We know you’re doing the right thing, but what about the folk in the van next to you?
Australians are a pretty relaxed bunch. We generally take a very laid-back attitude to most things in life particularly when it comes to our safety and wellbeing. Occasionally, our sense of ease is disrupted, usually by some dramatic event where lives are lost or when law enforcement starts to hit our back pocket. Only then do we realise that our attitudes need to change and we will often do that rather begrudgingly. Such is the case with caravanners and their attitude towards the weight limits of their rigs.
Case in point. The story in our last issue about the caravan crash in Walcha, NSW, that claimed the lives of two people and sees the driver on serious charges including exceeding weight limits, has got a lot of our readers thinking and talking about the weight issue. It has reignited conversations on social media and other forums with many owners asking questions about how they can get themselves legal and safe. From our perspective, this is fantastic. The more people who heed the warnings and actively do something about their situation means there are more of us that are safer on the roads. Unfortunately, for every person who gets the message, there is another who chooses to ignore it, or worse, actively encourages readers to dismiss it as merely another example of the ‘nanny state’ raising revenue.
The problem is, unless you’ve experienced the terror of an out of control trailer, you really can’t understand how it can occur and how quickly it all turns diabolical. Let me tell you a story. At a time when I was young and far less experienced, I was driving my Diahatsu Feroza towing a small box trailer that was well and truly overloaded with a dozen red-gum railway sleepers. I don’t recall thinking for a second that it was dangerous or even illegal. While driving up the Hume highway, as the car approached 80km/h, the trailer started to sway quite violently. I’d never experienced this before and I can assure you, it was frightening to feel the weight of the trailer effectively take control over the towing vehicle.
Fortunately for me, I had received some training in defensive driving. One of the things they instil in you is not to panic in an emergency. Rather than stabbing on the brakes out of instinct or trying to accelerate out of the sway, I simply eased my foot off the accelerator and kept the steering wheel as straight as possible. Within seconds, the swaying stopped and I was able to regain control of the car.
They don’t teach you this stuff when you first go for your licence. Unless you receive specific training on towing or you tow trailers for a living, chances are the first time you experience a swaying trailer is when you’ve got a large caravan on the back of the car and, unless you know exactly what to do, it will end badly within seconds.
That feeling of being out of control is one I never want to experience again. Without question, the overloaded trailer was the significant factor. If it weren’t for the training I had received, the outcome could have been catastrophic given I was driving on the Hume Highway in peak hour traffic!
We can’t force our opinions onto any of you, we’re realistic enough to know that. But we can offer assistance to those who do want to do something about their situation. If you go back over past issues of our magazine, you’ll find tons of useful articles and guides all about understanding weights, ratings, vehicle design and correct loading and weight distribution. There’s a perfectly useful search function on our website and we encourage you to use it.
We also recommend you to take your rig down to your nearest weighbridge to see just how heavy it is. Ideally, you will want to weigh both the car and caravan individually and if there is an operator present, they will only be too happy to help you out. At the very least, weigh the rig as a whole and compare it to your tow vehicle’s GCM. It’s a good place to start and a relatively easy one to understand. If you own a dual-cab ute as a tow vehicle, it’s probably the most important weight limit to check and ensure you’re compliant with. To find a weighbridge near you simply Google search ‘public weighbridge locations’ in your state (see breakout).
Knowing your van’s actual empty weight compared to its plated Tare weight is also very important, especially if you own a second-hand van or you’ve made modifications to yours. Many caravan manufacturers have a very liberal view of what a van’s Tare weight should include and many owners have been shocked at the difference between what’s on the compliance plate and what their van actually weighs empty with many finding they have very little cargo capacity available.
You don’t even have to leave your home to get your rig weighed. You can engage the expertise of a mobile weighing service to come and do it for you. There are a handful of these businesses springing up across the country. They will come to you with a set of highly accurate portable scales and give you a full report on your rig’s weight compared to its limits. They will also provide invaluable assistance to redistribute weight in your rig to achieve optimal weight distribution.
“Unless you’ve experienced an out of control trailer, you really can’t understand how quickly it all turns diabolical”
We spoke to Dave Lewis, owner/operator of Weightcheck about the work he’s done and what sort of results he’s finding. In the past two years he’s weighed more than 600 individual rigs and the results are compelling. Essentially, around half of all caravans he weighs exceed their ATM and around a third of tow vehicles exceed the GVM or GCM. Interestingly, the number of overweight caravans is reasonably constant but while overweight car numbers are increasing. To some extent the message is getting through and drivers are trying to do something about it but understanding vehicle limits remains a concern. One case in particular saw a rig come in at 1200kg over its GCM. That’s right … a whopping 1.2t overweight and a serious accident waiting to happen.
