The truth about flat towing behind an RV (part one)

ByRV DailyMay 29, 2020
9 MINUTE READ
The truth about flat towing behind an RV (part one)

We’ve put together a comprehensive guide to answer ALL your questions, to ensure you’re armed with the truth about flat towing behind an RV

Many a road user has raised their fist to grumble at a car that appears to be following an RV way too closely, only to realise the alleged tailgater is being towed on its wheels. If you’ve ever considered doing it yourself, you’ll realise that flat towing draws strong opinions when the subject is raised. Flat towing offers many benefits but before I get into why you might choose to flat tow over other alternatives and the best vehicles to tow, I will explain what flat towing is and settle the debate about its legality across Australia’s states and territories.

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WHAT IS FLAT TOWING?
In simple terms, ‘flat’ or ‘A-Frame’ towing refers to towing a vehicle with all wheels on the ground via a triangle or ‘A’ shaped frame that connects the tow vehicle’s towbar to the front of the towed vehicle’s structural frame. The A-Frame is typically short, and the two vehicles close together. Not all cars support flat towing, but more on that later. Here’s a bit of trivia for you; the towed vehicle is commonly referred to as a toad. Hopefully, you still find a Prince Charming among the options!

IS FLAT TOWING LEGAL IN AUSTRALIA?
Yes, flat towing with an A-Frame is legal in every state and territory of Australia. The rules about flat towing vary slightly between the states and territories, because this is Australia, and it would be far too simple to have a universal system *rolls eyes*. In all cases, the A-Frame and associated components must comply with Australian Design Rule (ADR) 62 Mechanical Connections between Vehicles, but the rules on engineering sign-off and operating the towed vehicle’s brakes vary, and NSW/ACT rules are substantially different to the rest of the states and territories.

HERE ARE SOME USEFUL DEFINITIONS BEFORE WE START:

The maximum a rigid vehicle can weigh including its own weight and payload; accessories, cargo, fuel, driver and passengers. The tow vehicle and towed vehicle each have their own separate GVM.

Note: You won’t have a driver or passengers in the towed vehicle, but don’t think about loading it to the hilt as you may exceed the towed vehicle’s GVM, A-Frame and tow vehicle towbar ratings, the tow vehicle’s maximum tow rating, and the GCM of the combined set-up. It’s just not worth it and your insurance companies are likely to take a dim view in the event of a claim.

Gross Combination Mass (GCM):
The GVMs of the tow vehicle and towed vehicle plus A-Frame set-up combined; must not exceed the manufacturer of the tow vehicle’s maximum GCM.

Unladen mass:
A vehicle’s weight with fluids in a condition ready to drive with minimal fuel, but without any payload (accessories, cargo, driver* and passengers). Otherwise known as Tare weight. *varies between manufacturers.

Laden mass:
Refers to fully laden in this context. See GVM definition.

3.5:1 tow mass ratio as it applies to braking:
The 3.5:1 tow mass ratio applies if you plan to tow an un-braked vehicle.

  • If the unladen mass of the tow vehicle exceeds 3.5 times the laden mass of the towed vehicle, the driver does not need control of the towed vehicle’s brakes from the tow vehicle (with exceptions – see info below).
  • If the unladen mass of the tow vehicle is less than 3.5 times the laden mass of the towed vehicle, the driver must have control of the towed vehicle’s brakes from the driver’s seat of the tow vehicle (with exceptions – see info below).

The following table highlights rules for flat towing a vehicle up to 4500kg GVM, current at December 2019. You should always check with your road authority for the most current rules and call them directly if you don’t understand your obligations.

Note: Unless otherwise required (NSW is the exception), all states and territories accept cable/manual override brakes at a minimum when brakes are required. However, in many cases, electric brakes are a better choice. Speak with an expert to determine the best brakes for your proposed set-up based on the size and weights of both vehicles.

RULES FOR FLAT TOWING A VEHICLE UP TO 4500KG GVM IN AUSTRALIA (DECEMBER 2019)

STATE: NEW SOUTH WALES

Link to state rules

Engineering:

  • An engineering certificate is required from an RTA recognised engineering signatory. The certificate must cover the towing and towed vehicle, the A-Frame and braking system.
  • The certificate and associated checklist must be kept in the vehicle combination at all times and presented when requested.

Lengths:

  • The overall vehicle combination must not exceed 19m total length.
  • The space between the vehicles must not exceed 4m.

Brakes:

  • Towed vehicles above 750kg GVM must be braked, anything over 2000kg GVM must be braked with electric brakes that can be activated from the driver’s seat of the towed vehicle.
  • This is a NSW-only law and the 3.5:1 tow mass ratio of other states does not apply.

Safety:

  • There are specific rules regarding safety chains, cables and emergency breakaway systems.
  • Lights must operate in unison on the towing and towed vehicle (e.g. indicators, taillights, brake lights, reverse lights, numberplate lights, etc.)

