I always think that hitching up the travel trailer and setting off means that we are ‘on vacation’ the minute we leave home, but how can we ensure that our vacation does not turn into a nightmare?
There are dangers involved with any road users, are Travel Trailers more dangerous than setting off on your normal daily commute in your car? The greatest danger to yourself and other road users when you are towing is ‘Trailer Sway’, resulting in a serious accident.
Travel Trailers and RV’s can also give off poisonous chemicals, but more about those later.
Trailer Sway is the term used for when you see the tow vehicle and the trailer moving in different directions. This can be scary to watch, sometimes the driver of the trailer can get it back under control, but sadly this can progress to a very serious accident.
loss of life has occurred as a result of Trailer Sway on highways.
Are Travel Trailers Dangerous? Yes, they can be dangerous, but that should not put you off owning and using a travel trailer. However, it is good to be aware of the types of incidents that can occur when towing a trailer so you can take steps to avoid these things happening to you, your family and other road users.
Most common reasons for wrecking a Trailer
There are lots of reasons why you could be pulling a dangerous vehicle. Let’s look at the most common issues with towing and how you can avoid these.
- Weight – There are a few important issues connected with weight. The first is to recognise that you have a heavy vehicle in tow and it’s going to behave differently to your car or truck. Its size will have an impact on other road users too as they can’t see around you, so if you have to brake suddenly, they won’t necessarily know why.
The other important issue is to check that your tow vehicle is rated to pull your trailer. You can find out how much weight your vehicle can tow by referring to your owners manual. Some vehicles will have this written somewhere near the tow bar.
Next is the GVWR (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating). This is the maximum weight your trailer can carry. You need to remember to add in the weight of fuel, oil, water and cargo. You should find this information clearly displayed on your trailer. You mustn’t exceed this figure.
Another important weight figure is the GCWR ( Gross Combined Weight Rating). This refers to the total weight of your tow vehicle and trailer, passengers and all the above. In some states you could be fined for exceeding this weight, or taken off the road completely – ending your vacation; rules vary from state to state. See information further down.
Don’t second guess weight issues. If you are not sure, go to weigh station and get it checked. Some truck stops will have large public scales that you can use for a fee.
Overloading your trailer does far more damage than overloading your car when you are not towing. Not only could it damage your wallet with a big fine, but over time, it will destroy the suspension, the brakes, the tow hitch and the chassis of your travel trailer.
Carrying too much weight is also a good way to help your trailer to sway and to impede the braking and stopping distance of your rig in an emergency. The result could be a serious accident, and as we have discussed, your trailer can do a lot of damage to other road users, not to mention you and your family.
Once you have confirmed that you have the correct amount of weight on board, its also important to make sure that the weight is properly distributed for balance, experts advise that the weight you carry is distributed side to side and also between the front and rear of both your tow vehicle and your travel trailer.
- Hitch- Make sure that you purchase the correct class of hitch for your Tow vehicle and Trailer. There are lots of different models available, and these are sorted into five different classes depending on weight. The weight class of your hitch needs to be able to handle the GVWR of your trailer. Some hitches come with a weight gauge included, so you don’t have to second guess how much weight you have.
The hitch attaches the tow vehicle to the trailer, so this is a very important piece of kit as it keeps the two vehicles together. You will need a wiring connector on all but the lightest and smallest of trailers, to connect up the brakes and lighting of the trailer so these can be operated by your tow vehicle. If the Trailer is not hitched correctly and literally blows away from the pulling vehicle, it is unlikely to have a happy landing.
Your Trailer should be hitched to your towing vehicle using two chains and should also have a safety pin attached. The safety pin is just a small pin that sits across the hitch arm and stops the Trailer from becoming detached when you hit a bump.
On a speedway test, a vehicle was hitched up to a Trailer without this pin; the first curve in the road the Trailer went on straight and hit the safety barrier on the track. On a highway, that could have been another vehicle a building or even a group of pedestrians. Even at relatively slow speeds, the momentum of a Trailer being ejaculated from the pulling vehicle can write off the trailer and cause a lot of damage to anything that gets in its way.
Always try to be on level ground when you attach the hitch. It helps to stand back and look to see how balanced the two vehicles are.
You can get your hitch installed by a professional or do this yourself. If you are doing it yourself, then follow the manufacturer’s instructions to the letter.
The type of hitch you can instal includes models with built-in weight distribution and sway control. Since this is the thing that keeps your trailer attached to your tow vehicle, it’s worth investing in a good quality robust hitch.
