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Think about who's steering the RV coming toward you

Published March 21, 2004

The image in Tuesday's newspaper stayed with me all week.

A recreational vehicle, peeled open like a tin can, one door ripped off and propped against a concrete road guard.

It was the result of a collision. One jumbo vehicle slamming into another, like two mastodons butting heads, battling for territory on Pasco County's crowded roads.

But only one of the drivers, the driver of a commercial bucket truck, was required by law to have specialized training to handle his rig.

The other, piloting a 38-foot, 11-ton recreational vehicle (and towing a car), was not.

The truck driver and the Florida Highway Patrol reported the RV driver turned into the path of the oncoming truck.

There is no specialized training required in Florida to captain these land yachts, at 70 mph, down crowded interstate highways.

You've seen them. They may be cruising in the slow lane or lumbering through downtown. Maybe you've wished you could get around one on a rural road, or maybe you wished you owned one.

But as you roll along next to one, do you ever wonder who's driving? Ever wonder what makes that person qualified to move something with so much bulk? Ever wonder what would happen if the ship drifted into your lane?

I'm not picking on the drivers of RVs. I don't think RVs should be illegal or restricted to certain roads or subject to any new taxes or fees. The rising price of fuel is probably pain enough.

I just think there could maybe be some minimal level of required training and testing before someone is allowed to ease their house onto the interstate. The federal government makes pilots of even those little two-seat airplanes have full licensing and regular medical checkups, and it isn't often pilots fly around in a crowd at high speed.

I don't think I'm qualified to drive an RV. I drove a jumbo U-Haul rental truck once, towing a car from South Carolina to Fort Myers. I don't seem to remember a feeling of confidence. Within a half hour of picking up the rig at the rental center, I got myself hopelessly jackknifed in my neighbor's driveway.

You want to toss me the keys to an 11-ton RV? Probably not.

When I'm driving next to an RV, I start wondering the same thing about the driver next to me. What makes him so qualified?

Amy Shelton, a spokeswoman for the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, said about 7-million RVs are on American roads. Most aren't the big, Class A, self-propelled variety that ended up a mangled mess on the front of Tuesday's Pasco Times. Most are tow-behind campers.

Ten states require some kind of training for RV drivers, Shelton said.

But while Florida ranks third in the country in the nationwide $12-billion annual retail RV sales industry, and while Florida is a major destination for RV visits, Florida is not one of those states requiring any training for an RV driver.

Then again, Florida doesn't have a helmet law for motorcycle riders, because wearing a helmet is a matter of personal choice. But we do have a mandatory seat belt law for automobile drivers. I suppose someone in Tallahassee figures asphalt provides better protection in a crash than an airbag.

And, even though a motorcycle may weigh less than 500 pounds and would do my car considerably less damage than an RV in a crash, motorcycle drivers must have a special license.

There are currently bills pending in the Legislature regarding how RVs are parked at RV parks, how they are repaired and sold, how RV parks are established, and what rules should regulate bingo games at RV parks.

But how those RVs get to the RV park is still nobody's business.

The cost of RVs - which range in price from roughly $30,000 to well over $100,000 - should be enough to keep them out of the hands of young, inexperienced motorists, as well as knuckleheads who drive without insurance on a suspended license.

Shelton said most dealers offer lessons and want their customers to leave feeling comfortable behind the wheel.

"All of us are on the road together, so it's got to be safe for all of us," Shelton said.

But the next time you're riding on a two-lane road with a 55 mph speed limit, remember the closing speed between you and that oncoming RV is 110 mph. The only thing between the two of you is a pair of painted, yellow lines.

And that driver could, under Florida law, be 16 years old, driving solo for the very first time.

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