Towing The Line

Whether it’s a caravan, horse float or plant trailer, there are legal requirements in place that hopefully ensure your safety

The more we talk to the many drivers hauling trailers the more we realise that most do not have much of a concept about the safety and legal requirements controlled by the towing regulations across Australia. What makes this scenario worse, is that most don’t care.

When an accident occurs involving a vehicle towing a trailer it usually has catastrophic results. In many instances where directional control has been lost, the trailer influences the towing vehicle to the extent that not only do both usually leave the highway, they often both end their day upside down. If the trailer is a caravan it usually appears to implode, spreading clothing, cooking utensils and a lifetime of holiday expectations through the bush. If the trailer happens to be a horse float the animals are usually so badly injured they have to be shot.

Accidents happen because there is a mismatching of the tow vehicles to the trailer and the speed at which they travel is too high.

The NSW regulations used to be very clear that the maximum speed when towing a light trailer was set at 80 km/h, irrespective of a higher speed limit that might apply to that particular stretch of road. Also contained within those regulations was the stipulation that the laden weight of the trailer could not exceed the kerb weight of the towing vehicle.

Although the requirement not to exceed 80 km/h probably annoyed a considerable number of drivers that regularly towed a trailer, it was a safe and easy to understand practice that minimised the risk of trailer sway and instability that could result in an accident.

All that changed back in 1988 when the NSW State legislation was altered to allow a driver to tow whatever the manufacturer of the vehicle stated was acceptable. The only stipulation being that the laden weight of the trailer could not exceed the rated capacity of the towbar and tow coupling, or the rating of the vehicle, nor the maximum capacity of the trailer or the maximum rated capacity of the tyres. From that point onwards, the maximum speed requirement was brought in line with the posted maximum speed of the road on which you were travelling.

At the time the regulations changed anyone with any technical appreciation of the problems of towing, or those involved in attending a motor vehicle accident involving a trailer, could understand what prompted the alteration. The only members of the towing fraternity that openly welcomed the changes were those that hauled racecars or Jetskis to competitive events. They had always seemingly ignored the regulations, probably because they were convinced their driving skills were much higher than those of the general public. With higher speed limits officially sanctioned, they just increased their average speed to a minimum of 10 km/h above the posted maximum speed, a position they seem to have retained until the present day.

The dynamics of towing result in everything being fine if you stick by the rules. But any variation of weight, higher than recommended speed, trailer construction, tow ball downforce or sudden deviation in course can upset the best laid plans, ending the day on the road upside down in a ditch.

Start with a close inspection of your tow bar. Tow bars are restricted to a maximum weight and for many vehicles fitted with low cost towbars that means that 750 kgs – 1,000 kgs is about as far as you can go. After that level you need a heavy duty, properly rated tow bar, usually the type with a strong square section steel insert that slides into an equally solid retaining unit that locks into place by a steel pin. To determine what you have you will need to get on your hands and knees and find the rating on the bar itself.

Before heading anywhere, understand the concept that trailers of all types are not maintenance-free. Admittedly they don’t have an engine and gearboTowing-laws_10x, but they do have axles, bearings, brakes, lighting systems and towing hitches.

All these mechanical components need to be serviced regularly and definitely before any annual pilgrimage. Tyres need to be checked for condition, tread depth and pressure, bearings stripped, cleaned and regreased, lighting systems and braking systems checked. Springs and spring hanger mounting systems also need to be carefully looked over by a trained mechanic to determine if any irregular wear has taken place.

If the weight of the trailer including its load doesn’t exceed 750 kg then it doesn’t need its own integral braking system. If the total laden weight is over 750 kg but under 2,000 kg then it needs braking on both wheels on at least one axle. If its all-up weight, including the load is between 2001 kg and 4,500 kg it needs an efficient braking system on all its wheels.

Also necessary are properly mounted and secured chains to prevent the trailer heading off on its own should something horrible befall the tow bar or hitch. If the laden trailer weighs less than 2,500 kgs it needs a minimum of one chain. If it weighs between 2,500 kg and 4,500 kgs it needs two chains, and these need to be crossed over between the securing systems.

A word or two now about a vehicle and trailer combination with an overall weight of more than 4,500 kgs.

It might sound a lot, but with an average 4WD wagon weighing in at 2.3 tonnes, a triple horse float at around 2.0 tonnes, and three large horses each weighing up to 650 or 700 kgs it doesn’t take much to exceed the upper limit and remove any safety margin. The entire combination length of trailer and towing vehicle cannot exceed 19 metres.

No matter what the vehicle manufacturer recommended on the sales brochure, three big horses with a high centre of gravity, shifting on their feet in a float that’s swinging about on the end of a towbar has every likelihood of ruining someone’s day, upside down in a ditch. It only remains stable as long as the combination is driven smoothly, within acceptable speed limits and everything is properly matched.

National road rules set a maximum speed of 100km/h for a tow vehicle and caravan with a combined weight of more than 4500kg. Western Australia goes beyond the national regulations. Out west, the maximum speed limit is either 100km/h or the posted limited, whichever is less – the weight of the caravan or trailer doesn’t matter.

The National Transport Commission’s Australian Road Rules offer another reason to watch your speed, specifying that a vehicle (or combination) longer than 7.5m (24ft 7in) must not travel closer than 60m to another vehicle, or no closer than 200m outside of built-up areas.

In terms of non-built-up areas, governments may recommend caravanners in particular avoid towing in rough-road places like the Kimberley, but the choice is yours as long as you stay safe. The same goes for anywhere across the nation where you find roads not recommended for caravans – regardless of speed limits.

In addition, the Australian Road Rules advise that if the posted limit is more than 100km/h, and the vehicle and trailer have a combined Gross Vehicle Mass of more than 5,000kg, the maximum speed limit remains 100km/h.

It’s not a good policy to trust sales brochures when determining how much weight is carried in your trailer or tow vehicle. The only safe method of discovery involves doing a dummy run with the vehicle and trailer loaded as though you were heading out onto the road and then aiming for the nearest public weighbridge. This will give you the true value of overall and individual weight and how the load is distributed.

In NSW, motorhomes, campervans and caravans must be equipped with smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. Elsewhere, it’s mandatory for all caravans to have fire extinguishers and we would also suggest carrying an approved fire blanket. Remember to keep the fire blanket and extinguishers easily accessible if an emergency occurs, together with first aid kits that cover road accidents and burns.

Finally, treat yourself to a trailer proficiency driving course. Everyone will learn something and benefit from being able to practice cornering and reversing under expert guidance. If it makes sense for anyone wanting to drive a truck to hold a special licence, it follows that there’s a lot to learn for anyone wanting to tow a trailer.

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