Safe Driving While Towing
A Boat

By John Tiger

Using the right precautions and driving defensively will keep everyone safer when towing.

Photo of towing a powerboat along the highwayPhoto: Thinkstock

If you've never towed a trailer or it's been a few seasons, you'll be far more confident if you spend time practicing before heading for the highway. Start in a large, empty parking lot, and have an experienced trailer-tower join you as co-pilot and instructor. You'll need plenty of wide-open space with few obstructions to feel comfortable. In this environment, you can drive slowly, focusing on how the tow vehicle acts with the trailer attached. You can also detach the trailer and perform the same maneuvers to determine the differences between towing and not towing. When practicing, focus on these areas:

Acceleration:

Feel how the rig plus the trailer takes a lot longer to accelerate to speed than it does without the trailer.

Braking:

Similarly, the rig with trailer takes longer to slow down, requiring a lot more pedal pressure, than it does without the trailer.

Turning:

No matter how fast you're going, turns must be made more slowly and deliberately with the trailer attached. Practice swinging wide at corners, so the inside wheel of the trailer doesn't hit the curb.

Stability:

The truck will feel heavier and tippier with the trailer attached. As a result, sudden maneuvers, whenever possible, should be avoided. Length: The length of the trailer behind the truck must be constantly in your awareness, especially when you're overtaking slower traffic, turning, backing, maneuvering in such tight spaces as a gas station, and choosing a parking space. Turn signals must be applied earlier to warn others of your intent.

On The Road

After a parking-lot practice session or two, try some back roads. Choose roads less traveled and avoid rush hour. Practice merging into traffic by accelerating deliberately but firmly up the on-ramp and signaling early to move into traffic. Learn to keep a larger distance between you and the traffic ahead, as it will take your rig longer to slow down.

Photo of a Ford Tundra towing powerboat on a residential street

Photo of a boat and car collisionYou might think your rig is hard to miss, like this bright-red bass boat (top), but you can't always count on other drivers to pay attention.

Lastly, learn to drive slower with the trailer attached; if you normally drive at the speed limit, then slow by 5 mph or so when towing. Until you become very comfortable and have gained experience over several towing trips, don't engage the cruise control when towing. Your reaction time in challenging situations is critical.

Reacting

Towing is a lot like dealing with large, wild animals: No sudden movements. Your typical driving reactions won't work when you're towing a boat. Here's how to react when confronted by these sudden surprises:

Abrupt Lane Change/Braking:

Lay off the gas immediately and gently tap the brakes to induce a slowdown without swerving or causing instability.

Flat Tire/Broken Suspension:

Avoid stomping suddenly on the brakes. Steer to the shoulder and apply the brakes gently, if at all. Use your hazard flashers to warn other drivers.

Tongue Or Coupler Failure:

Again, no sudden braking. Steer slowly to the shoulder.

Trailer Swaying/Instability:

Apply very little steering input while letting off the gas; don't brake heavily, as this will make the condition worse. In some cases, light throttle pressure will alleviate the sway.

High Winds/Passing Vehicles:

These conditions can induce or worsen trailer sway. Again, apply very little steering input, and slow down gradually without applying the brakes.

Steep Uphill Grades:

Move to the right lane to allow faster vehicles to pass. Use the trailer tow gear, or a low gear, to keep engine RPM steady and engine and transmission temps in check.

Steep Downhill Grades:

Descents, especially those that end in T intersections, can be tricky and nerve-wracking. Approach the hill slowly; decrease speed before you begin descending. Drop the transmission gear to trailer tow or a lower gear. Don't apply constant brake pressure until it's absolutely needed, usually at the bottom of the hill, as this heats up the brakes, rendering them less effective. Apply the brakes periodically but firmly, releasing them every few seconds to allow some cooling. If the hill is very steep, drop the transmission to low gear to help slow you down.

Planning Your Trip

Plan fuel and rest stops beforehand so you spend less time worrying about where your rig will fit when you stop. Remember to keep farther back when following traffic. Stay in the slower lanes unless you're overtaking traffic. It should go without saying: No texting, no web surfing, and if possible, no talking on the cellphone while you're towing. Keep the radio turned low so you can hear any potential trailer noises and can focus more clearly on driving, towing, and the road around you. Pay attention to nearby drivers, and take frequent looks at them in case they're trying to signal you about trailer trouble as a smoking tire, a light out, swaying, and the like. 

— Published: Spring 2015


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