Towing Safety On The Highway
Let’s talk about towing on the paved surface of the highway and what challenges that may entail.
- First of all, in most (if not all) states, you are required to tow in the right lane only, except for passing. (See California Towing Laws for more information.) It doesn’t matter if you have enough people in your vehicle to qualify for the commuter lane; you must not tow in any lane but the right lane only!
- Assuming your tow vehicle is reasonably adequate for the trailer you are towing and your hitch equipment is suitable, towing on the highway is not much more difficult than driving the family car by itself unless you run into adverse weather or traffic conditions. Driving your motorhome or truck camper is comparable to driving your family car once you become accustomed to the feel of the controls and to the reference points from the drivers seat relating to the position of the RV in traffic.
- Be cautious when maneuvering to allow for the extra length, width and height of your vehicle. Always allow extra room in cornering and when changing lanes. Check the side mirrors often. Learn to use the view of the roadway behind, as seen through the side mirrors, as a reference to keep a good lane position.
- Before traveling down the highway, double check your hitch to see that all is in order, safety pins are engaged, breakaway cable is connected, safety chains are attached and that all lights and brakes are operating normally. Adjust your mirrors for best coverage, being careful to stay within the legal width limit. In California, you must be no wider than 8’6” unless you carry a special permit. Your mirrors should extend out far enough to see down both sides and slightly behind the trailer. (Mirrors may extend up to 10” beyond the 8”6” limit on each side of the vehicle in CA).
- Try to determine your route in advance if you plan to drive through large cities. Use metropolitan area maps or your GPS to determine the lanes you should be in at critical points. Remember that now you have another vehicle in tow and you cannot “jump” lanes at the last minute. If you miss a freeway exit because you are in the wrong lane, just miss it and get off at the next convenient one. If you continually “challenge” traffic and take chances in order to get the right of way, sooner or later it may needlessly involve you and your family in a serious accident. Plan ahead, take it easy and be courteous.
- Avoid sudden maneuvers when you are passing another vehicle. Remember that additional time and distance are required to pass safely. Wait until the road is clear of oncoming traffic for at least half a mile. Check the rearview mirrors and be sure to signal lane changes before passing. When you are safely ahead of the other vehicle, go ahead and signal your lane change and return to your original lane. Some truck drivers will flash their headlights to you to indicate you’re clear for a safe return to the right hand lane. Many trailerists return the favor for the big rig truckers.
- Drive with consideration on the highway, observing all applicable speed and safety regulations. (California law requires all vehicles towing drive no more than 55 mph, regardless of a higher posted speed. Your state may be different). The best cruising speed for your RV will vary with different road and weather conditions. Remember that higher speeds may result in a sharp increase in fuel consumption.
- Always allow a safe distance in which to stop your RV. Never follow another vehicle closer than one vehicle length for each 10 mph you are traveling. Pump the brake pedal lightly to stop on wet or icy roads. If you start to slide, turn your steering wheel in the direction of the slide. DO NOT tromp on the brake pedal, as a panic stop will increase the slide.
- Do not rest your foot on the brake pedal when you are not intending to stop. “Riding” the brakes will waste fuel and can cause excessive brake temperatures, lining wear and possible brake failure. Trailer brakes should be adjusted to engage before the tow vehicle’s brakes by adjusting the “sync” switch on the manual controller. Be especially cautious about applying brakes heavily when the tow vehicle and trailer are not in a straight line. Slow down on wet surfaces.
- Driving on winding or mountain roads is not difficult if it’s done with reasonable care. Observe proper vehicle speeds when ascending or descending hills and always operate in the proper transmission gear range. Downshift on hills to avoid overheating or undue engine loads. When you’re turning with a trailer attached, the trailer will “cut inside” of the tow vehicle track. Remember to allow for this when you are making sharp turns around obstacles such as curbs, trees and gas pumps.
- Allow for the extra height of your RV and avoid areas having low overhead clearance. It is a good idea to measure the height of the tallest part of your rig before traveling, then record this measurement within sight of the driver so that you will quickly know the necessary clearance. Obstacles are often marked with the actual vertical height measurement and some that appear very high are not high enough for a tall vehicle. Be especially careful of low hanging tree branches or obstructions whenever you drive or park.
- Avoid low roofs when pulling in for service. This may be particularly important if you drive with the overhead vents open, or if the RV is equipped with a roof air conditioner, TV dish or antennae. Make full use of a convex mirror at least on the right side. This will give you vision where the flat mirror may not. Be especially cautious until you become accustomed to the perspective the convex mirror displays. Vehicles appear to be a greater distance behind you than they really are, when viewed in the convex mirror surface.
- If you are pulling a trailer or another vehicle behind your motorhome or truck camper, be especially careful and always know the condition and position of the vehicle that is being towed. A lightweight boat, car or trailer is hardly noticeable to the driver of a motorhome used as a tow vehicle, but remember not to change lanes too quickly in case you forget about the additional length.
- Also notice the position of the vehicle or trailer that you are towing. An abrupt change in the position of the towed vehicle or trailer may indicate a flat tire, a brake or axle bearing that is locked up or some other problem. A flat tire on the lightweight trailer may not be noticeable to the driver of the tow vehicle until something very dramatic happens like the boat falling off or a wheel flying off. Drivers following or passing you pointing toward the rear will be cause for concern!
- If your model trailer is a “wide track” take extra care when towing on narrow roads. Your trailer wheels are on and off the shoulder. In some areas, shoulders are extremely soft after heavy rains and you must make every effort to keep the trailer on the hard road surface. If the road has a sharp edge with a drop of several inches to the soft shoulder, don’t try to bring the trailer back onto the hard surface of the road until reducing your vehicle speed. If a trailer is sharply returned to the road at high speed, sometimes it will “catch” the concrete edge suddenly and swerve dangerously towards the other side of the highway before finally straightening out.
- Avoid driving on ice covered highways. Driving on packed dry snow is not advisable, but you can be reasonably safe under these conditions if you are used to it and use caution. Sometimes a highway is ice-free but overpasses and bridges are frozen over. When crossing iced bridges, maintain a constant speed in a straight line to avoid skidding.
I hope these tips will help you feel more comfortable about what to do in most any situation you may find yourself while towing on the highway.
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