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The complete guide to towing a trailer

A trailer is a great piece of kit but what is the correct way of towing a trailer and how do I keep legal when doing it? Sterling insurance answers some of your frequently asked questions about towing a trailer. 

A good trailer allows you to get all sorts of jobs done. From moving home and disposing of garden rubbish, to hauling hobby equipment such as boats and bikes and packing up the family for a holiday. You can do all sorts of things with the right trailer.

But towing a trailer takes quite a bit of getting used to and is fraught with extra risk, especially for the novice. According to Highways England they have to deal with around 4,000 trailer and caravan related incidents every year, that’s 11 every day. They involve trailers of every description, from horsebox trailers to builders’ trailers and teardrop caravan trailers.

To help reduce that extra risk there are a whole heap of things you need to know before you actually hitch up and take to the road.

Do I need a special driving licence for towing a trailer?

That depends on when you passed your driving test and what you want to tow.

If you passed on or after 1 January 1997 you can:

  • drive a car or van up to 3,500kg maximum authorised mass (MAM) towing a trailer of up to 750kg MAM
  • tow a trailer over 750kg MAM as long as the combined MAM of the trailer and towing vehicle is no more than 3,500kg

You will have to pass the car and trailer driving test if you want to tow anything heavier.

If you passed your test before 1 January 1997 you’re usually allowed to drive a vehicle and trailer combination up to 8,250kg MAM.  You’re also allowed to drive a minibus with a trailer over 750kg MAM.

If you need to tow a heavier combination check out the Department for Transport  advice.

Are there any trailer towing safety guidelines I need to know?

  • The weight of your trailer and contents must be within the vehicle’s towing ability and not more than 85% of the car’s kerbside weight if the trailer has brakes – 50% if it hasn’t. 
  • The maximum trailer width in the UK and EU is 2.55m.
  • Indicators, lights and brakes (where fitted) must work and the trailer must display the same number plate as the towing vehicle.
  • Trailer speed limits on UK roads are 60 mph for motorways and dual carriageways and 50mph on single carriageway roads. You are prohibited from towing a trailer in the outside lane of a motorway, unless directed by emergency services to do so.

Assuming I have the right licence, the right towing combination and I’ve hitched up correctly, what else should I look out for? 

  • Make sure the trailer is packed correctly. Poorly loaded vehicles can lead to maneuvering problems and accidents. Make sure your heaviest items are stowed on the floor in the middle of the trailer.
  • Don’t  overload your trailer. Adhere to guidelines over kerbside weight.
  • Make sure you have sufficient weight at the front end of your trailer. If you don’t it can cause the trailer to sway and may get out of control if not addressed.
  • Make sure the trailer isn’t too heavy for the towcar’s capability to control it.
  • Remain cautious and don’t drive too fast for the road conditions.
  • Reduce speed or take a break if crosswinds are causing stability problems
  • Choose a car and caravan or trailer with stability aids, but don’t rely on them to correct an unstable combination. A towing stabiliser is a sway control device that restricts the lateral and vertical articulation between the towing vehicle and caravan or trailer.
  • If stability issues arise, do not brake, but ease off the accelerator and allow the speed to drop. Do not try to steer against the motion of the car. Do not try to accelerate, to pull the trailer straight. This is likely to result in the return of instability at an even greater speed.

Are there any other safety or security measures I should consider for my car or trailer?

  • Trailers can be vulnerable to theft so make sure you fit good security devices. They may even pay for themselves as extra security systems can qualify for up to 17.5 per cent discount on a Sterling trailer insurance policy 
  • You will need to fit good towing mirrors. The law states you must have side mirrors that allow you to see clearly an area that is 4 metres wide from the side of your caravan at a distance 20 metres behind the driver. 
  • Your trailer must have two red sidelights, two red stoplights, two red reflective triangles, amber indicators that will flash 60–120 times per minute. Trailers built after 30 September 1990 also need white front reflectors while trailers fitted with brakes and built from October 2012 will also need reverse lights
  • You can get some training to improve your trailer towing skills. The Caravan Club offers specialised courses for towing caravans or you can go to a specialist trailer towing training school. You can also take a car and trailer driving test, sometimes called the ‘B+E test’. 

Do I need to alter my driving style when towing a trailer?

Yes, you will. The added weight and the extra space your combined vehicle and trailer will take up will make even relatively simple motoring tasks such as turning right across oncoming traffic seem more difficult. Here’s how to perform key manoeuvres.

  • Accelerating

It will take more time to build up speed, which you’ll have to allow for when pulling  out at junctions or overtaking an obstacle. When overtaking you will have to remain in the overtaking lane longer than you would normally to ensure you have cleared the obstruction you are going by.

  • Changing gear

In a manual you will need to stay in lower gears for a little longer before shifting up. If yiu are driving an automatic you may need to engage the manual selector to control gear changes, especially when going uphill.

  • Cruising

Generally you should moderate your speed. Trailer speed limits on UK roads are 60 mph for motorways and dual carriageways and 50mph on single carriageway roads – but you don’t have to go that fast! Slow down to a speed that you, your car and your trailer are comfortable with.

  • Braking

The added weight of towing a trailer will affect your braking distance. You must leave far more space between you and the car in front so you have plenty of time to react.  

  • Cornering

The length your trailer adds to your vehicle means you will have to take corners wider than you would normally to prevent trailer wheels mounting the kerb. 

  • Reversing

Reversing a trailer or caravan is by far the trickiest manoeuvre to master because the trailer turns in the opposite direction to the direction in which you’re steering. Try reversing in an empty car park, yard or other open space. It can be frustrating but practice makes perfect.

  • Parking

It goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway, you will need far more room to park if you are towing a caravan and, depending on your trailer, you may stick out more if you are parking by the kerb. You are better off going to a car park where there are often dedicated areas for longer vehicles and vehicle/trailer combinations.

  • Breaks

Towing a trailer for long distances, for long periods of time, or in heavy traffic, can be very tiring, especially if you are new to towning. You will need to make regular rest stops. 

Do I need to insure my trailer separately from my motor insurance? 

It is not a legal requirement to take out separate insurance for your trailer, but if you tow a trailer to transport goods either commercially or domestically, you should seriously think about it. 

Most comprehensive car and van policies cover trailers, but usually only for third party liability. It means you would be covered for any injury to another person or damage to their property, but not if your trailer was damaged in an accident that was your fault. Third party cover also excludes theft and fire damage. 

Trailer insurance will solve these problems and provide complete peace of mind, whatever you need to transport. 

Sterling’s trailer insurance starts at £90 a year but discounts are available for trailers fitted with data tag security. 

Cover is available for commercial and domestic use of trailers up to the value of £40,000. It includes up to £1m public liability cover and European cover for up to 30 days is included. 

Sterling has specialised policies for boat trailers, builders’ trailers, flatbed trailers, garden trailers, horse trailers, luggage trailers, teardrop trailers and trailer tents. 

Check it before towing it’

Highways England’s Strategic Road Safety Lead Stuart Lovatt said: “Thankfully incidents are very rare but now is the time to remind motorists of the need to make sure you have carried out proper checks and have loaded the trailer or vehicle correctly.

“We have all sorts travelling on our network including horse boxes, trailer tents and leisure vehicles such as boats and caravans. Our message is really simple, check it before towing it. so everyone gets home, safe and well.”

Sterling offers specialist policies for all sorts of trailers, including boat trailer insurance, builders trailer insurance, flatbed trailer insurance, flatbed trailer insurance, garden trailer insurance, horse trailer insurance, luggage trailer insurance, teardrop trailer insurance and trailer ten insurance. Policies start from £90. 

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