What's the safest way to brake when I'm towing?

Gimme a Brake!

Trailer brakes are often activated in tandem with the tow vehicle's brakes.
Trailer brakes are often activated in tandem with the tow vehicle's brakes.
Phil Banko/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Trailers can have a couple of different kinds of brakes, especially for heavier payloads, and these brakes are often required by law. When your goal is to achieve the safest possible braking experience, trailer brakes are definitely recommended -- the more the merrier.

Trailer brakes generally fall into two categories:

  • Electric brakes are basically the same as the brakes you'll find in the tow vehicle. They're usually disc brakes or drum brakes -- the key is that they're electrically activated by the driver of the tow vehicle. Wiring from the tow vehicle's electrical system runs through a controller located between the two vehicles and signals the brakes of the trailer as needed. The driver can manually activate the electric brakes -- say if the trailer begins to sway -- or the brakes can be set to function automatically, typically operating in one of two ways:
  • In one setup, the brakes are set to react to the driver's brake pedal with a slight delay, and with a predetermined level of stopping action. That level is set according to the weight of the trailer. These systems are often more user-friendly and are usually cheaper.
  • In another system, the brakes of the trailer automatically mimic the actions of the brakes in the tow vehicle. This makes for a smoother brake and can be very helpful when you need to make an emergency stop.
  • Hydraulic surge brakes are not specifically driver-controlled; they kick into effect automatically whenever the driver slows the tow vehicle. This happens because of inertia, with the surge brakes working hydraulically through the hitch. As the tow vehicle slows, the trailer presses harder against the hitch and compresses the braking actuator. The more the tow vehicle decelerates, the more stopping power the surge brakes generate.

On the next page, we'll go over a few practices that can greatly improve your braking and increase the safety of the towing experience.