Top 10 Towing Risks to Keep in Mind

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Maybe you've just bought a boat and you want to take it out on the lake. Or perhaps you're preparing to move to a new city and you need to rent a trailer to carry your belongings. Or you may want to take your family on a cross country trip in an RV and tow a second vehicle behind you for sightseeing trips. These are just a few reasons why you might need or want to tow something behind your vehicle.

Towing can come with some risks. Careful drivers and consumers can minimize those risks and make their experience much less stressful. We're going to look at 10 risks associated with towing and how drivers should approach each one to keep themselves and their property safe.

If you're new to towing, you should find the time and place to practice common maneuvers. An empty parking lot is an ideal practice location. You'll need to learn how your setup handles during turns, braking, backing up and other situations before you hit the road. A practice session might also clue you in if something isn't working properly. You may also want to practice working with a partner for tasks like parking and making tight turns. It's a good idea to work out a series of hand signals to make communication easier.

It's also very important to research the laws of the areas through which you will be driving. In the United States, each state has its own set of laws regarding towing procedures and equipment. Before hitting the road, you should check to make sure your vehicle meets legal specifications. Otherwise, you could risk a run in with the law.

Your insurance company may also have regulations they expect you to follow when towing a vehicle. Take time to research this information, too -- if you violate any rules your insurance company may refuse to provide coverage if something goes wrong.

Some of the scenarios we'll look at in this article can cause even experienced drivers to have a serious accident. You can prevent most of them from happening to you with a combination of practice, focus and attention to detail. While there are always risks associated with towing, with the right attitude and preparation you can overcome them.

We'll start by looking at a basic risk: using the wrong equipment.

Mismatched Equipment
Make sure your equipment is in good working condition before you take a trip.
Make sure your equipment is in good working condition before you take a trip.

Whenever you tow anything, it's important to use the right equipment. If the equipment you use doesn't match up correctly, you could have serious problems on the road. Here are a few tips to make sure you're in good shape:

  1. Consult the owner's manual for your vehicle and see how much weight it can tow safely. Don't exceed this weight. Remember to take into account the weight of the towing rig itself. Pulling a heavier load can increase your risk of accidents as well as cause damage to your vehicle.
  2. When using a trailer hitch and coupler, be sure the parts fit together correctly. If you use a coupler that doesn't fit the ball on the end of your trailer hitch, the trailer won't remain stable during towing. Also check that your equipment is in good working order.
  3. Make sure the trailer is level. When using a tow bar to tow another vehicle, check to see if the tow bar is parallel to the ground. If the tow bar or trailer is at an angle, you could have problems when braking. Braking suddenly can result in jackknifing or other accidents.
  4. Be sure that your vehicle's trailer braking system is compatible with the trailer you're using. Trailer brakes are very important and can help reduce the risk of trailer sway.
  5. Never use a tow rope or tow strap for extended towing. Tow ropes are good for emergency use, such as pulling a vehicle out of a ditch, but they aren't appropriate for extensive towing. You can use a tow strap to pull a vehicle a few miles -- such as to a nearby mechanic -- but you shouldn't rely on one for a longer drive. Straps and ropes can fray and snap if you use them inappropriately.

Next, we'll learn about how visibility plays a role in towing safety.

Limited Visibility
An unbalanced load on the road can be dangerous.
An unbalanced load on the road can be dangerous.
Matthew Porter/iStockphoto

Before you hit the road, you should consider the length, width and height of what you're towing. Increasing your overall vehicle's size impacts visibility. Visibility plays a pivotal role in basic maneuvers such as backing up towed vehicles, making turns and changing lanes.

Many companies offer towing mirrors, which either replace or attach to a vehicle's existing side-view mirrors. Extended mirrors are particularly useful if the load you are towing is wider than your vehicle. Without extended mirrors, you won't be able to see traffic approaching from the side or the rear.

For some maneuvers, you might also want to have a partner act as a spotter to help guide you. Working with another person can take some of the stress out of tasks like backing into a parking space or launching a boat. Using pre-arranged hand signals is a great way to communicate -- it decreases the risk of misinterpreting directions. If there are other drivers in the area, it will also help prevent confusion.

