Plenty To Know Before You Tow

It must be an age thing. Lying awake in the wee small hours and contemplating life and whatever random matters might spring to mind when all is quiet, even the neighbourhood dog.  

In my nocturnal musings recently, I started thinking about holidays – the European River Cruise, the walking tour of Ireland’s west coast, maybe Machu Picchu if the feet and lungs could manage it.  

So much to see and do, so few years left this side of 60.  

But then my mind turned to all the people I know who’ve traded the office for the Outback. The lifestyle of the grey nomad must be enticing.  

Tucked up in bed, I warmed to the idea of hitting the open road with caravan in tow.  

And in the dead of night I felt a sudden surge of true nationalism: “Her beauty and her terror – the great brown land for me!”  

Next day, the notion of hitching a caravan to my SUV and joining the migration didn’t seem quite so romantic after all.  

While I know a smidgen about the theory of vehicular articulation, I’ve never towed a trailer or a horse float, let alone a caravan. I wouldn’t know where to start.  

This got me thinking… surely I’m not the only know-nothing around?

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there are approximately nine caravans for every campervan registered in Australia.  

So, if we apply a factor of nine to the number of registered campervans (54,101 in 2013), we get a healthy 486,909 caravans in Australia.  

That’s a lot of wheels, tow bars and kitchenettes – but do almost half a million Australian drivers have expertise in towing caravans?  I somehow doubt it.

A basic understanding of physics and the laws of motion will tell you that caravans, by design, are not that stable under tow. When stability is compromised, a moving caravan can be transformed into a large and terrifying mass of energy.  

Take, for example, a Toyota Land Cruiser travelling at 100km/h with  a three tonne caravan in tow. At 100km/h, the rig packs a whopping four times the kinetic energy it generates when travelling at just 50km/h.   You don’t have to be Sir Isaac Newton to work out that speed is a key contributor to caravan jack-knifing and overturning.
A conventional caravan (as opposed to a fifth wheeler) pivots on a tow bar hitch. If the caravan sways, the towing vehicle responds by swaying in the opposite direction – and vice versa.  A bit like a hula dancer at a luau in Maui.

A gentle sway may be manageable, if a tad disconcerting, but if the sway continues beyond a certain point, the movement of the caravan can become unpredictable, uncontrollable and highly unsafe.  

Add a cross wind, a passing road train, an unexpected turn in the road, an emergency swerve, a faulty road camber and driver experience and expertise is all that stands between a close shave and outright disaster.   When road or environmental conditions cause a caravan to move out of line with the towing vehicle, the forward motion of the towing vehicle is usually enough to pull the caravan straight.  

However, things can go horribly wrong when the caravan resists the change and actually ‘overshoots’ by pulling in the opposite direction.   What happens next all comes down to speed.   If the rig is just plodding along nicely, the sway will quickly abate. But if the driver is travelling ‘at speed’ – and what speed that is depends on the road conditions, the experience level of the driver and the nature of the rig – the almost inevitable result will be a jack knife or a rollover or both.

Caravan jack-knifes and rollovers are all too common.

On a recent trip from Perth to Broome, two experienced nomads came across the wreckage of two caravans in a 1000km stretch.  

In each instance, the debris was scattered over 200m, which gives you some indication of how much force is involved when a caravan and its towing vehicle can’t agree.  

Closer to home, readers may recall an incident in 2011 when a brand new $86,000 caravan jack-knifed on the M1 on the Gold Coast, 30 minutes after being collected from the Burleigh Heads dealer by its excited owners.  
The 4WD flipped on its roof, crushing the hood, while the van rolled on its side and skidded along the highway, leaving sheets of cladding and glass in its wake.  

The owners escaped with severe bruising to wallet and ego only, but all northbound lanes of the M1 were closed for an hour while the debris was removed.  

I’ve always wondered if the hapless pair pursued their caravanning dream.  More power to them if they did, although I doubt it.

After so ignominious an introduction to caravanning, my bet is they spent the insurance money on a European river cruise, a walking tour of Ireland’s West Coast and maybe Machu Picchu if their feet and lungs could manage it.  

The legal situation in a nutshell

• It goes without saying that the driver must be licenced to drive the tow vehicle and must obey any condition codes listed on their licence.  

• The driver must also drive to suit the prevailing road conditions.  

• Caravans on Queensland roads must be registered, which involves obtaining a safety certificate (previously known as a roadworthy certificate) and complying with any other pre-registration requirements.  

• Provided the number plate of the caravan is clearly displayed, the rear plate on the towing vehicle may be obscured.  

• The driver must ensure that the tow vehicle and the caravan are a good match size-wise. Specifically, the tow vehicle can tow a trailer with an aggregate trailer mass, which is the lesser of the tow vehicle manufacturer’s recommended maximum trailer towing mass or the tow vehicle’s towbar rating.

Tell us what you think

My proposal: First, I would like to see the towing of caravans limited to drivers with an open licence.
Although P-plate drivers and caravans may seem an unlikely combination, it appears to be allowed under the law.    Next, I’d like to see a driver pass some sort of mandatory testing as a pre-condition to having their licence endorsed with “may tow caravan”.  

What are your thoughts? Am I overstating the risks associated with caravanning or do my concerns mirror yours? What do you think of my proposal to increase the regulatory burden? Is it a case of just more red tape or is it far enough in the interests of public safety? I’d love to hear from you.  

Please send your comments to editor@yourtimemagazine.com.au or
Kate Callahan, Your Time Magazine, P O Box 6362, Maroochydore BC 4558.