Posted on December 2nd, 2013 by GEM Motoring Assist

Tips for safer operation when you have a caravan or trailer in tow.


Whether it’s a caravan to the coast or a trailer to the tip, there’s a lot more to think about when you’re towing. The information here is intended to help you identify potential hazards and difficulties that go with towing, as well as checking you’re legally entitled to hook up a trailer to the back of your car.

What the law says
If you passed your driving test before 1 January 1997, you are entitled to tow trailers until your licence expires. However, you must not drive a vehicle and trailer combination that exceeds 8.25 tonnes MAM (maximum authorised mass). If you passed your driving test after 1 January 1997, your towing is limited to a vehicle and trailer combination of no more than 3.5 tonnes MAM. If you wish to tow above this weight limit, you will have to pass an additional driving test – the car and trailer (or B+E) test.

The test
The B+E practical driving test is based on the lorry driving test and lasts around an hour. The tests are held at vocational (bus and lorry) driving test centres. The test includes an off-road reverse manoeuvre, a controlled stop, uncoupling and coupling of the trailer and driving on the road.

Also included in the test are a series of vehicle safety questions – general checks that you should carry out to ensure the vehicle and trailer are safe for use. You will be asked five questions. A driving fault will be recorded for each incorrect answer to a maximum of four driving faults. If you answer all five questions incorrectly, a serious fault will be recorded.

Before you go anywhere
Make sure that your trailer is in a fit state for the road, especially if you only use it once or twice a year. It makes sense to have it serviced annually, but the following tips should help you to avoid problems:

Avoid parking your trailer on long grass – moisture could damage it.

When you park up, you must not leave a detached trailer on a public road. If it is hitched up it must always be parked with lights on at night on any public road.
On a level surface if it is safe to do so, avoid parking with the handbrake on.
Regularly grease all the greasing points with a grease gun, plus the brake cables or rods, and handbrake.

Always run through a thorough list of general checks before you leave:

  • Is the load correctly distributed and firmly secured?
  • Are all the lights undamaged and working correctly?
  • Are the tyre pressures correct and are all tyres (including those on the towing vehicle) in good condition?
  • Is the trailer correctly coupled to the tow ball or pin?
  • Is the coupling height correct? It should be level.

Make sure that you are covered by your insurance policy. Most policies do cover you 3rd Party when towing (in other words, they will pay for any damage your trailer may do to another vehicle, but not for damage to the trailer itself). However, assume nothing. It is your responsibility to make sure that you have the appropriate cover.

It is also worth ensuring you are adequately covered for breakdown and recovery. Most recovery companies won’t cover a trailer unless it is specified in your contract and it is worth bearing in mind that standard trailer insurance rarely includes breakdown and recovery.

GEM Motoring Assist’s award-winning breakdown recovery service does cover your caravan. See the specifics of our cover HERE. We can also help you with excellent value caravan and trailer insurance.

Also from GEM: caravan insurance. The good news is that there are discounts on our caravan insurance for responsible owners. We partner with Shield, a major force in caravan insurance, to offer a policy specially designed for GEM members. Call Shield on 01784 484632 and quote GM09C (Shield is authorised and regulated by the Financial Services Authority).

Setting off – and stopping
Obviously, your car will feel very different when towing a caravan or trailer. The weight of a loaded trailer will inevitably affect a vehicle’s performance and you will notice that moving off needs more effort, slowing down and stopping takes a lot longer and bends need to be approached slowly and carefully.

Many trailers, caravans and horseboxes for example, are wider and taller than the towing vehicle, so take extra care with road positioning, especially when pulling over alongside kerbs, entering toll booths or refueling at petrol stations.
You should also remember that a trailer will cut off a corner when you turn, so always leave yourself extra room around bends.

Your vehicle engine will work hardest when climbing hills, and so take great care to ensure it doesn’t overheat. Keep a close eye on the temperature gauge at all times and investigate any sudden rises in temperature.

The most important thing about driving with a trailer is anticipation. Know what the road is doing, and know what everyone else on the road is doing as well. If you see a car far ahead put its brakes on, start to slow down yourself, don’t wait for the car directly in front to brake. With a loaded trailer you will not stop as quickly as you are used to, so leave plenty of space.

