing to the left is always preferred because it is closer to your driving position.
After parking lot practice Gene intended for me to drive the serpentine road up from Golden Gardens to the 85th Street area of Ballard, but we both got a sobering reminder as we drove to the park. A large yellow sign, the type of which I have always ignored, indicated that an upcoming railroad trestle’s clearance was 11′ 1″. I made a mental note to always read those signs in the future!
He asked if there was anything in particular I wanted to do, and I replied that I wanted to gas up. He stated, “From this point forward, stop saying ‘gas.’ You may say ‘fuel’ or ‘diesel,’ but not ‘gas.’ The nozzle of a regular gas pump will fit in your RV, and that is a $20,000 mistake.” He also mentioned that a diesel nozzle in Washington state is green, but that is not always the case around the country, and to make doubly sure that the fuel I am about to put in the RV is in fact diesel.
After the gas, er, fuel station, we drove through Greenwood and got on the freeway. At one point I was chatting with Gene and driving along when he said, “Do you realize that you are staying in your lane, driving 35 mph, and talking to me? Like the cartoon character who has run off the edge of a cliff but stays airborne, feet in a running motion, until he realizes his situation and plummets, I immediately swerved!
We returned to the neighborhood, where it was time to park Nellie in my neighbor’s vacant lot. I asked Gene if he would back the RV into the spot for me. He did exactly what I expect any good instructor to do, replying, “No, I won’t do it, but I’ll teach you how.” It was not hard at all.
After spending three hours together, Gene confided at the conclusion of the lesson, “When we first left the neighborhood I looked to my right, and you were inches away from the parked cars. My ass was in my throat! I didn’t want to cry out or scream and scare you, so I just calmly commented for you to hug your side. But holy crap, in the future, hug your side!”
In the future, I’ll hug my side.