Need to haul something? Towing is not as simple as hooking a trailer to your car or truck and finding the interstate, humming "King of the Road" as you go.
There are many things to consider before wanderlust takes over, from the various state laws regulating towing to the best towing techniques to avoid problems.
It all comes down to safety. Towing can be dangerous, warns the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which reports that nearly 400 people were killed in 2012 when mobile home, boat or cargo trailers became unattached or caused other accidents. NHTSA hits the caution pedal even more by noting that about 4,500 people died in towing-related crashes between 2002 and 2012.
Cecil Eyers, who has co-owned Eyers Trailer Hitch Center in Santa Clara, Calif. for nearly five decades, has seen more than a few flipped or up-ended trailers. "Towing can be fun, it can give you and your family freedom to travel," he says. "But inexperienced or ignorant towing can take your life or the lives of others in one swift, cruel stroke."
Guidance from the NHTSA, Eyers, the American Automobile Association (AAA) and Towing World are combined to present 10 towing mistakes you should avoid.
1. Is your tow too long?
Each state is specific about how long the combined length of vehicle and trailer can be. Size does matter, and officials don't want unsafe behemoths lumbering down highways.
While most states follow similar guidelines, there are differences. California, for instance, sets a limit of 65 feet, while nearby Nevada puts it at 70. If you're not sure, check with your state Department of Motor Vehicles for specifics. Towing World also lists state laws and regulations on its website.
Towing pros advise using common sense when planning a multi-state trip -- if you start in Nevada but head into California, make sure the combined length doesn't exceed California's 65 feet, rather than Nevada's 70.
This planning, of course, applies to other size requirements in your home state and beyond.
2. Are you too wide?
The width of what you can tow, including the trailer and what it's hauling, is similar in most states, usually about 8 feet, six inches, which, officials say, is a safe size for inter-state highways.
You may still find small differences. Alaska shaves an inch off, down to 8 feet, 5 inches. Hawaii adds a little, allowing widths of 9 feet.
3. When tall is too tall
When it comes to top height, 13 feet, six inches for the trailer and its cargo tends to be the limit for most states. However, Nebraska allows 14 feet, six inches and others -- including Montana, Missouri and New Mexico -- set the bar at 14 feet.
4. Slow down
Speeding while towing so much size and weight is hazardous -- but towing experts say a surprising number of drivers go too fast.
AAA points out that the maximum speed limit for towing anything, from a utility trailer to a home trailer, is 55 miles per hour (mph) in California, unless otherwise posted. New York follows the same guidelines, as do many other states. But some -- including Maryland and Massachusetts - allow the same speed as posted for passenger cars.
The top speed for hauling a mobile home is 45 mph in Alaska. It's 50 mph in Nebraska.
AAA also notes that driving slower should help prevent your car or truck from over-heating, a fairly common problem on long trips.
5. Seeing all you need to see
Don't assume that your vehicle's mirrors are enough. Mirrors designed for towing can be necessary, especially if what you're hauling is very wide. Permanent or temporary snap-on mirrors can get provide the right visibility.
"Your tow vehicle might require special mirrors, one flat to see the road, and one convex to see the side of your trailer," Eyers explains. "These mirrors extend out from your tow vehicle, which enables you to see all the way down the side of your trailer. Remember, if you can't see beyond your trailer with your regular mirrors, you need extended towing mirrors for safety."
6. Is your trailer evenly packed?
NHTSA says towing dangers increase if your cargo isn't properly loaded and distributed. Beyond getting professional help with installing a trailer hitch that fits your needs, including matching the weight of the tow, the administration offers these basic tips for overall stability:
- Balance weight from side to side
- Distribute cargo weight evenly along the length of the trailer
- Secure and brace all items to prevent them from moving during travel
7. Bad braking
All that extra weight can make braking difficult, as pounds, size and speed can create overwhelming momentum. You may need a different approach than with your regular vehicle; softer braking over a longer distance should help you avoid mishaps, so "always anticipate the need to slow down," advises NHTSA.
Also, most states require separate trailer brakes when your rig exceeds specific weight limits, sometimes as low as 1,500 pounds.
8. Forgot the safety chains?
To improve connection reliability and prevent runaway trailers, you should also use safety chains. These cross over in the shape of an X to connect the trailer to the towing vehicle, acting as a back-up to prevent a separation if the primary hitch fails. Not all states require them, but many do.
9. Bedeviled by back-ups
Backing up a car or truck is relatively easy. But add a trailer and it can become troubling for novices. Many small accidents occur during the back-up ordeal, according to NHTSA and others.
The trick is to realize that the trailer turns in the opposite direction of the tow vehicle. "An easy way to back the trailer in the direction you want it to go is to put one hand at the bottom of the steering wheel," says Eyers. "To move the trailer to the left, move your hand to the left. To move the trailer to the right, move your hand to the right. Back up slowly, and if possible, have someone behind you to guide you."
10. Think your car insurance covers everything? Think again
Penny Gusner, the consumer analyst for Insure.com, says the liability car insurance portion of your policy should cover the trailer if it damages another person's car or property in an accident. But, she adds, your auto's collision and comprehensive coverage doesn't extend to the trailer or what you're hauling if they're affected.
Gusner says you'll likely need specific travel trailer, boat or personal watercraft insurance to make sure they're covered.
She also advises a little research, or a timely telephone call, before hooking up and heading out. "Always check your policy before you hitch a trailer," Gusner says. "Car insurance policy terms vary greatly, so read the fine print and call your insurer if you need clarification."
Lynne McChristian, a spokeswoman for the Florida wing of the Insurance Information Institute, adds that homeowners insurance usually includes some protection for trailers, boats and ancillary equipment. The payout, however, tends to be capped at $1,500.