Now let's learn about accelerating and passing other vehicles while towing.


Accelerating and Speeding
If you need to use a jack to support a trailer, make sure it's designed to hold the weight.
If you need to use a jack to support a trailer, make sure it's designed to hold the weight.
Dan Driedger/iStockphoto

When you're towing a load, your vehicle has more mass. That means you have to handle a vehicle that has a greater amount of momentum and inertia than normal. Momentum simply 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 a 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.

What this means for you is that your vehicle will have to work harder to accelerate when you're towing. If you use the same amount of energy as you would to accelerate your vehicle under normal conditions, it will take more time to get up to speed. This becomes important to understand when you need to merge onto a highway or if you need to pass another vehicle.

Passing a vehicle while towing a load requires a steady hand and focus. Remember, your vehicle's length (and possibly width) are greater than normal. Before passing another vehicle, you should signal much earlier than normal. This will alert other drivers of your intentions. After passing the vehicle, remember to take the length of the trailer (or towed vehicle) into account before pulling back into the lane.

Speeding while towing can damage your vehicle and your trailer. Avoid accelerating down hills -- you may find your vehicle more difficult to control at the bottom of the hill. It's also harder to handle your vehicle at faster speeds should something go wrong. You should avoid driving too quickly down roads with lots of bumps. If you go too fast, you could risk a serious accident -- the trailer could flip or skid, causing you to lose control of your vehicle.

Even the most basic maneuvers can become difficult when you're towing. Next, we'll look at what you should be aware of when you make a turn.

If you find normal maneuvers while towing to be challenging, be extra careful when trying something like this.
If you find normal maneuvers while towing to be challenging, be extra careful when trying something like this.
Barry Crossley/iStockphoto

When towing a load that has a wider wheel base than your towing vehicle, you'll need to remember to make wider turns at corners and curves. That's because the wheels of the trailer (or towed vehicle) will be closer to the inside of the turn than your own vehicle's wheels. If you aren't careful, the trailer can hit curbs, signs or other items adjacent to the road. This can cause damage to the trailer, the trailer's tires and axle.

You should also take sharper turns gradually. Taking a turn too fast can strain your towing equipment. It also runs the risk of causing the trailer to flip over or to begin to sway. Simply slowing down and taking the turn carefully can reduce these risks significantly.

Turning isn't completely dependent upon technique. Your equipment will also have an impact on how well you can make turns. For example, if the trailer tongue -- the part that extends from the trailer to connect to your vehicle's trailer hitch -- is too long, it will be more difficult to make turns without rolling over the curbs. If the safety chains that secure your trailer to your vehicle don't have enough slack, they'll restrict your ability to turn at all.

Another very basic maneuver is simply coming to a stop. What do you need to know before you tap the brakes? Find out in the next section.

Be careful driving on bumpy roads.
Be careful driving on bumpy roads.
Marcus Lindström/iStockphoto

Because towing a load means your vehicle has more inertia and momentum, your vehicle's brakes have to work harder to bring you to a stop. Some trailers come equipped with their own brakes. These brake systems connect to your vehicle, which should have a trailer brake control on the driver's console. Using a trailer's brake system in conjunction with your own vehicle's brakes will mean less wear and tear for your vehicle.

Whether the towed load has its own brake system or not, it's important to remember that the added mass means you'll need more space to come to a stop than normal. Give yourself plenty of space when slowing or stopping -- don't assume you can stop in the same amount of time and distance as you can when you're not towing anything.

When applying your brakes, it's best to use light, gradual pressure. Otherwise, you could risk jackknifing or skidding. Because your brakes have to work harder to slow down the heavy load, you can wear through them quickly or overheat them by using too much pressure. By giving yourself more time to slow down, you reduce the amount of work your brakes have to do.

You should also use your brakes periodically when traveling down hills. This will help keep your speed at the appropriate level. It's better to apply your brakes in short, light intervals than to wait until you get to the bottom of the hill. Downshifting to a lower gear will help you control your speed, too.

