Understanding how to maintain, hook up, load and otherwise use a trailer can be complicated. Both novice and seasoned drivers who tow equipment can make innocent mistakes that have serious consequences out on the road.
In response to concerns about a growing number of traffic accidents and a pattern of user-error in the operation of trailers, the National Association of Trailer Manufacturers (NATM) launched its first annual Trailer Safety Week in 2018.
At its core, Trailer Safety Week — hosted the first full week of June — seeks to improve the safety of the nation’s roadways by raising trailer safety awareness through education of end-users, dealers and manufacturers on safe trailer practices.
NATM, via Trailer Safety Week, has put together critical information for properly loading a trailer, as well as a pre-departure checklist, and some general driving tips. Please note, this information does not encompass every step a tower may need to take in preparing for the road. More information can be found at trailersafetyweek.com.
Loading and load securement. It is much easier to tow a properly loaded trailer, which makes reading the owner’s manual an important first step when towing a trailer. Check the owner’s manual for your tow vehicle and trailer to find information on proper weight distribution to assist with towing safety. Improperly loaded vehicles can sway or lose control more easily.
While reviewing the owner’s manual for the trailer, check to determine the trailer’s correct tongue weight. Tongue weight is the downward weight applied by the trailer to the hitch on the towing vehicle. It is imperative to know how much weight should be distributed towards the tongue or front of the trailer, as overloading or underloading the front of the trailer can lead to dangerous trailer sway. As a general rule, roughly 60 percent of the load should be in front of the trailer’s axle and 40 percent should be behind the axle but check the owner’s manual to ensure this is correct for the towed trailer.
After determining the proper tongue weight and distribution of load in the trailer, it is important to remember to balance weight as this will assist in controlling the tow vehicle and trailer itself while driving. During loading of the trailer, ensure that weight is properly distributed from the front of the trailer to the rear and also from one side of the trailer to the other. This will help ensure that the trailer does not dangerously sway while being towed.
Once your trailer is properly loaded, ensure cargo straps are being used. The cargo securement straps should be properly rated for the load they are meant to secure to help ensure cargo does not shift while towing the trailer. A good rule of thumb is one tie-down should be used for every 10 ft. of cargo, using two tie-downs to help secure any piece of cargo regardless of length. Tie-downs should be secured lower on the trailer when possible, not near top rails. Also, remember that an enclosed trailer may not be sufficient by itself to secure your cargo. Additional securement straps will likely be needed to keep your load contained.
Pre-departure checklist. Prior to departure, it is important to inspect the trailer and towing vehicle. The following items should all be reviewed to help ensure your safety while towing a trailer:
- Tire pressure should be checked and corrected as necessary on the tow vehicle and trailer, including spares.
- Wheel lug nuts/bolts on the tow vehicle and trailer should be tightened to the correct torque.
- The hitch, coupler, draw bar and other equipment that connect the trailer and tow vehicle are properly secured and adjusted.
- Safety chains should be properly crisscrossed and connected, not touching the road but with enough slack to make turns.
- Wiring should be properly connected between the tow vehicle and trailer, not touching the road but loose enough to ensure turns can be made without disconnecting or damaging the wires.
- Ensure all running lights, brake lights, turn signals and hazard lights are functioning.
- Verify that brakes are working on both the tow vehicle and trailer.
- The breakaway system lanyard should be connected to the tow vehicle but not the safety chains or ball mount.
- All items should be securely fastened on and in the trailer.
- The trailer jack, tongue support and any attached stabilizers should be raised and locked in place.
- Ensure the load distribution in the towing vehicle and trailer are properly balanced.
- Check to ensure you have good visibility from the towing vehicle’s side and rear-view mirrors.
- Check to ensure routes and any restrictions that might exist on bridges and tunnels.
- Make sure you have wheel chocks and jack stands.
Driving tips. When driving the trailer, slow down and increase following distances between the tow vehicle and the vehicle in front of you. Many states have a 55-mph speed limit when towing. For trailers with brakes installed, the combination of a trailer and tow vehicle will still take longer to stop than a tow vehicle would require on its own. Similarly, even smaller trailers that do not require brakes will require longer stopping distances than a towing vehicle by itself. Ensure you are providing enough time and distance to safely stop your vehicle. For following distances, a general rule of thumb is at least a 325-ft. gap — about five seconds — between your vehicle and the vehicle or obstacle in front of you. Keep in mind that prolonged use of brakes can cause overheating and loss of brake effectiveness. Giving yourself plenty of space to respond should help prevent frequent or hard braking.
The turning radius of the tow vehicle will increase with a trailer attached. Be sure to swing the tow vehicle wider and give yourself room for curbs, corners or other obstacles on the inside corner. Hauling a trailer causes additional force to be placed on the towing vehicle when turning. It is important to slow down when turning to help mitigate the chances of the towing vehicle or trailer tipping over. In the event the trailer begins to sway, do not attempt to control sway by turning the steering wheel, as this will only make the sway worse. The best course of action is to not touch the accelerator or brakes, steer straight and wait, any acceleration or deceleration can cause the swaying to worsen.
If possible, when backing up, have another individual acting as a spotter to assist with blind spots. Remember that the trailer will move in the opposite direction of the tow vehicle when backing up. The best method is to hold the bottom of the steering wheel. To turn left you move your hand to the left and to turn right you move your hand to the right. If it feels like the trailer has turned too far or is beginning to jackknife, pull forward and start again.
When parking your trailer, avoid parking on slopes, have blocks ready if possible to hold the trailer tires in place and apply your parking brake. If the trailer will be unhitched, unload the cargo first and then make sure any safety chains and electrical plugs/pins are disconnected.
This article was contributed by the staff at NATM. For more resources and to get involved, visit trailersafetyweek.com.