Lise Roy remembers the time she and her father drove his motorhome miles down a country road in search a place wide enough to turn the 35-foot rig, plus the car it was towing, around after missing a turn.
Roy laughs about the experience now, but at the time she said she found nothing funny about the situation and believes now as then just because anyone can legally drive a large recreational does not mean they should.
All you need, legally speaking, is a basic Class C driver’s’ license.
“That’s the [driver’s] license we all have,” said Kristen Muszynski, director of communications for the Maine Secretary of State. “There is no weight or length limit [on the recreational vehicles] if they are for personal use.”
According to research published by the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, 8.9 million households in the country own an RV, an increase of 8 percent from the previous data collected in 2005. The association defines an RV as “a vehicle that combines transportation and temporary living quarters for travel, recreation and camping.”
They range from simple towed “pop-up” tent trailers to massive bus-like vehicles complete with expanding sides and capable of towing cars or boats. Their popularity, according to those who use them, is the ability to pick up and go to see the countryside and take along most of the comforts of home.
It’s a mode of travel that has become increasingly popular with retirees, like Roy’s parents.
“Every November they drive the motorhome to Florida and park it there and live in it for the winter before driving back to Maine for the summer,” Roy said. “My dad’s getting up there in age and can’t do the drive by himself, so my siblings and I take turns now getting it there and back.”
For anyone — retirees or loved ones helping out with the driving — there are a few things to consider before getting behind the wheel of something larger than the family car.
“Especially for retirees, there are likely things that have changed [about driving] since the first time they got their license,” said Court Dwyer, state coordinator of driver safety programs for AARP. “In a lot of cases, these retirees got their licences a long time ago.”
Among the changes that have affected the RV industry, he said, include upgrades in computer technologies found on and in many of those vehicles and which can be a bit confusing to new drivers.
“They need to realize those [computerized] things are in the vehicle,” he said. “They need to become familiar with them before taking it out for the first time.”
There have also been changes to roads and how they are laid out over the last couple of decades, Dwyer said.
“Most of these changes are for the better,” he said. “But they can take some getting used to, especially in a large rig.”
Things like rotaries replacing four-way intersections and the additions of a third lane along many busier roads to facilitate left hand turns were not around when many of today’s retirees got their driver’s license, Dwyer said.
Coming across one for the first time can confuse drivers of any age in any size vehicle, according to Dwyer, but for someone driving a large RV, it’s crucial to take extra time to become familiar with its handling so as not to panic the first time a rotary or new traffic feature is encountered.
Finally, Dwyer said, it’s important for older drivers to be honest about changes in themselves.
“There are medical changes,” he said. “You really need to think about them and understand how they could affect driving.”
Medications can obviously impact the driving ability, Dwyer said, but most people are cognizant of that.
“Then there are the physical changes, like the ability to turn around so you can see to backup properly,” he said. “When you drive something like an RV, you really need to deal with what is going on with your body.”
Some of that new vehicle technology — like backup cameras that show what’s behind the RV and seats that can be custom set for maximum driver comfort — are a huge help, Dwyer said.
“Those back up cameras are beautiful things for elderly drivers who may have disc or spinal problems or simply can’t see that far behind the vehicle,” he said.
Most of it, Dwyer and Muszynski said, comes down to common sense when driving something as large as an RV. Keeping in mind things like braking distances are greater due to the size and weight of the rig, turns take wider radiuses and that there is a lot of vehicle extending behind the driver and that needs to be taken into account when passing other cars and re-entering the original lane.
“It’s nothing like driving a car,” Lise Roy said. “It’s too big so I have my husband drive it because he’s really good at it.”
One trick Roy and her family learned is the popularity among RV travelers of Wal-Mart parking lots for quick, free overnight stops.
“But finding one can be an adventure,” she said. “Last time my dad drove and I was with him I kept telling him we should start looking for one and he would not.”
It fell to her, Roy said, to try and make sense of the onboard navigation device as her father drove farther and farther down bumpy country roads and things began to fall out of the RVs cupboards.
“We were really in the woods and looking for a Wal-Mart in the boonies,” Roy said with a laugh. “That rig was so big to turn it around we had to spend an hour disconnecting the [towed] car from the back and I decided, ‘enough’ and grabbed my own GPS, got into the car and told him to follow me.”
The group ultimately found a Wal-Mart that night, and Roy remembers thinking at the time, “That Wal-Mart better have beer.”