How Car Towing Regulations Work

By: Josh Clark

Car Towing Regulations by State

You found the perfect-sized trailer for your tiny car, sure, but did you purchase breakaway brakes for it as well?
You found the perfect-sized trailer for your tiny car, sure, but did you purchase breakaway brakes for it as well?
Tim McCaig/iStockPhoto

When you're towing a car across the purple mountains majesty and fruited plains of America -- or if you plan on heading toward the Big Apple -- you'd better slow your roll before you take off. In an unusual gesture of federalism, the U.S. government left it to the states to decide what restrictions they'd place on trailer towing.

It may seem a bit piecemeal to have different regulations across different states regarding car towing, but some states take stronger precautions against accidents than others. For example, most states require that the trailer towing your car have breakaway brakes. These are electronic systems triggered in case the car in tow suddenly becomes detached. This can be a thorny situation; one minute you're driving normally, your driverless car's careening wildly in high-speed traffic the next. Breakaway brakes lock the towed vehicle's brakes if it becomes detached, and most systems keep the brakes locked for 15 minutes, which manufacturers hope is enough time for you to realize your car's no longer in tow and to retrieve your wayward auto.


­It's understandable why most states require that a car in tow have this added safety feature attached during transit. There isn't a state in the union that doesn't require breakaway brakes, but some states simply don't specify either way (which could, arguably, make a good case in court if you're caught without them). This discrepancy reveals a common theme: It's better to be safe than sorry. Not having breakaway brakes could put you in a terrible pickle if your car becomes detached, and since most states require them, it's a good idea to err on the side of caution.

You probably could have guessed that most states require safety measures like breakaway brakes, but what about more nuanced distinctions in regulations among the different states? Even before you purchase a trailer for car towing -- especially if you plan on interstate towing -- it's a good idea to get a look at the various state restrictions and requirements. For example, many states specify a maximum trailer height of 14 feet; others, 13 1/2 feet. So, if you're traveling through Georgia with your 14-feet-tall trailer, you may end up with a citation. Ultimately, it may be a better choice to purchase one that meets the maximum restriction for the state with the strictest standards. This holds true not just for height, but for other dimensions and safety devices as well.

You should also familiarize yourself with the varying driving restrictions in different states. The maximum speed for a vehicle with a car in tow is the posted speed limit in most states; in others it's lower and may depend on the towing weight of the trailer. Some states also require different license classes for drivers with vehicles in tow. This may warrant you taking an additional test through your state's department of motor vehicles. You can find links to sites that display the towing laws for all 50 states on the LMI page.

Think you're ready to go? Think again. You're going to want to take a closer look at your auto insurance first. Read about insurance for car towing on the next page.