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Towing your trailer safely

June 21, 2012
The Daily News

Summer is here, and local folks are getting their campers or boats ready for a trip to a campsite or lake.

What we want are fun vacation memories, not roadside repair nightmares.

Take a few extra minutes before you leave to look over your trailer so you and your family reach your destination safely.

When you're on the road, use extra caution and allow more stopping time and distance between vehicles.

Michigan law requires trailers or pop-up campers weighing 3,000 pounds or less to have two reflectors, one on each side, as well as safety chains that connect the tow vehicle to the trailer.

The chains should be loose enough to allow sharp turns but not drag on the road.

Additionally, before people head out, experts advise them to:

- Check tire pressure on the trailer and tow vehicle.

- Ensure the wiring is loose enough to make turns without disconnecting or touching the ground.

- Verify their vehicle and hitch setup is able to pull the size of trailer they have.

- Check all turn signals, and running, hazard and brake lights to see if they're in working order.

- Make sure all items on the trailer are properly secured.

- Position side- and rear-view mirrors for good visibility.

- Raise the trailer jack, tongue support and any stabilizers and lock in place.

People who want to pull a recreational trailer behind a fifth-wheel camper need a special license endorsement called an "R" endorsement, which is sometimes called a recreational double.

Anyone 18 years old or older may apply for the "R" endorsement at a Michigan Secretary of State office and must pass a knowledge test. The cost is $10. Commercial drivers who already have a double-trailer endorsement don't need to obtain the "R" endorsement.

Fifth-wheel trailers use a special hitch mounted to the bed of a pickup truck instead of a regular hitch ball mounted to or near the bumper.

The number of accidents involving vehicles with trailers is increasing, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The use of trailers is on the rise and that accounts for many of the increasing number of accidents, officials said.

Trailer makers say inexperience may be to blame for the increase in trailer crashes.

Indeed, it's not as easy as it looks. Especially on a windy day crossing the Mackinac Bridge.

To help reduce the number of trailer crashes, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued safety tips for trailer towing.

Use these tips during the summer trailer-towing season.

General Handling

- Use the driving gear that the manufacturer recommends for towing.

- Drive at moderate speeds. This will place less strain on your tow vehicle and trailer. Trailer instability (sway) is more likely to occur as speed increases.

- Avoid sudden stops and starts that can cause skidding, sliding, or jackknifing.

- Avoid sudden steering maneuvers that might create sway or undue side force on the trailer.

- Slow down when traveling over bumpy roads, railroad crossings, and ditches.

- Make wider turns at curves and corners. Because your trailer's wheels are closer to the inside of a turn than the wheels of your tow vehicle, they are more likely to hit or ride up over curbs.

- To control swaying caused by air pressure changes and wind buffeting when larger vehicles pass from either direction, release the accelerator pedal to slow down and keep a firm grip on the steering wheel.


- Allow considerably more distance for stopping.

- If you have an electric trailer brake controller and excessive sway occurs, activate the trailer brake controller by hand. Do not attempt to control trailer sway by applying the tow vehicle brakes; this will generally make the sway worse.

- Always anticipate the need to slow down. To reduce speed, shift to a lower gear and press the brakes lightly.

Acceleration and Passing

- When passing a slower vehicle or changing lanes, signal well in advance and make sure you allow extra distance to clear the vehicle before you pull back into the lane.

- Pass on level terrain with plenty of clearance. Avoid passing on steep upgrades or downgrades.

- If necessary, downshift for improved acceleration or speed maintenance.

- When passing on narrow roads, be careful not to go onto a soft shoulder. This could cause your trailer to jackknife or go out of control.

Downgrades and Upgrades

- Downshift to assist with braking on downgrades and to add power for climbing hills.

- On long downgrades, apply brakes at intervals to keep speed in check. Never leave brakes on for extended periods of time or they may overheat.

- Some tow vehicles have specifically calibrated transmission tow-modes. Be sure to use the tow-mode recommended by the manufacturer.

Backing Up

- Put your hand at the bottom of the steering wheel. To turn left, move your hand left. To turn right, move your hand right. Back up slowly. Because mirrors cannot provide all of the visibility you may need when backing up, have someone outside at the rear of the trailer to guide you, whenever possible.

- Use slight movements of the steering wheel to adjust direction. Exaggerated movements will cause greater movement of the trailer. If you have difficulty, pull forward and realign the tow vehicle and trailer and start again.


- Try to avoid parking on grades. If possible, have someone outside to guide you as you park.

- Once stopped, but before shifting into Park, have someone place blocks on the downhill side of the trailer wheels. Apply the parking brake, shift into Park, and then remove your foot from the brake pedal. Following this parking sequence is important to make sure your vehicle does not become locked in Park because of extra load on the transmission. For manual transmissions, apply the parking brake and then turn the vehicle off in either first or reverse gear.

- When uncoupling a trailer, place blocks at the front and rear of the trailer tires to ensure that the trailer does not roll away when the coupling is released.

- An unbalanced load may cause the tongue to suddenly rotate upward; therefore, before un-coupling, place jack stands under the rear of the trailer to prevent injury.



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