Monday, August 25, 2008

Motorists beware of trailers' risks

Q: There are many people with trailers on the road these days. Not just small trailers, but horse trailers and other large units as well. People need to be on the lookout for trailers, and should know how not to drive around them: Aggressive driving and cutting off vehicles pulling trailers is particularly dangerous. Trailer-haulers can't stop on a dime, and it takes considerable space for them to make turns or change lanes. Other motorists need to give them enough room.

Jacqueline Greener


A: Good points, Jacqueline.

The Warrior has a true confession tale to relate wherein he nearly caused a horrific accident simply by failing to put the brakes on his temper.

On Interstate 78 eastbound, east of Harrisburg, near dusk, the Warrior was ''boxed in'' for what seemed like forever (probably five minutes) by a guy in the passing lane to his left, maintaining the Warrior's too-slow speed without reason.

By the time the full-size sedan finally inched ahead, the Warrior was so frustrated he resolved to zoom dramatically into the passing lane, right behind the car, the instant its rear bumper cleared. His thinking went along the lines of, ''I'll show this guy what I think of his driving!''

Perhaps by instinct, the Warrior must have glanced left at the last instant, and there was enough light remaining to illuminate the outline of one of those low, steel-frame trailers -- this one bearing a snowmobile.

Jerking the wheel back to the right, the Warrior stayed in the travel lane for a few more seconds until the trailer cleared. He'd nearly slammed his car directly into its side, snowmobile and all. The insane maneuver, fueled by an absurd sense of vengeance, likely escaped the trailer-tower's notice.

This story illustrates the roadway mentality to which many of us succumb at one time or another, emotion overtaking clarity of thought. Something about modern-day vehicles and driving conditions can bring out the worst in us. A conscious, sustained effort is needed to overcome this tendency -- an effort the Warrior tries to make, not always with success.

The experience also illustrates how dangerous it can be driving trailers, and driving among them.

Accident statistics comparing civilian trailer-towing to single-vehicle driving are rare, and controversial. U-Haul, for example, contends that towing a trailer actually is safer than traveling unattached, but a Los Angeles Times report last year revealed considerable skepticism of the claim from traffic-safety experts.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration advises motorists new to the trailer-towing game to practice in parking lots or in low-traffic areas before hitting the road for real.

Terry Ritter of Schaeffer's RV Super Store in Shoemakersville, Berks County, said store personnel take buyers for short test drives to make sure they gain some sense of towing practices. And safe-driving procedures and road conditions are discussed at monthly owners' clinics, he said.

NHTSA offers a truckload of safety tips for folks towing trailers.

For general handling, the agency recommends moderate speeds (translation: slow down!) to minimize trailer sway and instability, not to mention wear and tear on the vehicle doing the pulling. Trailer towing can be tough on engines and transmissions.

Experts also caution against sudden starts, stops and steering maneuvers, and note that motorists pulling trailers need to make wider turns to avoid bumping or crossing curbs with the trailer's tires.

(That's also the answer, incidentally, to a query from Vince Julian Jr. of Nazareth as to why some motorists, even those without trailers, make a slight jog to the left before turning right at intersections. It's intended to gain a better angle for the turn, to avoid hitting the curb with the right rear wheel. But wheel-strikes are rare for average-size cars, and the ''hook'' move to the left is not recommended for general practice.)

Allowing ''considerably more'' stopping distance with trailers, and slowing in anticipation of stops, by downshifting for example, are advisable braking practices. Passing on level terrain, allowing extra passing distance, and ensuring the trailer clears before returning to the travel lane are among NHTSA's other recommendations.

Tips and information about backing up and parking, and other trailer safety advice are available from the agency's Web site, and from numerous trade groups.

''Regular'' motorists with trailers in their midst should observe the familiar rules regarding civilian trailers' big brothers, tractor-trailers, Ritter said: Don't follow too closely behind -- if you can't see a trailer's outside rear-view mirrors, the driver can't see you.

With some common sense, and with mutual awareness among trailer-towers and the rest of us, we can hope to travel together without incident.

Just watch out for those snowmobile trailers.

Road Warrior appears Mondays and Fridays. E-mail questions about roadways, traffic and transportation to Please include your name and the municipality where you live. Or, write to Road Warrior, The Morning Call, 101 N. Sixth St., Allentown, PA 18101-1480.

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