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Can I drive a wide-body RV on a two-lane road?

by the editor of Two-Lane Roads magazine, Loren Eyrich

Suppose I told you that there are thousands of drivers on America's highways, driving trucks which exceed the legal width in the states where they drive, and they are not even aware of it? What if I told you these drivers do not even hold a commercial driver's license? What if I told you a high percentage of them are over 65 years old? Would be outraged? Let’s get Dateline NBC to do a report on this!

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What if I told you this group of drivers are RVers? Would your attitude change?

Can I drive a wide-body on two-lane roads? I get this question a dozen times at every RV show and RV seminar. The RV salesman will tell you, "They are legal in all 50 states." And he's not fibbing; he's just not giving you the complete answer. Maybe it's because you haven't asked the correct question. What you as a potential RV buyer should be asking is, "Can I lawfully and safely drive a 102-inch wide vehicle on every highway in every state in which I might ever travel?" What may seem like a simple question, has a complex answer.

What is a wide body?

Not so long ago in simpler days, the maximum width for all vehicles on all roads in the USA was 8 feet (96 inches.) If a truck was hauling a load wider than that, it required a special permit, and sometimes an escort vehicle. Then a few years ago the federal government passed a law mandating the maximum width for all vehicles on Interstate highways at 8.5 feet (102 inches.) Gradually, states began to "designate" certain other roads as legal for 102-inch vehicles, until today nearly all states permit them on at least some of their four-lane and even two-lane roads. The trucking industry saw this as an opportunity to haul bigger loads in wider trucks. According to Utility, a major truck trailer manufacturer, orders for new 102-inch wide truck trailers now account for over 90% of their business. Buses, even local transit buses and school buses, are now being built on the 102-inch platform.

The RV industry, too, jumped in with both feet. At first, a few began showing up at RV shows, and when they did, they came with considerable fanfare with huge banners advertising: "New Wide Body!" The extra width makes for some really interesting floor plans, including forward-facing couches giving passengers in a motorhome a view of the road through the windshield. If you were to visit an RV show today you might have trouble finding a 96-inch wide unit, even if you wanted one. I would bet that 90% of people buying an RV (or renting one) don’t even know how wide it is, and they never question which roads they can or cannot drive.

The federal law only governs Interstate highways, but also mandates that wide vehicles must have "reasonable access" to the Interstate highways. That means that it is legal to exit the Interstate highways, and drive on local roads for a mile or two. In Maryland, it's not to exceed one mile, by the shortest distance possible. In Louisiana, a 102-wide vehicle has "reasonable access, not to exceed ten (10) miles, from designated highways or the Interstate System, to be allowed to facilities for food, fuel, repairs, and rest, unless otherwise prohibited."

But what if you wanted to drive your 102-inch wide rig from coast to coast? In many of the states along the way, it may or may not be legal, depending on the width of the pavement.

RV buyers will find it nearly impossible to find a new 96-inch wide RV, even if they want one.  RV manufacturers are not giving us an option.  I should also mention that I have yet to hear of even one RVer being ticketed for unlawfully driving a wide-body RV.   I have also never heard of an RVer being sued because of a crash which might have been avoided if his vehicle was not a wide-body. 

Who sets the rules?

The state agency which governs this is usually the Department of Transportation (DOT.) Here's the deal in Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, D.C., Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, and West Virginia: "102 inch permitted on Interstates and designated routes only. 96 inch limit on all other roads." (Roads which would not be "designated routes" in these states are generally roads with "lane widths of under 12 feet.")

In New Jersey, copy that except replace "under 12 feet" with "under 11 feet."

In New York and Pennsylvania, replace "under 12 feet" with "under 10 feet." In Oklahoma, replace "lane width of under 12 feet" with "surface width of under 20 feet." (Which is essentially the same as lane width of 10 feet.) I wish they could all be a straightforward as Nebraska: "96 inches where posted."

Massachusetts and New Hampshire are the toughest, permitting 102" on Interstates only. On all other roads the limit is 102" but including all safety equipment (mirrors, for example.) If the body of your rig is 102 inches, then the total width with mirrors makes it unlawful to drive except on Interstates.

It should be no surprise that the toughest laws are in the East, where many roadways were laid out 200 years ago. You may have noticed that with the exception of Arizona, all of the Western states permit 102" wide vehicles on all roads. Hawaii permits vehicles of 108" on all roads, the widest of any state.

In Louisiana, buses are specifically exempted, permitting them to be 102" wide on all roads. But I couldn't find ANY states which have an exception for recreational vehicles.

But wait - it gets more confusing. I contacted the Florida Department of Transportation, who told me that the DOT has jurisdiction only on highways maintained by the state; saying, "There are no roads on the [Florida] state highway system that have lanes less than 11 feet wide. RVs with 102-inch bodies do not need an 'oversized vehicle' permit to travel on those roads." So that’s good news, right? Except the Florida DOT continues, "You will need to contact the individual counties to obtain lane widths and applicable restrictions for roads in their jurisdictions." In other words, 102-inch wide vehicles are permitted on all US-numbered highways and all state-numbered highways in Florida, but not necessarily all county roads.

I contacted the DOT in all the restricted states asking for input for this article. A few responded with similar opinions - it’s highly unusual to have a state highway with lanes less than 12 feet wide.

All of the states assured me that RVs ARE REQUIRED to follow the same rules as trucks! Maryland sent me a booklet listing all the "designated" wide body routes. In the entire state of Maryland, there are only a dozen or so two-lane routes where wide bodies ARE permitted!

So how are you going to know which highways have lanes of less than 12 feet? Will you take out your tape measure? I think not! And how come we have never heard of a RVer being stopped by police, who measured the width of his rig, and wrote out a ticket? Since RVs don't stop at weigh stations as trucks do, it is unlikely that an RVer will ever be ticketed for unlawfully driving on a narrow road. His problems will begin only after he's involved in a collision, and it is determined that the unlawful width contributed to the accident.

What's the big deal, you are asking? 102 wide is only 6 inches more than 96. That's 3 inches more on the shoulder side, and 3 inches more on the centerline side. All I need to do is drive 3 inches closer to the shoulder, and I'm not in any more danger of a head-on crash than I would be with a 96-wide vehicle. True, until you approach one of those old narrow steel bridges. What if two vehicles meet on a narrow bridge, and both are 102 inches wide? You can't pull over 3 inches; you'd hit the guardrail. Between the two of you, you are now a full 12 inches wider than the vehicles the bridge was designed to handle. Now, take a 102-inch vehicle and hang 4 inches of awning to the right, and maybe a folding boat on the left, and you may be tempting a disaster!

Confused? Perhaps you should invite your lawyer to join you on all trips! Best way I have found to stay current with changing regulations state-by-state is to buy a motor carriers road atlas or "truckers atlas." Updated each year, they are available at major truck stops. (A truckers atlas is also the answer to two more very common questions: "Where can I find a list of low clearances?" and "Where can I find a list of steep mountain grades to avoid?")

There may be a simpler way to always be in compliance: you might want to try to find a 96-inch wide rig. If you plan to drive on two-lane roads, and especially if you plan on driving in the East, a 96-inch wide rig with a slide-out might be the answer. The best of both worlds - 96-inches wide on the road, yet much wider at the campsite! -L.E.




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E-mail:  twolaneroads@bellsouth.net
 
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Except for the book cover designs, or where otherwise noted, all text and all photographs were created by Loren Eyrich.  No portion of this website may be reproduced without written permission.