Trailers are an important part of many family vacations, but they can also spell tragedy if they are not properly equipped, properly set up and properly towed.
Tow vehicles handle, brake and corner differently when towing a trailer. Stopping distances can be twice as long when towing a trailer, and during cornering the trailer’s wheels track inside of the tow vehicle’s wheels. Thus wide turns are needed to avoid the trailer striking the inside curb. Drivers, particularly those with little or no trailering experience, should drive slowly while they learn how the combined tow vehicle and trailer handle and stop.
As vehicle speed increases, the stability, stopping performance and the ability to swerve or maneuver are reduced. Avoid exceeding the speed limit and slow down before cornering and descending a hill. Trailer stability is reduced in turns because the trailer pushes the rear of the tow vehicle towards the outside of a turn – a phenomenon that can lead to jackknifing.
Trailer sway is a side-to-side oscillation of the trailer that can lead to a control loss and possibly a crash or rollover. Trailer sway can be induced by a sudden steering maneuver, lane change, or even a wind gust. Trailer sway will often diminish after a few oscillations, but high speeds and improper trailer weight distribution can cause the sway to increase with each oscillation until the vehicle loses control.
The likelihood of trailer sway increases if too little of the trailer’s weight rests on the hitch. The hitch load should generally be between 10% and 15% of the total trailer’s weight (including cargo). To achieve this hitch load, some trailer manufacturers recommend the 60/40 rule: put 60% of the trailer’s total weight forward of the trailer axles and 40% behind the axles.
When a trailer starts to sway, the best response is to hold the steering wheel straight, let off the gas and apply the trailer’s brakes. Applying only the trailer’s brakes counters the sway and will help realign the trailer with the tow vehicle. To prevent further sway, drive slower and redistribute the load if necessary.
Safe trailering begins with the proper equipment, proper setup and proper driving. Consult your owner’s manuals for instructions on how to properly equip, set up and drive your tow vehicle and trailer.