Editor’s Note: Have you noticed more and more RVs on the highways and at your favorite vacation destination? There has been a steady increase in the number of people traveling by RV. Rest assured, many RV owners are experienced and competent in handling their vehicles safely. Jeff Alt, award-winning author of "A Walk For Sunshine" (Appalachian Trail) and "A Hike For Mike" (John Muir Trail) witnessed his parent’s mishaps upon joining the ranks of retiring Baby Boomers and acquiring an RV. Jeff, frightened by his own parents mishaps and the thought of mass numbers of baby boomers trading in their compact cars and taking to the highways behind the wheel of semi-sized RVs, realized this trend could pose a real safety concern of national proportion. Here is his story.
“Your mother left part of our RV in Utah,” my step-father Ron exclaimed as he described his retirement road trip around the country with my mom. Apparently, while my mom was at the helm of their new RV, she misjudged the distance between a steel pole holding up a gas station roof and scraped the fiberglass outer shell of the camper up against the pole as she pulled the 38-footer out onto the road.
Unfazed of the responsibilities and risks of traveling RV-style, my parents repacked and headed down the highway again, only this time to visit family. Why not save some hotel money while visiting the relatives, they rationalized. Shortly after arriving at Aunt Joni’s house, Ron went to work setting up the camper. He graciously accepted Uncle John’s offer to plug the RV into one of the house outlets. Oblivious to the incompatibility of a house electrical socket and the RVs power requirements, Ron plugged the camper in. When Ron flipped the power switch, a series of sizzling zapping sounds snapped, like a scene right out of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation when Chevy Chase plugs in the Christmas lights, blowing out the city’s power, Ron wreaked similar damage on his camper. He fried the camper’s microwave, TV, and stereo with a simple flip of a switch. The replacement costs far outweighed any savings in lodging expenses.
My Dad and stepmother Sue retired shortly thereafter, and they too bought an RV camper, joining the ranks of Baby Boomer retirees. Dad, being an educated man, realized his novice level in operating a semi-trailer-sized vehicle, so he decided to practice unhitching the camper under the guidance of an “experienced” RV owner. An “uncertified” experienced RV owner, I might add.
Following the advice of the “experienced” RV owner, Dad extended out the front legs of the RV, which fully support the camper’s front end, after its release from the trailer hitch. After dad unhitched the camper from his brand new truck, something unnatural happened. The front of the camper fell forward, striking the back side of the truck bed, causing $3,000 in damage. The “experienced” RV owner guiding my dad failed to emphasize that after extending out the front legs, you need to secure them with the steel pins which were left dangling from metal clips off each leg. Otherwise, these load-bearing legs will collapse, as they did.
I don’t bring these stories up to embarrass my parents. I love them dearly. As a matter of fact, my parents have taken me on some grand adventures, safely, which I will always cherish. I bring these stories up because this is a growing epidemic.
This is bigger than just my family. There are an exorbitant number of Baby Boomers retiring and buying RVs. Recently, an SUV pulled into my condominium parking lot with an RV camper hitched to the bumper. The SUV screeched to a halt in front of my home and a Baby Boomer-aged man, sitting behind the wheel with his wife next to him in the passenger seat, hollered out the window asking me for directions. After receiving my best advice, he took his foot off the brake and proceeded to drive away. He would have driven off without incident had he remembered he was pulling a 40-foot camper off the back of his SUV, which requires some expertise when turning corners. However, this apparently slipped his mind as the SUV turned left on its way out of our parking lot, the camper hooked onto the corner post that supports our carport roof, destabilizing the carport and causing thousands of dollars in repairs. These events are just in my immediate world. I’m sure the National Department of Highway Safety can add to these stories.
Rest assured, many RV owners are experienced and competent in handling their RV safely. But, Baby Boomers are trading in their compact cars for RVs at an alarming rate. The idea of traveling in style is understandable. An RV has all the comforts of home: a shower, bed, TV, toilet, etc. But many RV-owning retirees, like my parents, have little or no professional training in operating such a huge vehicle. Prior to witnessing my own parents’ RV mishaps, I wouldn’t have blinked an eye at seeing an RV going down the highway. But now, I have white knuckles when I see an RV on the road, my fingers nervously clench the steering wheel as I proceed with caution.
Semi drivers go through months of training to earn a professional Commercial Drivers License (CDL). Some RV dealerships offer optional training courses. But the RV driver can get behind the wheel of a similar size and weight of vehicle, with no required certificate. I’m not advocating for a certification for RV drivers. But let’s face it, retirees may not have the reaction speed and quality vision they once had, and any of us would probably find it challenging to drive a house on wheels. With 78 million baby boomers reaching retirement age eager to fulfill all their travel fantasies, RVs have become quite popular. Imagine the increase in RV sales as the rest of the Baby Boomers retire.
After experiencing the Baby Boomer RV safety crisis first hand, I’ve carefully crafted some solutions to keep our highways and campgrounds safe:
1.) I have witnessed my parents in a red-faced panic pulling in and out of campgrounds. They would definitely pay good money to have someone else park their RV safely into a camping spot and hook everything up. Retired truck drivers could fill this niche market, offering RV campground valet service. Of course, this doesn’t make the highways safer.
2.) Semis have signs posted on the back of the trailers with reassuring statements for us motorists like “we only hire professionally certified and courteous drivers.” Semis also post warning signs on the back of their trailers warning motorists of their blind spots and that they make wide turns. Even though RV drivers aren’t professionally licensed, they could voluntarily post a large neon sign on the back of their camper providing passing motorists with reassuring statements like “Passed the vision test.” Or “No accidents yet.” And warning signs would also be helpful, such as “This vehicle is driven by someone who used to drive a compact car; proceed with caution.”
The one thing retirees do have is time off work to practice their RV maneuvering skills. RV training clubs could organize in communities across the nation and practice backing up and making turns between red cones in the safety of a Wal-Mart parking lot.
In the meantime, I’m going to stick to my favorite mode of travel -- hiking. As a matter of fact, I was able to convince my RV-owning parents to trek across Ireland this summer as a family vacation. So for what little comfort it may add, the US highways were a little safer during those ten days we were hiking out of country. Perhaps you may decide to take up hiking. Or, you may heed my advice and acquire the necessary skills to operate an RV safely.
By Jeff Alt
Award-winning author of A Walk For Sunshine (Appalachian Trail) and A Hike for Mike (John Muir Trail).