Finally, be aware of the speed restrictions for trailers (below), and remember that when towing, you are not permitted in the right-hand lane of a motorway with three lanes or more.

Snaking and stability
You may have heard of the issue of ‘snaking’, especially in caravans. This is more scientifically known as ‘yaw inertia’, and occurs when the caravan moves in a horizontal way around the towing hitch axle. Basically, the caravan will be weaving from side to side. In its most extreme form, snaking will lead to complete loss of control of the caravan – and a crash of some sort.

Usual causes are excessive speed, gusts of wind, unexpected bumps in the road or a sudden swerve to avoid hitting something on the road.
A stabilizer (typically costing up to £250) will help stop snaking. But remember, it is no substitute for good driving and towing skills!

Towing speed limits

  • 30mph limit applies on all roads with street lighting unless signs show otherwise.
  • 50mph applies on single carriageways unless signs show otherwise.
  • 60mph applies on dual carriageways and motorways.

You will hear many a gripe from motorists that caravans cause hold-ups. Equally, you will hear from caravanners that this is a fallacy. Whatever you believe, the most sensible thing is to apply the Highway Code. Rule 169 advises you not to hold up a long queue of traffic if you are deriving a slow-moving vehicle. Check your mirrors frequently and – if necessary – pull in where it is safe and let traffic pass.

Get your reversing right and everyone will be impressed, mess it up and no one will forget. The first and foremost rule is slow and steady, the faster you do it, the faster you can get into trouble.

Learning to reverse a trailer takes practice. So, the best thing to do is find a big empty field or car park so you can quietly make your own mistakes. The first thing to do is to find the jack-knifing point of your trailer. Jack-knifing is when the trailer and towing vehicle are at an angle preventing you from continuing backwards. To do this drive forwards in a circle on full lock. The angle made between the trailer and tow vehicle is the maximum angle you can manage without jack-knifing. This is also the tightest corner you can back your trailer round.

Check the immediate area around and behind the trailer using the tow vehicle’s mirrors. If you are unsure of what is behind the trailer you should get out and inspect first hand. Alternatively, have someone guide you whilst standing in your field of vision (and never behind the tow vehicle or trailer).
To steer the trailer, remember that you need to move the wheel in the opposite direction to that if you were reversing the car with no trailer. This can be really tricky but practice makes perfect – the more you do it the more natural it becomes. Start by just trying to reverse the trailer in a straight line. This will require constant input from the steering wheel to anticipate the trailer’s every move. If it starts to go wrong, pull forward and start again.


Q How can I prevent jack-knifing when I’m reversing with a trailer?
The best thing is to practise. Jack-knifing is when the trailer and towing vehicle are at an angle preventing you from continuing backwards. To find the jack-knife point, drive forwards in a circle on full lock. The angle made between the trailer and tow vehicle is the maximum angle you can manage without jack-knifing.

Q Is it OK to tow another car, such as if my wife’s car has broken down, can I tow her home?
As far as we understand, temporary recovery of another vehicle (ie towing it) using a two rope is permitted, but the towed vehicle must have current tax, insurance and MOT. If you use a solid tow bar, then the towed car is classed as a trailer and will need to weight within the towing vehicle’s limit for an unbraked trailer.

Q Is it OK to leave my caravan on the street outside my friend’s house for a couple of nights?
You cannot leave a detached caravan on the public road. In theory, it would be alright to leave it as long as it remains hitched to a towing vehicle and is properly lit at night.

Q Can I book on to a towing course?
Good idea. Here are some organisations who can help you:
The Camping and Caravanning Club (024 7669 4995, offers its members towing courses from early March thorough to early October. Cost is £75.

The Caravan Club (01342 326944) has a Practical Caravanning Course for £77.50 and Caravan Manoeuvring Course for £62.50. These are available between March and November.

Drivecraft (01327 703612/0800 026 0513) has year-round courses from £75 for ‘bronze’ to £216 for ‘platinum’.
The Institute of Advanced Motorists (020 8996 9600) has its own towing test (£35). You can combine this with classroom sessions, membership and practical driving for £85.