If the Walcha crash has taught us anything, it’s that you, as the driver, are solely responsible for your rig’s safety and compliance. In the event of a serious crash that claims lives, the courts are not going to go after a rogue manufacturer for a dodgy compliance plate or the previous owner of your van for his silly modifications. They are certainly not going to prosecute the tow vehicle manufacturer for irresponsible marketing. They will target you.
Now that lives have been lost, you can bet police and state roads authorities are going to clamp down on overweight trailers and ignorance will not be an excuse. Like it or not, road safety in all its forms is not about revenue raising or making people lives difficult for no reason. It’s about all of us understanding the law and taking responsibility for our actions. The time for complacency is over.
Dave Lewis from Weightcheck Caravan Weighing in Brisbane gives us an in-site into some of the weight compliance issues he regularly sees.
“Weightcheck has now been operating for just on two years, and with caravan and vehicle weights always in the spotlight in social media and various online forums, our workload is steadily increasing. We have an ever-expanding database that records every detail from our customers weighing reports, which provides some very interesting statistics.
We have now completed in excess of 600 individual weight reports of caravans and tow vehicles, trailer boats, motorhomes, camper-trailers, 4X4s and all types of trailers.
Our weight report system checks six compliance ratings, and compares the actual weights measured with the specifications on the relevant compliance plates. The following case studies highlight the need to ensure that all compliance ratings are met.
CASE STUDY # 1
Late-model dual-cab utility and tandem axle off-road caravan.
The off-road caravan had a small outboard motor on the drawbar and a collapsible boat trailer on the rear bumper. The compliance plate recorded a GTM of 3480kg and ATM of 3495kg.
The actual caravan weights measured showed a GTM of 3558kg which is 78kg over the axle capacities. The ATM measured 3906kg which was 411kg over the compliance rating. This also meant however, that the caravan exceeded the towing capacity of the tow vehicle by 406kg.
The utility was fitted with a bullbar, fibreglass rear canopy, complete with aluminium boat on the roof. The compliance plate showed a towing capacity of 3500kg, a GVM of 2950kg and GCM of 5950kg.
The tow vehicle GVM, including the caravan ball weight of 340 kilograms, was in excess of 450kg over the plate rating of 2950kg, and the GCM was a staggering 1012kg over the allowed 5950kg.
CASE STUDY # 2
Late model dual-cab utility and tandem axle caravan.
The tow vehicle and caravan were both only two months old. The caravan was a semi off-road version, and the tow vehicle had undergone a pre-registration GVM upgrade. This upgrade does not increase the Gross Combination Mass (GCM).
The caravan had a plated GTM of 3330kg and ATM of 3500kg. When weighed, the GTM was 3115kg (215kg under) and the ATM was 3353kg (147kg under).
The tow vehicle amended compliance plate showed a GVM of 3050kg and a GCM of 6000kg. The GVM came in at 3026kg, including the caravan towball weight of 238kg, meaning the vehicle just scrapped in by 24kg. Even with the vehicle and caravan both coming in under-weight, the GCM of the rig was 6141kg, exceeding its compliance rating by 141kg.
While both these case studies involve dual-cab utilities, we are also seeing large numbers of popular 4X4 wagons exceeding their GVMs. One of the main contributing factors in this, is the addition of accessories like bullbars, drawer sets, and other customisations that, when added, become part of the vehicle payload.
WEIGHTCHECK mobile caravan weighing services
If you do experience trailer sway:
1. Remain calm. Do not panic. Do not accelerate.
2. Don’t stab at the tow vehicle’s brakes and don’t try to control the sway by steering input.
3. Keep the steering wheel pointed straight ahead as much as possible.
4. If the trailer is fitted with electronic brakes, activate them manually using the override feature.
5. Gradually release the accelerator and reduce speed until the swaying stops.
6. Once the vehicle has regained stability, slow right down and pull off the road at the first safe opportunity.
7. Check over the rig for anything that may have contributed to the situation. Tyre pressures, load balance, etc.
The team from Clayton’s Towing in Queensland have also seen their fair share of caravan crashes and they recommend the following. When you’re driving on a high-speed road such as a freeway or highway, turn up your brake controller to its maximum setting. That way, if you do experience trailer sway and you panic, stabbing on the brakes, the caravan’s brakes will be applied immediately at full force. This will slow the vehicle down with brake bias on the trailer. That should stop the caravan swaying and pull the rig up in a controlled manner. Do not try to accelerate out of a sway. For a start, most vehicles are towing such heavy weights that accelerating would have little or no positive effect. Further, accelerating only introduces more energy into an already unstable situation.
These exist as private locations offering public access or local government facilities in the form of waste management sites or similar.
PDF link to national weighbridge locations
Public Weighbridges Australia