Read this before you take off on your next RV adventure …
We all want to think we are safe when we’re towing our caravan to that next holiday destination, but the harsh reality is the vast majority of those on the road towing big loads are scarcely qualified to do so. The number of caravan roll-overs that feature heavily on social media only seems to strengthen the argument. The sad fact is anyone with a car licence can walk into a caravan dealership and drive away with potentially 3500kg in tow, and there’s no prior requirement to demonstrate any capability to do so.
In the Practical Guide to Modern Towing, we’ve given you lots of great information about how to set up your rig so that it is safe on the road. In this chapter, we want to give you some advice and tips on safe towing as well as what to do in an emergency. These are actions that may one day save your life.
Safe towing starts before you’ve even hitched up. In fact, it starts before you’ve handed over your hard-earned cash in exchange for a caravan or tow vehicle. Think about how many rigs you’ve seen on the road that simply look wrong. The old adage of the tail wagging the dog couldn’t be a more appropriate description of many rigs out there. Buying a good, sturdy tow vehicle and matching it to a well-designed trailer will form the basis of a stable rig that is controllable, even if the proverbial hits the fan.
Once you’ve got your rig, it’s time to set it up to be as safe and stable as possible. Your rig will likely be as heavy as it can be when you’re all set up for a long journey. Your tyres will be under extreme stress keeping all that load on the road, and chances are, they will be under-inflated for the task. Talk to your tyre specialist about what pressures they should be at for carrying heavy loads.
Big caravans put a lot of weight on the towball of the tow vehicle. This weight acts like a heavy playmate on the opposite end of a see-saw, taking weight off the front wheels. This can have a serious effect on the steering and handling of the tow vehicle. A properly set-up weight distribution hitch will, as the name suggests, redistribute the weight back onto the front of the tow vehicle, restoring balance and steering. If your tow rig looks V-shaped, there’s a good chance you will need a weight distribution hitch.
If you’re towing a heavy caravan, it’s likely you will also need an electronic brake controller fitted to the tow vehicle. This is not the time you want to shop around for the bargain of the week on eBay. You will want the very best controller on the market and, in this instance, that will be a brand-name proportional brake controller. These clever devices apply braking force on the trailer proportional to the braking effort on the tow vehicle. The harder you press down on the car’s brakes, the harder the trailer brakes bite. Buy a good unit and make sure you have it installed by a professional.
While we’re on the subject of brakes, it is essential you have the brakes on your caravan serviced and adjusted regularly. At the very least, they should be inspected by a qualified caravan service technician every 20,000km. While they are at it, get them to inspect the bearings, the axles and the suspension. Check your wheel nuts regularly.
Another vitally important piece of equipment that is often overlooked is a good set of towing mirrors. Sadly, many drivers seem to think this requirement doesn’t apply to them and they choose not to fit them. These mirrors give you vital vision down along the sides of your caravan that you simply cannot see with the car’s standard mirrors. If your caravan is a standard width of around 2.5 metres, chances are you will need to fit extension mirrors.
It’s a good idea to fit a UHF CB radio to your tow rig but only if you intend to use it. I cannot believe how many caravans have the owners’ name on the back indicating they are monitoring Channel 40 and when we call them, they don’t answer. Having the UHF radio on allows you to monitor traffic situations, be warned of approaching oversized loads, and converse with truck drivers who may need to pass you.
Now that you’ve got your rig all set and ready to hit the road, it’s time to consider you as the driver. I’ve been instructing drivers for the last 20 years and I can tell you that 95 percent all have one potentially fatal habit: their vision is focused no more than five metres in front of the bonnet of their car. They are blind to anything heading their way from a distance that could ensure they have sufficient time to react safely. You can improve your driving skills just by looking further ahead. A good practice is to scan up along the left edge of the road up as far as you can see to the horizon, then scan your vision back down the right-hand side of the road. Check all your mirrors in sequence and start the scanning process again. This will ensure you have complete situational awareness of everything in front and behind you at all times. You will also find that your driving will be smoother and you may well improve fuel economy to boot.
Now, even the world’s best driver cannot control the actions of those around him/her. Unfortunately towing a caravan seems to bring out the worst in other drivers around us. They will do all sorts of stupid manoeuvres to get ahead of you. And don’t be fooled into thinking that by driving at the speed limit it will change anything. As far as most drivers on the road are concerned, caravans are a scourge and no one wants to get stuck behind one.
I look at every other driver around me and anticipate that they are completely hopeless and will do the wrong thing. By doing this, I allow sufficient distance between me and everyone else so that, if they do something dangerous, I’m prepared for it and can react to it calmly and with plenty of space in reserve. Never expect people to give way when they should, such as at roundabouts and traffic lights. Always proceed with caution, ready to take evasive action. There’s no point trying to enforce your position on the road when all it will do is end in disaster.
Choosing the correct speed to drive at with a caravan in tow is also essential for safe towing. Don’t be bullied into thinking that you MUST travel at or above the speed limit. Contrary to popular belief, there is NO LEGAL REQUIREMENT to drive at the speed limit. You must drive at a speed that you feel is comfortable and safe according to the conditions. As a general rule, I tend to drive between 5-10km/h below the posted speed limit. This gives me a comfortable margin for error and it allows others to overtake me without them having to resort to warp speed.
Having said that, I would not like to drive at speeds much lower than 15km/h below the posted speed limit. Apart from causing extreme frustration to other drivers behind you, you could actually be a danger to others, especially on freeways and motorways. If you are not confident driving your rig at these speeds, you must educate yourself by doing a proper towing course. If your rig feels unstable at these sorts of speeds, have it inspected by a mechanic immediately.
Now, regardless of how well-prepared and skilled a driver you are, one day, you will have to face the worst possible situation and what you do in those first few seconds will literally determine if you survive unscathed. Trust me on this, you will encounter dangerous, life-threatening situations more often than you would ever think likely.
If your trailer gets the wobbles, lift your foot off the accelerator and apply the trailer’s over-ride brakes. This simple action does two things. Firstly, it removes energy from a situation where energy is feeding momentum. Secondly, it reduces speed with braking bias from the rear of the rig, pulling it into line. Many so-called experts suggest slamming on the accelerator to pull the rig out of the sway, but this will only put more energy into a situation with too much in it already. What’s more, most tow vehicles are towing loads at the limit of their capabilities and putting the foot down would probably have little if any of the desired effect.
Another suggestion is, when driving on high-speed roads, put your brake controller onto its highest setting. When you hit the brakes, the trailer brakes will bite hard and this will pull the whole rig straight very quickly. Just remember to return the controller to a lower setting when you return to roads where the going is slower.
Safe towing is as much about your preparation and attitude on the road as it is about being able to react to an emergency situation. Safe travels.