We have commented many times in the past on the importance of maintaining towed vehicles, but South African roads continue to be plagued by crashes arising from mechanical failure involving trailers and caravans. With the April holidays, a reminder on towed vehicle safety is due.
One of the contributors to crashes involving towed vehicles is that they are often used infrequently. Apart from the odd trip, most domestic trailers spend most of their lives under the carport, caravans even more so. This can result in unexpected problems, starting with the presence of animals. Ants and other small insects find a ready home in light fittings and connectors, carrying in water and debris which piles up, inviting corrosion.
It pays to do a full inspection of the underside of the chassis and all the wiring if the vehicle hasn't been towed for a while. Check all connectors and cable ties for security. The lights may work when you test them at home, but five minutes of driving could shake loose the tenuous connections left by rats chewing the cables, leaving you without lighting for the rest of your journey. And corrosion could cause brake linkages to seize, a serious safety risk in the case of caravans and heavy trailers.
With the electrics and brakes serviced and functional, your next stop should be to do a thorough bolt check. Focus especially on the chassis bolts and the tow hitch attachment point, and while you're about it, ensure that the licence disc holder is secure and the licence itself is valid. With the recent troubles with the postal service, your licence renewal reminder may have gone missing, and if the licence has expired, the vehicle is technically unroadworthy. This could result in a fine at best, and possible repudiation of an insurance claim at worst.
If you tow a caravan with gas bottle mounts, ensure the bottles are securely fastened. A gas bottle which detaches becomes a high-speed missile which could be fatal for other road users. The same goes for the spare wheel - ensure it's properly attached and that you have the tools needed to not only remove it from the trailer or caravan, but fit it at the roadside if needed. The jack and wheelspanner in your tow vehicle may not be of the right type or size for your trailer!
On the subject of tyres, they should be correctly inflated and have sufficient tread remaining, but they should also be structurally safe. The tyres on towed vehicles rarely rack up enough kilometres to wear out within their safe life. Tyre manufacturers typically suggest five to seven years as being the maximum lifetime of a tyre. Older tyres become hard and crack as they age, especially when exposed to the harsh sunlight and heat of the South African environment. A tyre may have plenty of tread left, but if it has begun to show hairline cracks in the sidewall or tread grooves, then it's reached the end of its life and should be replaced to reduce the risk of sudden failure.
A point of particular concern is the wheel bearings on towed vehicles which tend to stand for long periods between uses. In such cases, bearings can develop flat spots which can cause early failure, or the lubricating grease can deteriorate or dry out. The most reliable test for wheel bearing condition is to jack up the trailer and rock the wheel on its axle. There should be no play, and if there is, the wheel bearing is in need of replacement. Do not skimp on this relatively inexpensive repair - if a bearing fails, the wheel may depart the vehicle, endangering other road users and possibly even causing you to lose control of the combination.
Adhere to laws regarding the maximum amount of weight which may be exerted on the tow hitch of the tow vehicle and pack your caravan or trailer so as to distribute the load evenly. Place the heaviest items directly over the axle, for instance.
A final point, often overlooked, is to ensure that your tow vehicle can legally tow whatever you hitch it up to. Consult the tow vehicle's owner's manual to determine the maximum towing capacity, and ensure you comply with the law too, both in terms of the licence you need to tow the trailer or caravan in question, and in terms of the maximum permissible mass of the towed vehicle.
If you have any questions about towing, contact us at the AA - we're here to help and we want you to get back safely from your Easter break!