Towing Guide: Laws, licences and tips

What do I need to know before towing?

Many of us dream of hitching up a caravan, or a mass of DIY equipment, to the back of our cars and heading off for a weekend’s camping or brick-laying. But what do we need to know to make sure that we’re keeping to the right side of the law when towing?

Well, weight is key. If you’re on a normal Category B Irish driver’s licence, then you’re limited to a maximum weight of 3,500kg. Now, that’s not the weight of the trailer, that’s the total weight of the car, plus you and anyone else in it, plus the trailer, plus the load in the trailer. You’re going to need to get a weighing scales out…

Actually, the 3,500kg limit is a relatively generous one, considering that most medium-to-large family cars weigh in and around 1,500-2,000kg and a large caravan, for instance, weighs between 1,400-1,700kg. That still leaves a little leeway for luggage and people in the car. There is a theoretical limit of 750kg maximum for a trailer, but according to the Road Safety Authority (RSA), the effective limit is a combined 3,500kg because the law says: “You may tow a trailer with a maximum mass (as specified by the manufacturer) not greater than 750kg, or where the maximum mass is more than 750kg, the combined maximum mass of the towing vehicle and the trailer is not greater than 3,500kg.”

It gets a little trickier with things such as horseboxes. Horseboxes are big and heavy, and the horses (or other livestock) in them can be heavier still. Hook a ‘box full or horses up to the back of a large SUV and you could easily find yourself tipping the scales beyond the 4,000kg mark, which is well beyond the bounds of the law if you’re on a Category B licence. Which means that if you’re going to take advantage of the maximum towing capacity of big 4x4s such as a Land Rover Defender or Toyota Land Cruiser (which can both haul as much as 3,500kg on a braked trailer) then you’re going to have to upgrade to a Category BE driver’s licence. 

What’s a braked trailer? One that has its own braking system, linked to that of the car’s. Any trailer with a weight of more than 750kg has to have its own brakes. Any trailer above 750kg also has to have a ‘breakaway’ brake, which brings the trailer to a halt if it becomes detached from the towing vehicle. 

It also has to have such things as tyres with legal tread depths, and in general be treated the same as your car when it comes to condition and safety. You need to have brake lights and reflectors, and a proper number-plate on the trailer too. Trailers also can’t just be bought from anyone, or made at home, anymore. They are now subject to European type-approval, so make sure you’re buying from a reputable source.

You also need to make sure that not only does the trailer or caravan fit within the maximum towing weight of the car you’re driving, but that the maximum nose weight — that’s the weight put on the tow-hitch by the trailer itself — is within limits. You’ll find the max nose weight figure in your car’s handbook. The RSA also points out that hitching and unhitching a trailer or caravan is as important as the actual towing bit, so advises you to make sure you’ve learned the correct procedure and can do the job competently and safely. Most trailers and caravans now come with a handbrake of their own attached to the hitch, so that they won’t roll away, and heavier ones will have their own retracting nosewheel to make them easier to move around. It’s best to do hitching and unhitching on level ground, preferably away from passing traffic, and to reverse your own car up to within about half-a-metre of the trailer. Then, once you’ve made sure that everything is set up properly, reverse the last little bit so that the ball of your tow-hitch is in line with, and underneath, the trailer hitch. 

It’s always good to do a last ‘walk-around’ check before setting off, too, making sure that all the trailer’s lights and reflectors are present and correct, and that any load is properly and safely secured, and that the weight of the load is safely distributed. 

Once you’re on the road, there are more regulations to stick to. If it’s a large load, or a caravan, you’ll need wing-mirror extensions. You’ll also have to stick to the 80km/h speed limit for vehicle-and-trailer combos, even on motorways. 

The primary advice for driving with a towed weight is anticipation. You don’t want to have to make any emergency manoeuvres with a trailer or caravan, so look further up the road ahead, and try to make gentle control inputs on the steering and brakes, always trying not to unsettle the load. Definitely avoid braking in the middle of a sharp bend, and leave more distance for braking, especially in the wet, as you’re carrying more weight and therefore have higher momentum.

Don’t forget that you’ll be driving slower than most other traffic (80km/h, remember) and so it’s considered polite to try and pull in once in a while to let other traffic past, when it’s safe to do so. While many cars now come with electronic stability control that recognises when you’re towing, and adjusts its settings accordingly, it’s still possible to get into trouble with a trailer bouncing around or oscillating behind the car. If that happens, the best advice is to very gently brake and slow down as easily as you possibly can, until the trailer stops moving and you can bring everything back under control.

Finally, there’s reversing with a trailer or a caravan, which is arguably one of the hardest manoeuvres in motoring. Again, there are newer cars that can use a combination of parking radar and cameras to be able to help you, but the best advice is simply to practice. It’s a skill, and one that needs regular honing.