Signage:

  • Vehicle combinations under 7.5m must display a ‘VEHICLE UNDER TOW’ sign, additionally, vehicle combinations over 7.5m must add ‘DO NOT OVERTAKE TURNING VEHICLE’.

STATE: NORTHERN TERRITORY

Link to state rules

Engineering:

  • See note regarding mass tow ratio and engineering approval.
  • The information bulletin, any reports, approvals or other documentation is recommended to be carried in the vehicle at all times.

Lengths:

  • The overall vehicle combination must not exceed 19m total length.
  • The space between the vehicles must not exceed 2m.

Brakes:

  • 5:1 tow mass ratio applies if you plan to tow unbraked.
  • Contact the Motor Vehicle Registry (MVR) or an MVR recognised engineering signatory if this is the case.

 Safety:

  • There are specific rules regarding safety chains and cables.
  • Lights must operate in unison on the towing and towed vehicle (e.g. indicators, taillights, brake lights, reverse lights, numberplate lights, etc.)

Signage:

  • Not mandatory.

STATE: QUEENSLAND

Link to state rules

Engineering:

  • Persons wishing to undertake A-Frame towing should seek advice from an ‘Approved Engineer’ to ensure that the A-Frame device that is intended for use meets the standards set out further in the guide.

Lengths:

  • The overall vehicle combination must not exceed 19m total length.
  • The space between the vehicles must not exceed 2m (unless certain requirements of the Transport Operations (Road Use Management—Road Rules) Regulation 2009 are met and then it may be up to 4m).

Brakes:

  • 5:1 tow mass ratio applies if you plan to tow unbraked.

Safety:

  • There are specific rules regarding safety chains and cables.
  • Lights must operate in unison on the towing and towed vehicle (e.g. indicators, taillights, brake lights, reverse lights, numberplate lights, etc.)

Signage:

  • Not mandatory.

Other:

  • The base plate on the towed vehicle should not adversely affect its ADR compliance, especially occupant protection standards such as ADR 69 and ADR 73. Particular attention should also be paid to any effect on the crush zone and the vehicle’s ANCAP safety rating, if available.

STATE: SOUTH AUSTRALIA

Link to state rules

Engineering:

  • Persons wishing to undertake A-Frame towing may need to seek advice from a recognised engineering signatory or a chartered professional engineer to ensure that the A-Frame device meets the technical requirements of the fact sheet.
  • The fact sheet, any reports, approvals or other documentation is recommended to be carried in the vehicle at all times.

Lengths:

  • The overall vehicle combination must not exceed 19m total length.
  • The space between the vehicles must not exceed 2m.

 Brakes:

  • Setups must exceed 3.5:1 tow mass ratio.
  • The standards do not mention accepting a setup where the unladen mass of the tow vehicle is less than 3.5 times the laden mass of the towed vehicle, with or without brakes. Contact Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure (DPTI) directly to confirm.

Safety:

  • There are specific rules regarding safety chains and cables.
  • Lights must operate in unison on the towing and towed vehicle (e.g. indicators, taillights, brake lights, reverse lights, numberplate lights, etc.)

 Signage:

  • Not mandatory.

STATE: TASMANIA

Link to state rules

Engineering:

  • Certification by an Approved Vehicle Certifier and a modification plate is only required on custom or home-made A-Frames. Proprietary A-Frames compliant with ADR 62 do not require certification.

Lengths:

  • The overall vehicle combination must not exceed 19m total length.
  • The space between the vehicles must not exceed 4m (over 2m a distinctive brightly coloured warning device at least 300mm square must be fitted at the mid-way point of the A-Frame and visible from either side).

 Brakes:

  • 5:1 tow mass ratio applies if you plan to tow unbraked.
  • However, if the towed vehicle’s GVM is more than the manufacturer of the tow vehicle’s maximum unbraked towing capacity, the driver must have control of the towed vehicle’s brakes from the driver’s seat of the tow vehicle.
  • The standards do not mention accepting a set-up where the unladen mass of the tow vehicle is less than 3.5 times the laden mass of the towed vehicle, with or without brakes. Contact Department of State Growth Transport directly to confirm.
  • I have it on good authority that the rules are being re-written for TAS. Watch this space.

 Safety:

  • Lights must operate in unison on the towing and towed vehicle (e.g. indicators, taillights, brake lights, numberplate lights). Interestingly, reverse lights aren’t included.

 Signage:

  • Not mandatory.

STATE: VICTORIA

Link to state rules

Engineering:

  • Certification by a VASS signatory is only required on custom or home-made A-Frames. Proprietary A-Frames compliant with ADR 62 do not require certification.
  • The information sheet, any reports, approvals or other documentation is recommended to be carried in the vehicle at all times.

Lengths:

  • The overall vehicle combination must not exceed 19m total length.
  • The space between the vehicles must not exceed 2m.

 Brakes:

  • 5:1 tow mass ratio applies if you plan to tow unbraked.
  • Seek further advice from VicRoads or a VASS signatory if this is the case.

