Guide to safe loading and towing for light vehicles

Incorrect loading can be a significant contributing factor incrashes, so it’s vital you get it right.

Any trailer you’re towing must display a current WoF sticker, registration label and plate and, before you set off on any journey check all your lights are working and if necessary, replace any bulbs.

Be mindful of the weight that you’re adding to your vehicle as overloading could compromise the vehicle’s braking ability, cooling system, transmission, clutch, or even the engine longevity. You can always check your vehicle’s handbook if you’re unsure as it should provide the maximum loading weight and the unladen (unloaded) weight of your car. Taking the maximum weight minus the unladen weight will you give you the actual maximum load that a vehicle can carry.

Here are four useful tips to remember when loading a trailer:

  1. Spread the load evenly across the floor or deck of the trailer, keeping the height as low as possible. Where stacking is unavoidable, make sure that the heavier or larger items are placed at the bottom. Doing this correctly will help to avoid the potential risk of the trailer swaying.
  2. Arrange loads so that objects aren’t sticking too far out the side, use the vehicle towing the trailer as a guide line and try not to exceed the width of the vehicle. Minimise any projecting loads to reduce the risk of injury to the driver, passengers and other road users. The standard maximum towing width is 2.5 metres.
  3. Position the load on the trailer as close to the axle as possible. Avoid placing heavier loads towards the rear of the trailer and ensure that there’s a downward force at the point of attachment to help improve the overall handling whilst towing.
  4. Secure the cargo to prevent shifting while travelling. Objects will move around as the vehicle brakes, turns, accelerates and drives over uneven surfaces, so prepare for every condition when strapping down.

It’s also a good idea to keep on top of the regular maintenance of your trailer as a poorly maintained trailer can be a hazard to yourself and other road users. A run down or badly maintained trailer is hard to tow safely, no matter how good you are at towing.

The following basic checks should be carried out periodically, especially if you only use the trailer once or twice a year:

  • Check the trailer’s tyre pressures and look for signs of wear or damage.
  • Clean all lights and reflectors.
  • Check that all lights are working.
  • Take it to a garage to check the tow coupling and brake mechanisms are well lubricated.
  • Jack the trailer up, spin the wheels and listen out for any rumbling noises as this may indicate worn wheel bearings.
  • Check that all tie-down points are tight and that the chain and D shackles are in place.

Familiarise yourself with the road rules for light vehicles towing trailers and also the vehicle’s tow rating. The maximum open road speed is 90km/h, as long as you have a rigid connection between the vehicle and the trailer. But, for those using or considering a rope or non-rigid connection, the maximum speed is 50km/h. While these are maximum speeds, sometimes the road conditions may require you to drive slower to remain safe. Most vehicles are awarded tow ratings by the manufacturers, while also specifying the recommended gross trailer weight - braked, unbraked or both. The NZTA says “although the law does not require these tow ratings to be followed, we recommend that they be taken into account”.

While you’re towing, be conscious of your steering and braking. Allow extra space for stopping, apply the brakes lightly before turning, and always use a lower gear when travelling downhill. Also, be aware of any swaying from the trailer being towed. Nowadays many new vehicles a have an anti-sway technology built in, but swaying can be reduced by avoiding sharp steering. If you encounter ‘sway’ do not apply the brakes as this might cause the trailer to jack knife, and instead back off the accelerator allowing the vehicle to gradually slow down.

More information can be found on NZTA's website

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