Whether you’re planning to tour with your caravan, transport horses or move a trailer load, towing gives you the freedom to take what you want, where you want.
However, to ensure vehicle stability and the safety of other road users, you need to know the laws that apply to towing.
Room to manoeuvre
The Highway Code NI (Rule 160) says if you are driving a long vehicle or towing a trailer give other vehicles, especially cycles and motorcycles, plenty of room. Remember - the extra length will affect overtaking and manoeuvring and the extra weight will also affect the braking and acceleration.
Towing regulations refer to the maximum authorised mass (MAM) of vehicles and trailers. This means the permissible maximum weight. You may not be planning to drive a vehicle, or a vehicle towing a trailer, at these maximum weights, but these are key factors that determine driver licensing requirements.
What you can tow with your licence
If you passed a car test before 1 January 1997, you are generally entitled to
drive a vehicle and trailer combination up to 8.25 tonnes MAM or a minibus with a trailer over 750kgs MAM.
If you passed your driving test on or after 1 January 1997 and have an
ordinary category B (Car) licence, you are limited to vehicles up to 3.5 tonnes (3,500kg) MAM towing a trailer up to 750kgs, or a vehicle and trailer combination up to 3.5 tonnes MAM. For anything heavier you need to pass a category B+E driving test.
Pulling your weight
Most cars have a maximum weight they can tow. The Highway Code NI (Rule 98) says that you must not tow more than your licence permits.
Towing limits are normally found in the vehicle handbook or specification sheet. Alternatively the vehicle’s gross train weight may be listed on the manufacturer’s plate.
Width and length
The maximum trailer width for any towing vehicle is 2.55 metres. The
maximum length is 7 metres for a trailer towed by a vehicle weight up to 3.5 tonnes (3,500 kg).
When towing, the equipment you use must meet certain safety standards.
Towing bars need to be ‘type approved’. A type approved tow bar will have a label with an approval number and details of the vehicles it is approved for. If your car was first used before 1 August 1998, your tow bar does not need to be type approved.
You must have an adequate view of the road behind you. If your caravan or trailer is wider than the rear of the towing vehicle, you may need to fit suitable towing mirrors. If you fail to do this you could receive three penalty points on your licence and a fine of up to £1,000.
Any trailer weighing over 750kgs must have a working brake system.
Some smaller trailers also have brakes, although these are optional.
The brakes on a trailer or caravan must be in good working order.
Tow bar towing stabiliser
A good stabiliser fitted to the tow bar can make the combination safer
to handle. However, you are still responsible for loading the combination
correctly. A good stabiliser will not cure instability caused by a poor towing
vehicle/ trailer combination. The stabiliser does give added security in
crosswinds, especially when large goods vehicles overtake on a motorway.
A-frames and dollies
If you attach an A-frame to a car to tow it with a larger vehicle,
the car plus the A-frame count as a trailer. If you use a dolly to tow a
broken-down vehicle, the dolly counts as a trailer. In both cases the usual
safety regulations for trailers apply.
Towing an American caravan or trailer
American trailers and caravans don’t always meet European safety
regulations. If you want to use an American caravan or trailer in the UK or the EU, you must first check that it's legal.
Before starting your journey, check that the caravan, horsebox or trailer:
- is loaded correctly with the right nose weight on the tow bar
- is correctly hitched up with the breakaway cable attached, or secondary coupling head fully engaged and locked
- has lights and indicators which are connected and working correctly
- jockey wheel and assembly is fully retracted and in the stowed position
- braking system is working correctly
- windows, roof light and door are closed
- tyre pressures are correct
In addition The Highway Code NI (Rule 98) says as a driver:
- you must secure your load and it must not stick out dangerously - make sure heavy or sharp objects and animals are secured safely - If there is a collision, they might hit someone inside the vehicle and cause serious injury
- you should properly distribute the weight in your caravan or trailer, with heavy items mainly over the axle(s) and ensure a downward load on the tow ball - The manufacturer’s recommended weight and tow ball load should not be exceeded - This should avoid the possibility of swerving or snaking and going out of control - If this does happen, ease off the accelerator and reduce speed gently to regain control
- you may need to adjust the headlights when carrying a load or pulling a trailer - in the event of a breakdown, be aware that towing a vehicle on a tow rope is potentially dangerous - you should consider professional recovery
- check your caravan, horsebox or trailer tyres for tread depth, damage and cracking of the sidewalls - even if the tread depth shows little wear or is above the legal minimum, the tyre may be suffering from the effects of ageing
- check that your caravan, horsebox or trailer is fitted with tyres of the specified rating (see the manufacturer’s handbook)
Remember - never allow anyone to travel in the caravan, horsebox or trailer.
How to tow at length
Always be aware of the increased weight, length and width of the combined vehicles.
- allow more time and brake earlier when slowing down or stopping
- give yourself three times the normal distance and time to overtake safely
- take account of the extra length, particularly when turning or emerging at junctions
(Rules 200 - 203)
- choose an appropriate place to manoeuvre
- if you need to turn your car and trailer around, wait until you find a safe place
- do not reverse or turn around in a busy road
- do not reverse from a side road into a main road - Look carefully before you start to reverse
- check the ‘Blind Spot' behind you
- check there are no vulnerable road users such as pedestrians (particularly children), motorcyclists and cyclists or obstructions in the road behind you
- if possible, look mainly through the rear window
- check all around just before you start to turn and be aware that the front of your vehicle will swing out as you turn
- get someone to guide you if you cannot see clearly
Remember - You must not reverse your vehicle further than necessary.
Never try to correct swerving or ‘snaking’ by increasing speed, steering
sharply or braking hard. The best advice is to ease off the accelerator
slowly, allow a certain amount of “twitch” in the steering, and reduce
speed until the snaking has stopped.
High sided vehicles
Take extra care when passing or being passed by high-sided vehicles. Allow
as much space as possible to avoid the effects of turbulence or buffeting.
Some speed limits are lower than normal when you are towing. Unless
road signs tell you otherwise you must not exceed:
- 30 mph in built-up areas
- 50 mph on single carriageways
- 60 mph on dual carriageways or motorways
Reduce your speed in high or crosswinds, when travelling downhill and in poor visibility.
(Rules 263 & 265)
On a motorway you must not reverse, cross the central reservation or drive missed your exit or have taken the wrong route, carry on to the next exit.
Caravans, horseboxes or trailers should not be towed in the outside lane of
a motorway having more than two lanes, unless other lanes are closed.
Be considerate - other road users can often become frustrated by slow moving towing vehicles, which can lead to dangerous risks being taken. So check your mirrors frequently and if you are holding up a queue of traffic be prepared to pull in where it is safe to let other faster traffic pass.
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