Motorhome in California -- Where Length Really Does Matter

For many RVers , a longer motorhome is a better motorhome. A coach longer than 40-feet provides more living space, more storage, and often more driving power, style and luxury. This is why motorhome makers offer many longer coaches, and why they are so popular. If it fits your budget and lifestyle, why not buy a longer coach?

That answer requires first answering three more questions:
1. Is your motorhome longer than 40-feet 0-inches true bumper-to-bumper length?
2. Do you want to drive your motorhome in California?
3. Do you live in California?

These answers matter because California laws for motorhomes longer than 40-feet 0-inches are different from most other states and province. (Note: State regulations vary regarding motorhome length, width, height, weight and driver license requirements. This article focuses on California's unusual laws. For other states, this link may be helpful http://www.goodsamcamping.com/plan/SizeLimits.aspx )

California restricts where such 40-feet-and-longer motorhomes may be driven, and what kind of driver license is required. Many RVers seem to not know these laws, so end up violating them, with resulting tickets, legal risks, and even inability to drive in California.

California law says the maximum length of any vehicle is 40-feet 0-inches. Obviously this excludes many motorhomes, so in 2001 the Stated passed an exemption for motorhomes from 40 feet to 45 feet in length, but with major restrictions. As the State's web site says:

The basic California length law for vehicles is 40 feet unless specifically exempted. On October 9, 2001, Governor Davis signed Assembly Bill (AB) 67 which changed the California Vehicle Code (CVC) to allow motorhomes over 40 feet in length, up to 45 feet, on certain routes. 45' motorhomes are allowed on interstates and on those State routes that can accommodate them.

There are RVers, and RV dealers, who misstate the length limitation, and/or they claim the length law is not enforced. Wrong. Every California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer I've asked immediately cited the law, and noted they measure bumper-to-bumper (using the long tape measure carried in patrol cars). They don't care what the model number is, the true length is what the law references.

Knowing a motorhome's true bumper-to-bumper length is important because many motorhomes are a model "40" something, but in the odd practice of the RV industry, the true length is always longer than the model number. A model "40" is longer than 40-feet 0-inches, and often longer than 41-feet. As CHP told me, any model "40" or higher motorhome is likely subject to California's special restrictions on Coach and Driver. Sometimes they simply look at the model number by the door to easily identify a motorhome that is subject to California restrictions; if it is "40" or more, check it out.

Some motorhomers believe luck is certainty, declaring they've "never been stopped" in California, as if that means the laws don't exist. Sure, law enforcement is random -- ask anyone who speeds or rolls through STOP signs -- but not getting caught doesn't indicate anything except "not yet".

California restrictions are:

-- A motorhome longer than 40-feet 0-inches is allowed only on certain California highways. The State publishes a map, and supposedly (but rarely) there are signs at highway exits. The route restrictions apply to every 40+ feet motorhome, not just California rigs or residents.

-- A California-licensed driver of a motorhome over 40-feet 0-inches true length must have a Class B license, which requires periodic medical exams and tests. A driver from another state must have whatever license that state requires for the particular length/size motorhome.

The restrictions are spelled out on a State of California web site, below. Unfortunately, they bizarrely label it as the "45' motorhome" which leads to confusion. Don't just read the title, read the full page. It clearly applies to any motorhome longer than 40-feet 0-inches, and to the driver.

Here's the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) web page:

45' Motorhomes (Greater than 40' up to 45')
http://www.dot.ca.gov/hq/traffops/trucks/bus-motorhome/45-motorhomes.htm

Here are some of the key statements on the page, with my comments in CAPS. Keep in mind when they say "45' motorhome" they actually mean ANY COACH LONGER THAN 40-FEET 0-INCHES:

-- a 45' motorhome refers to a single-unit motorhome that is longer than 40 feet but not more than 45 feet. 40 FEET 1 INCH IS LONGER THAN 40 FEET, PER CHP.

-- The basic California length law for vehicles is 40 feet unless specifically exempted. Motorhomes over 40 feet in length, up to 45 feet, are allowed on interstates and on those State routes that can accommodate them. THEREFORE, MANY OTHER ROADS IN CALIFORNIA ARE RESTRICTED AND NOT LEGALLY USABLE.

-- California requires a motorhome endorsement on a noncommercial class B driver license issued by the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). The medical exam must be repeated every two years. The license is valid for approximately five years. COSTLY HASSLE WITH NO ASSURANCE THE LICENSE WILL BE GRANTED OR RENEWED.

-- Non-residents visiting California may not operate a motorhome over 40 feet in length unless in possession of an out-of-state driver license authorizing the operation of that vehicle. SO, MOST NON-CALIFORNIA RESIDENTS HAVE IT EASIER, BUT EVERYONE MUST OBEY ROAD RESTRICTIONS.

-- 45' motorhomes may exit the designated route for fuel, food, and lodging provided the access is signed and the service is within one road mile of the "identified" exit. The exit must be signed to show that the service route has been evaluated and approved by State and local engineers. This "Service Access" sign shows an "S" on the back of a truck, and are located primarily on the interstates. LAW SAYS THE SIGN "MUST" EXIST, BUT THE SIGNS SEEM TO BE RARE. ONE MILE IS NOT VERY FAR. THIS PUTS SEVERE LIMIT ON ABILITY OF LONGER MOTORHOMES TO EXPLORE CALIFORNIA. VERY FEW PLACES I LIKE TO GO ARE LEGAL FOR 40-FEET-PLUS MOTORHOMES.

