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Be Aware! Safe Towing Tips

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

Towing a trailer is certainly not difficult, but it does represent a step up in complexity
from driving a solo vehicle, requiring new awareness of combined vehicle length, trailer
width, braking distance, turning characteristics and several other vital factors that must
be considered while towing a trailer. Most of us drive trucks, SUVs or passenger cars
daily, and graduate to RVs only occasionally. Thus, it’s always necessary to make a mental
transition and try to keep the size and handling characteristics of the larger rig in mind.
Allowing solo-vehicle habits to take over may result in a tendency to make turns too
tightly, run over curbs, hit stationary objects such as overhanging tree limbs or to follow
too closely.

Eyes on the Road
The first towing precautions are those that
precede towing — matching the tow vehicle and trailer correctly, adhering to weight limits
and making sure hitch selection and adjustment are correct, as described elsewhere in this
guide. And it’s also important to refresh defensive driving skills. From there, the real
fun begins. The combined length of tow vehicle and trailer, as well as the combined weight,
must be in the forefront of your mind, right from the start. Maintaining extended following
distances is one of the most important towing-related driving habits that initially is
difficult to adhere to because we tend to fall into our typical driving habits. Even though
trailer brakes may be functional, braking distances almost always are extended.

It’s also
important to make lane changes carefully and slowly, and to allow extended distances for
passing. Good, solidly mounted extendible mirrors with large reflective areas — adjusted
properly — are also essential. Speedy traffic seems more tolerant of slow 18-wheelers than
of slow RVs, which makes courtesy an important safety factor for RV owners because an irate
driver trying to pass can be a serious safety threat; courtesy is not only the
consideration of others, it’s a safety issue. Frequent monitoring of rearview mirrors is
necessary; when a vehicle is tailgating and trying to pass, we should help by driving
slightly to the right to give the other driver a better view of the road ahead, even if a
passing opportunity does not exist at the time. We should use turnouts whenever possible
and avoid following another vehicle so closely that a vehicle overtaking from the rear
cannot return to the proper lane.

Time for a Brake
While RV brakes are
adequate for most situations, care is necessary to avoid overheating, which can lead to
brake fade. If brake fade occurs, it will likely be on steep downgrades. If this happens,
friction will raise the temperature of brake pads and linings to extremely high levels,
resulting in temporary loss of braking. The cure is prevention — downshifting to a gear
range that is low enough to retard speed sufficiently that brakes need not be used more
than occasionally. This way, enough braking performance is reserved to make an emergency
stop, should it become necessary.

When braking on a grade is necessary, apply the brakes
intermittently, with moderate pressure, and release the pedal to allow the brakes to cool.
The action of electric trailer brakes should be apparent to the driver, and sufficient
enough to handle the trailer’s weight. The controller should be adjusted so that maximum
braking action does not cause trailer-wheel lockup. Improper controller adjustment is a
major cause of inadequate braking, so it’s wise to study the manufacturer’s instructions.
Travel-trailer instability (fishtailing) should not occur in a well-balanced, well-hitched
combination, but if it does, independent actuation of trailer brakes usually will bring the
trailer back into line.

Back-Up Plans
All trailers require more space for
turns, and travel trailers follow the tow-vehicle track more closely than do fifth-wheels,
which track farther to the inside of a turn. There is need for continual awareness, which
should eventually become second-nature after a modest amount of on-the-road experience.
Fifth-wheel trailers are different to back than conventional trailers, and require more
practice for someone accustomed to backing a conventional trailer. A well-used technique
involves placing one’s hand at the bottom of the steering wheel and moving it in the same
direction the trailer is intended to go. It’s more effective with travel trailers than with
fifth-wheels, which often require more turning of the steering wheel. Hand-held two-way
radios can allow an assistant to more effectively relay backing instructions to the driver.

Before each trip, it’s essential to check the tires to assure that inflation pressures
match those molded on tire sidewalls (cold), or that they are appropriate for your load
(consult load/inflation tables). Also, be sure to inspect all vehicle fluids and make sure
trailer-wheel lug nuts are tightened to factory specifications. Trailering is a great way
to explore the new horizons and a great way to check out the wonderful camping destinations
that are available to owners of recreational trailers. But always keep in mind that
defensive driving will pay off in safe travel.

Subscribe to Wildsam Magazine today, Camping World and Good Sam’s magazine of the open road.

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