 Safety:

  • There are specific rules regarding safety chains and cables.
  • Lights must operate in unison on the towing and towed vehicle (e.g. indicators, taillights, brake lights, reverse lights, numberplate lights, etc.)

 Signage:

  • Not mandatory.

 Other:

  • The towed vehicle can be unregistered in Victoria only, but the numberplate of the towing vehicle must be visible.

STATE: WESTERN AUSTRALIA

Link to state rules

Engineering:

  • An application to tow a motor vehicle using an A-Frame is required to the Department of Transport (DoT), requiring the approval of the Director General of Transport/CEO.
  • Obtaining the assistance of an Engineering Signatory to confirm that the A-Frame towing vehicle combination and A-Frame coupling apparatus meet the requirements of the information bulletin is recommended.
  • The information bulletin, any reports, approvals or other documentation is recommended to be carried in the vehicle at all times.

Lengths:

  • The overall vehicle combination must not exceed 19m total length.
  • The space between the vehicles must not exceed 2m.

Brakes:

  • 5:1 tow mass ratio applies if you plan to tow unbraked, however, towed vehicles above 750kg GVM must be braked.
  • A set-up where the unladen mass of the tow vehicle is less than 3.5 times the laden mass of the towed vehicle, with or without brakes, is not accepted.

 Safety:

  • There are specific rules regarding safety chains and cables.
  • Lights must operate in unison on the towing and towed vehicle (e.g. indicators, taillights, brake lights, numberplate lights). Interestingly, reverse lights aren’t included.

 Signage:

  • Not mandatory.

 Other:

  • There are additional requirements around maximum speed, following distances and where you can stop (see Appendix 1 of the bulletin).
  • The base plate fitment must not affect air bag deployment or Frontal Impact Requirements of the towed vehicle (evidence may be required).
  • Both vehicles must be registered in Western Australia.

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DO I NEED A DIFFERENT LICENCE TO FLAT TOW?
No. If your current licence covers driving the motorhome or bus, you can tow up to the maximum GCM set by manufacturer of the motorhome or bus. On a car licence, that is up to 4500kg GVM on the motorhome or bus, and the GCM of the combined set-up, subject to the conditions of your licence in your state or territory.

WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF FLAT TOWING?
Now that we’ve clarified it’s legal to flat tow, let’s consider some reasons for and against flat towing. This is not an exhaustive list and, in the end, what’s important to you won’t necessarily be important to someone else.

PROS

  • You can use the motorhome or bus as a base and have a car to go into town and explore places the bus or motorhome couldn’t have reached. If you’ve chosen to tow a 4X4 you can get off the beaten track.
  • There is less weight than a trailer, resulting in better fuel economy and less of a strain on hills. It can be more fuel efficient than a car towing a large caravan.
  • The set-up tucks up close behind the motorhome or bus so there is less drag. Depending on size of the motorhome or bus, many people have reported only an extra 1-2L/100km fuel consumption. You can’t complain about that for the extra convenience!
  • It is legal in all states and territories of Australia, whereas use of ‘dolly’ or ‘gypsy’ trailers may not be.
  • Most people find it easier to hook a vehicle up to an A-Frame rather than getting it on a trailer.
  • You have one less insurance and registration to pay than if you were to use a trailer.
  • You have less tyres to replace.
  • You have one less thing to find a parking spot for at home and in caravan parks.
  • People won’t know you’re away from the motorhome or bus like they would if there was an empty trailer left at the site.

CONS

  • Some small motorhomes and buses won’t have the tow rating nor GCM to tow anything more than a very small car. This is often the case with newer front-wheel-drive motorhomes. Be sure to speak to experts and do your research before committing to buy either vehicle.
  • With the last Suzuki Grand Vitaras being made in 2018, no manufacturer selling in Australia supports their vehicles being towed with an A-Frame. If any part of the vehicle a manufacturer could be argued might be affected by flat towing (i.e. the gearbox/transmission), then warranty may not cover these parts. This may be a consideration if you have new car warranty remaining on the proposed towed vehicle.
  • You must be able to disconnect the driveline – either as a manual gearbox in neutral and/or with a transfer case that can switch to neutral to disconnect the entire driveline. Your current vehicle may not be suitable for this task.
  • There are limited cars that baseplates are manufactured for off-the-shelf, but custom base plates can be made at an additional cost.
  • You have to stop every 300km or so to start the engine of the towed vehicle so you don’t drain the battery. To get around this, consider adding a battery charging system via an Anderson plug.
  • The odometer of the towed vehicle likely won’t register the trip, but you’ll still be wearing out tyres, suspension components and brakes at a similar rate to if you were driving it.
  • The initial set-up tends to be more expensive than a cheap car trailer.
  • You can’t reverse the combined vehicles any considerable distance as you’ll soon find the towed vehicle’s steering following the path of least resistance and going to full lock dragging the tyres. Therefore, you need to plan ahead about where you’ll stop or unhitch the towed vehicle. The videos below demonstrate the point nicely.

Words Juliette Remfrey.