A critical element of towing safety is making sure your equipment is up to the task. Learn more about towing and tire pressure in the next section.

Tire Pressure and Blowouts
Trailers come in all shapes and sizes.
Trailers come in all shapes and sizes.
Daniel Mirer/iStockphoto

Before you set out on any trip, it's always a good idea to check your tires first. This is particularly important when you are towing a trailer or another vehicle. Consult your owner's manuals (or rental information if you've rented a trailer) and make sure all of your tires have the right tire pressure. Under-inflated tires can be hazardous. Think of it this way: Every tire on the road is another potential blowout. Preventative maintenance might mean the difference between a pleasant trip and a major accident.

Blowouts are always serious problems, but when you're towing a load they become even more dangerous. An unstable tow load can flip over, causing the tow vehicle to lose control and crash or roll.If you do experience a blowout while on the road, the key is not to panic, pull out of the way of traffic and slow down gradually.

Changing a tire on most trailers is identical to changing one on a car. You'll need a jack strong enough to lift the trailer. You should use a wedge to chock the wheel on the opposite side of the trailer. It's also a good idea to loosen the lug nuts before jacking up the trailer. With the trailer jacked up, remove the damaged tire and replace it with a spare. Replace and hand-tighten the lug nuts, lower the trailer down to the ground, use a wrench to tighten the lug nuts and remove the wedge on the other side of the trailer.

What if your vehicle isn't rated for towing, or if you need to tow more than your vehicle's manufacturer recommends? We'll take a look at tow loads and ratings next.

Vehicle Not Rated for Towing
Be careful not to overload your trailer.
Be careful not to overload your trailer.
Harald Tjøstheim/iStockphoto

It shouldn't come as a surprise to find out that not every vehicle can tow a load behind it safely. While there are trailer hitches on the market that can fit cars, trucks and SUVs that aren't designed to tow a load, it's probably not a good idea to rely on them too often. If your vehicle isn't rated for towing, attempting to tow something behind it might cause serious damage. Your vehicle's suspension, brake system, engine and transmission might not be able to handle the strain.

Even tow-rated vehicles have their limits. Each manufacturer lists the load weight their vehicles can tow safely. Towing gear, like hitches, couplers and trailers, also have load limits. Exceeding these limits is unwise -- it can cause damage to the equipment and can increase the risk of accidents. The heavier the load, the more difficult it is to control the towing vehicle.­

If you need to tow something that exceeds your vehicle's rated load limit, consider renting a vehicle with a greater load limit. If you're moving equipment in a trailer, you may need to make multiple trips. While that may take some of the convenience out of towing, safety should always be a primary concern.

Next, we'll learn about an issue that is very dangerous but one you can correct easily in many cases: unbalanced loads.

Unbalanced Loads
The results from this jackknifed trailer aren't pretty -- in fact, they're fishy.
The results from this jackknifed trailer aren't pretty -- in fact, they're fishy.
Phil Walter/Getty Images

Before you tow a trailer, you need to balance the tow load properly. Try to place heavier objects toward the front of the trailer (closest to the tow vehicle and ahead of the trailer's axle). This will help reduce the risk of trailer sway and fishtailing. If you overload the rear of the trailer, you could damage the trailer -- possibly even breaking its axle.

You should also make sure that you distribute the weight equally on either side of the trailer. Unbalanced trailer loads can create major problems on the road. Turning while towing an unbalanced load can result in an overturned trailer.

Keep an eye on your trailer while you drive. If you begin to notice it swaying or if you can feel it resisting turns, you may need to stop and rebalance the load. Fortunately, an unbalanced load is fairly easy to fix -- you just shift items around inside the trailer.

Unbalanced loads are dangerous even if you're not on the road. Simply unhitching the trailer from your tow vehicle can be risky. If there's too much weight in the back of the trailer, uncoupling the trailer from the tow vehicle can cause the tongue to rise up quickly. If you're in the way, the tongue might injure you. To prevent this from happening, you should position jack stands at the rear of the trailer before uncoupling it from the tow vehicle.

What do you need to know before you tow another vehicle behind your own? Find out in the next section.