- Brakes – You want to know that you will be able to stop safely and within a proportionate distance when you want to. And when you have to in an emergency. Braking too hard is another reason that ‘trailer sway’ occurs and can also lead to your trailer ‘jackknifing’. Braking in the wet is worse; the brakes can lock and cause the trailer to skid. This is the major reason for accidents with semi’s where they jackknife. You should have your brakes checked each season at least. Better still before each trip you make.
The brakes, hitch and weight limits all work together to keep you safe. If any of these are out of balance or over the limits of the capacity of your tow vehicles braking maximum, then you could have serious problems.
It’s a good idea to practise making ‘an emergency’ stop. You will need somewhere quiet to do this, but it will give you a ‘feel’ for how your trailer reacts when being towed and you have to bake hard. Better to experience this away from other traffic if you don’t have much towing experience.
Of course, the easiest way to avoid emergency braking on the highway is to slow down, drive at a speed that gives you plenty of distance from the vehicle in front of you, stay over to the right and check your mirrors.
- Tires – Braking hard will have an impact on the life of your tires.
Check your tires every time you get into your tow vehicle. Even if make a stop on the highway, it is a good idea to get into the habit of walking around your tow vehicle and trailer and to check everything looks OK; including your tires.
Before you set off on your journey, the tires on both your tow vehicle and your trailer should be inflated to the maximum for the load you are carrying, but not over-inflated. There should be a note of maximum tire pressure on the tire.
Having a tire blow on the highway is a serious incident and certainly one that can wreck your trailer. When a tire blows at any speed, the steering and braking functions of the affected vehicle are compromised. The trailer will start to sway, and the sway can intensify to the point where control is lost.
- Visibility-‘ See and be seen’ is the important phrase to remember here.
Your wing mirrors are more important when towing than they are for normal driving. You need to check and double-check your mirrors before you pull out to pass another vehicle and then again before you pull back over to make sure you have cleared the vehicle you wanted to pass.
Expert drivers also recommend that you look over your shoulder to check your ‘blind spot’ every time you pull out too.
It’s important to check that the whole length of your trailer is safely past whatever you want to pass, accidents involving passing are common.
Your trailer needs to be seen by other road users. They need to know how tall and wide the trailer is. At night or in poor road visibility conditions, your trailer lights being in good working order and well placed will help keep you safe and avoid wrecking your trailer. The type and position of trailer lights are mandatory in some state, so check these rules for any states you intend to pass through as well as your destination state.
Driving on Grades
Driving down hills will require more concentration than driving on the flat. The first thing to do is to slow down; you should avoid accelerating down hills at all costs as the momentum of your trailer, and its load could mean you lose control more easily.
According to auto.howstuffworks.com,” Momentum refers to’ mass in motion’. An increase in mass or speed results in an increase in momentum. Inertia is the tendency for anything with mass to resist change to its state of motion. The more massive an object, the greater it resists change. That means it takes more energy to get a massive object to start or stop moving than an object with less mass.”
If the road is uneven or has bumps and you drive too fast you could risk flipping the trailer, or the brakes could lock, tires skid and you find that you have jackknifed the trailer.
Parking on a Hill or Grade is not recommended when you are towing a travel trailer. If you do have to stop you will need to apply both the tow vehicle brakes and the trailer brakes, don’t rely on just one or the other.
You may have to stop or park on a hill in an emergency. If this happens, you should use blocks to prevent the wheels from moving.
How can I achieve Towing Peace of Mind?
If you are an experienced tow driver, then a lot of the things that we have covered will be second nature to you. However, some drivers get into bad habits, or you lose concentration at times. If you are taking a long trip and you are the only driver, make sure you take regular stops. Better to arrive safely at your destination a bit later than not to arrive at all.
A quick checklist of the essential equipment you should have with you before you set off will add to your peace of mind that you are well prepared for any eventuality;
Basic Safety Equipment
- Safety Chains help prevent separation if the hitch fails
- Brake Lights to prevent a rear-end collision
- Clearance Lights may only be required if your vehicle exceeds a certain width
- Signal lights especially if your trailer is large and blocks the lights on your tow vehicle
- Reflectors to keep a large trailer visible, important in bad weather
- Breakaway lights prevent accidents if your hitch fails. Power brakes that apply to the trailer upon separation from the tow vehicle
- Flares to clear off a section of the road after an accident or if you break down on the highway
- Tie-Downs if you load anything onto a trailer that could blow off
A lot of information for the novice towing a trailer will recommend that you get to practice. This is good sound advice, but what do you do if you don’t have a suitable empty parking lot on your doorstep?