-- 45' motorhomes are allowed on certain State routes, but not necessarily on local roads. Cities and counties have jurisdiction over local roads. To inquire about motorhomes access on local roads, contact the appropriate city or county public works department. IS THIS "INQUIRE" REQUIREMENT EVEN POSSIBLE IN NORMAL TRAVEL?

LEGAL HISTORY of CALIFORNIA "45' Motorhomes (Greater than 40' up to 45')"

Vehicle Length: The basic vehicle length limit in California is stated in the California Vehicle Code (CVC) Section 35400(a): "A vehicle may not exceed a length of 40 feet."

Federal & State Law (Buses): In 1991, federal legislation allowed 45' buses on the interstates and "reasonable access" routes. This federal law was codifed in State law in the California Vehicle Code (CVC) Section 35400(b)(10)(A). Caltrans determined which State routes can accommodate the 45' length buses and created the 45' bus network map.

State Law (Motorhomes): On October 9, 2001, California Governor Davis signed Assembly Bill 67 which also legalized motorhomes over 40 feet in length, up to 45 feet, on certain routes in California. Those routes include the interstates, and the same State routes that already allowed 45' buses.

MY TAKE

It is stupid for California to have motorhome length and driver restrictions different than most other states, unless the laws are provably better and necessary. Assuming the purpose is safety, do California's motorhome laws help? Only if the laws are known, reasonable, and possible for everyone to obey. They are not.

Problems:

ROAD RESTRICTIONS: Motorhome drivers from other states must obey the road restrictions. But do they know this? To get compliance, there should be prominent signs at all California entry roads advising of the laws, and telling drivers what must be done if they can't or won't comply. (Such as, don't go more than one mile off a freeway, or perhaps turn around and leave California.) Where are these obviously mandatory signs? Also, freeway exits must be signed, as the State requires, to identify when off-freeway routing is allowed. Where are these signs?

BUYER DISCLOSURE: California-licensed drivers who own or are buying a motorhome should be told of the length restrictions. RV dealers should be required to inform buyers and provide a State-supplied notice that states and explains the laws. When issuing or renewing driver licenses, California DMV should ask questions about a 40-feet-plus motorhome. None of this happens, and RV dealers I have asked give false information. In fact, many new motorhomes do not comply with the laws of all the U.S. states, odd that they are allowed to be sold and licensed.

CALIFORNA DRIVERS: The California-licensed motorhome driver requirement to have a Class B license is worthless as a safety effort because it does not apply to the vast majority of drivers of longer motorhomes seen on California roads. In my informal surveys, most California owners of 40-feet-plus motorhomes use them to visit other parts of the country; most of their driving miles are outside California.

NON-CALIFORNIA DRIVERS: Motorhome drivers from outside California do not have the state license that supposedly improves safety. Looking at the license plates of longer motorhomes on California roads, most are from other states and provinces. Those drivers are NOT subject to the California drivers license requirement. A few other states also require s special license, often based on motorhome weight. But perhaps 5% to 10% of longer motorhomes on California highways have drivers with the "required" license. If it is for safety, 95% might be unsafe.

Since the above problems make it very unlikely that any motorhome driver will comply, the only definite outcome is:

  • All long-motorhome drivers on California roads are subject to mysterious road restrictions because necessary information and warning signs are not installed by the government agencies that manage California roads.
  • California residents are subject to onerous motorhome driver license requirements that do not apply to most out-of-state drivers.
  • All California police must enforce the obscure laws, which consumes time, resources, and money. Highly-skilled law enforcement officers might have better things to do for the public than waste time measuring motorhomes.
  • RV dealers steer buyers to inappropriate motorhomes, making more money by inducing buyers to break state laws.
  • Very few RVers know anything about California (and other states) motorhome restrictions so they are ignorant law-breakers. Very few of them would knowingly drive illegally, if only they knew better.

With all of this, is California road safety improved? Or is the only result filling state highways with law-breaking motorhomers.

But since the 40-feet-plus motorhome laws exist, CHP and other California police must enforce them. To do this, they can stop and cite drivers of longer motorhomes from any state/province on almost any California road other than an Interstate, simply because they should not be on that road. And, police can stop longer motorhomes with California license plates and cite California drivers who do not have Class B license. If the driver is from outside California, police must be . It's a mess.

The RV industry knows of California laws, and in response offers motorhomes just a bit shorter than 40-feet true length (just 1/2 inch shorter in some models). RV makers have told me these models are specifically for the California market (and possibly elsewhere). But California RV dealers happily sell 40-feet-plus motorhomes without ever informing buyers of the license they must get and road restrictions they must obey. That's why this article was written.

It seems obvious that the California restrictions are pointless and actually harm the state (unless the goal is to make the state an even worse place to visit and live). I wonder why RV industry organizations such as FMCA or GoodSam or RVIA don't pressure (and help) California clean up this mess. In fact, there should be a coordinated effort to get consistent RV size/driver laws in all states, same as there are for cars.