Damaging a Towed Car
You should never ride inside (or outside) a towed trailer.
You should never ride inside (or outside) a towed trailer.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

There are many reasons you might need or want to tow a car behind a vehicle like an RV. There are three main options when towing a car with another vehicle. You could:

  • Use a tow bar to pull the car "four-wheels-down," also known as a flat tow
  • Use a tow dolly, which means only the car's rear wheels touch the road
  • Use a tow trailer, which carries the entire car "four-wheels-up"

If you use a tow trailer, you don't have to worry about damaging the towed car's transmission. Trailers also minimize the wear and tear on the towed car's tires. But trailers take up a lot of room and aren't as convenient as a tow bar when you just want to hop in the car and go sightseeing.

Before you use a tow bar, make sure the towed vehicle can travel four wheels down safely. Not all cars can travel four wheels down without suffering transmission damage. According to tow company Remco, any front-wheel-drive vehicle with a manual transmission is safe for towing four-wheels-down. The company suggests owners ask manufacturers if towing a specific vehicle four wheels down is safe and to get the answer in writing [source: Remco]. Cars with an automatic transmission may require a lube pump before they can be towed safely. And you may have to disconnect the driveshaft of a rear-wheel drive vehicle before flat-towing it.

Tow dollies can also damage a car if you don't take the proper precautions. If your car has rear-wheel, four-wheel or all-wheel drive, you may need to disconnect and remove your car's drive shaft prior to using a tow dolly. You should never attempt to back up with a tow dolly attached to your towing vehicle -- the risk of jackknifing is too great.

Finally, we'll look at the biggest risk you'll encounter when you're towing: trailer sway.

You don't want to risk your trailer ending up like this one.
You don't want to risk your trailer ending up like this one.
Derek Abbott/iStockphoto

We've mentioned it a few times in this article already, but trailer sway deserves its own section. Many things can cause a trailer to sway: Getting hit with a gust of wind, making a sharp turn, driving too fast or carrying an unbalanced load are just a few situations that might cause a sway problem. If a trailer is carrying a heavy load, the swaying can cause the tow vehicle's driver to lose control. The swaying trailer can rock the tow vehicle and cause a serious accident. In several incidents, a swaying trailer caused the tow vehicle driver to lose control to the point that both the trailer and tow vehicle rolled over.

A big part of the problem is that once a trailer begins to sway, it can be very difficult to make it stop swaying. Even an experienced driver can have problems getting a swaying trailer under control. To make matters worse, many drivers will try to regain control using their own vehicles' steering or brakes. Unfortunately, that usually contributes to more swaying.

It's best to take every step you can to avoid swaying in the first place. That means you should tow a balanced load, drive at a cautious speed (particularly downhill) and pay attention to the way your trailer behaves as you drive. If you detect swaying early, it's much easier to deal with the problem. If the trailer has brakes, you should use them to get the swaying under control. Don't use your tow vehicle's brakes, and don't try to steer out of the swaying pattern. After regaining control, keep an eye on the trailer. Should your trailer begin swaying again, you should find a place to pull over so that you can inspect it.

If the trailer doesn't have its own brakes, you should slow down by letting your foot off the gas pedal. If you do need to use your brakes, tap them lightly. Pressing too hard could cause the trailer to jackknife. You'll want to move off the road as soon as you can. Remember that you shouldn't attempt to compensate for the swaying through steering -- you may only make the problem worse.

In many cases, you can reduce swaying by redistributing the load in the trailer. Make sure that the heavier items are in front of the trailer's axle. By putting more of the weight toward the front of the trailer, you'll improve the trailer's ability to handle the road. You can also purchase equipment designed to reduce sway -- this equipment can help stabilize a trailer by providing resistance against swaying.

While the risks of towing are real, they're not insurmountable. With the right preparation and approach, you can tow with confidence.

To learn more about towing and other related topics, take a look at the links on the following page.

Gear Ratio and Tire Size Chart

A gear ratio and tire size chart is essential to making your vehicle efficient. Check out this comprehensive gear ratio and tire size chart from HowStuffWorks.

Related Articles


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