You could get yourself booked onto a course in RV driving at a driving school, look for a course that includes towing. This is not a legal requirement in the USA (it is in Europe) but could save you life.
A lot of visitors to the USA like to hire a vehicle and travel trailer to tour the country. So they could be driving a tow vehicle they are new to and perhaps towing a larger RV trailer for the first time. A few minutes at the hire desk is not going to give them much in the way of preparation for this experience and could be a disaster waiting to happen. If this is you, take yourself and your hire vehicles some quite and get familiar with all the safety tips we have covered here.
Trailer Towing Insurance
Towing a trailer can be dangerous. So one of the best ways to give you peace of mind is to make sure that you have adequate insurance cover.
Don’t assume that your regular auto insurance will cover your trailer as well. You may have an ‘auto-policy’ that will give you some cover for your trailer, but you need to check if this includes liability to other vehicles or buildings and people your trailer might damage.
Accidents happen, especially when you’re not expecting them!
Some companies specialize in RV insurance policies that also give you cover for your trailer. This is quite rare; you notice we said ‘specialized’, if you have been shopping for insurance based on the competitiveness of the premium, then you could find that your cover is limited. You also need to check out what your home insurance covers while your trailer is parked on your drive as well.
In most cases, you will need two separate insurance policies, one for your tow vehicle and one for your travel trailer. Both policies should have a good amount of liability cover in addition to the usual collision cover and other essentials a motor policy will include. In the unfortunate scenario that your trailer did become detached from your tow vehicle, you will be assumed to be at fault. Whatever and whoever your now out of control trailer collides with before it stops will be your responsibility, and you could face several claims against your insurance.
If you are using your RV for more than 150 days per year, then you need a specialist policy that includes ‘ full-timers comprehensive personal liability’. This covers visitors to your RV as well as anyone hit by something flying off the RV while you are driving.
It’s worthwhile having a conversation with your insurance broker before you buy insurance for your travel trailer. Check that the amount of time you plan to be using the RV is covered for all eventualities, ask lots of questions to make sure you end up with suitable insurance for the risk you could encounter.
If you are unlucky and write off your trailer in an accident, will your insurer cover the cost of hotel accommodation and getting you and your trailer back home?
Check the Trailer Towing Laws
Check the local traffic laws concerning towing. These can vary from state to state, so not only should you be familiar with the rules that apply to your home town, but you also need to know the rules that apply to your destination state and all the different states you will pass through on your journey.
Maximum towing speed restrictions; Some states, such as Mississippi have a maximum towing speed limit of 10 mph. In general, the state limits vary from 55 mph to 65 mph. You may want to keep your speed below this limit for safety, especially if you are driving on a road you are unfamiliar with.
Taillights – The railer needs operable taillights for basic road safety, don’t forget you need a License plate light in most states too.
Safety chains and breakaway brakes are mandatory in most states if you are towing, but not all states specify when these items are required. It’s always better to be safe than sorry. You will most likely have these items on your safety checklist anyway, but if you don’t, then this is an excellent reason to get some.
The maximum weight and width of the trailer you are towing also vary from state to state. According to towing world, some states use the ‘federal bridge formula’, that calculates the amount of weight based on how much is carried per axel. For example, Colorado allows a gross vehicle weight of 54,000 pounds, while Iowa allows 80,000 pounds. If you are stopped on the highway, and you know the CGVW (Combined Gross Vehicle Weight) of your tow vehicle and trailer and can quote this, you might just save yourself a delay, fine or even being taken off the road.
What about those dangerous gasses we mentioned earlier?
Two dangerous gasses could be present inside your trailer. Formaldehyde is found in some glues used in building materials. These can leak into the air in hot, humid conditions. These glues are used in the construction of the RV. You may not notice that you have been affected as most times it’s the build-up effect of being in contact with formaldehyde that can cause headache, respiratory problems and nosebleeds. If you suffer from any of these symptoms during or after you have been using your RV then get yourself checked out.
Formaldehyde has a distinct smell, but you may not recognise it as such. If you think that the inside of your RV does not smell right, then this is what it could be.
Ethyl alcohol can found in Fuel, and this can give off a harmful gas if it leaks back into your trailer or RV.
Cardon monoxide is also given off by fuel, as well as some heating and cooling units. You can instal a carbon monoxide detector inside your trailer; some come with a sealed battery that will last for up to ten years.