Increase your towing safety
SUMMER holidays are soon upon us and some of us will be hooking up a trailer for the first time. It can be intimidating. Even the smallest trailer can alter the handling characteristics of your vehicle, and heavier trailers can move you around significantly. Usually everything is fine as you pull away. The difficulties arise when you try to slow down, need to make an evasive manoeuvre or experience some sway from the trailer. That’s when you need a properly equipped tow vehicle.
Trucks and full sized SUVs dominate as tow vehicles for good reason. They are large, powerful and have strong frames to connect trailers to. Many cars are capable of towing light utility trailers but most passenger cars have a maximum towing capacity of only 450 kilograms. Larger trailers and even many boats exceed this capacity. Pickup trucks can haul much more weight but if you haul heavy or large trailers, you are better off towing with one of the heavy-duty trucks on the market.
Say ‘heavy duty’ and you may think rough, tough work trucks. True, heavyduty trucks are capable of the roughtough duty required of a work truck, but take a look at the current lineup of heavy duty trucks and you will find many of them equipped with features similar to luxury cars. Until recently, you had to add an aftermarket accessory to your vehicle to tow a larger trailer — a trailer brake controller, but the truck manufacturers know heavyduty trucks are often used to tow, so they have changed that.
Now it is possible to get a factory trailer-brake controller on your new truck and it usually comes when you order the trailer-towing package. For example, Ford researchers found 80 per cent of SuperDuty truck owners pull trailers and most of these will install a trailer-brake controller. There are several advantages for drivers with factory-designed and installed controllers.
One advantage of factory brake controllers is they typically sit up high and are easily accessible. The dash panels on most vehicles are made of plastic and it can sometimes be difficult to find a solid mounting location for an aftermarket controller, so often the controller is mounted lower than is desirable. The last thing you want to be doing is reaching down for the manual brake control lever when a trailer is swaying back and forth. The controller should be as easy to reach as the radio controls.
A second advantage of factory controllers became apparent at my first slow-speed stop with a trailer, typical of what you might experience in stop-and-go traffic. The electronics portion of the controller is integrated into the truck’s brake system and uses software programming to operate the trailer brakes at the same time the truck’s brakes are applied. The result is a smooth intuitive braking feel without that common back and forth trailer lurch as the vehicle comes to a stop. In fact, it almost feels like the trailer isn’t back there.
Aftermarket trailer brake controllers may use electronics to apply the trailer brakes too, but the brake input might be an internal pendulum or inertia sensor. The trailer brake application is slightly delayed because the controller has to sense the tow vehicle slowing first. Some controllers are not very sophisticated and work like a light switch — the brakes are either on or off. It doesn’t make for very smooth driving.
Plus and minus buttons on controllers allow the driver to adjust the gain so the amount of braking requested can be adjusted to the weight of the trailer. A digital display shows the driver the gain setting and a bar graph below the gain display indicates the amount of braking currently being applied.
Another benefit of factory controllers is the system will warn the driver if the trailer brake wiring becomes disconnected or there is a problem with the brake controller. This may show up as a warning light or a message in the driver information panel.
The systems are integrated into the truck, so they use information from the vehicle’s anti-lock brake system. The trailer-brake controller will use a different braking strategy during ABS stops for improved control. No aftermarket controller that I am aware of has this feature.
Finally, a feature called trailer-sway control is definitely worth looking for when purchasing a new tow vehicle. Sway control will stop the trailer from swaying back and forth before it becomes dangerous and upsets the handling of the vehicle. For experienced tow drivers, trailer sway is the most difficult towing problem to handle and, if not done correctly, can quickly lead to an accident. Novice towing drivers now have the benefit of a system that helps all towing drivers. Together, integrated brake controllers and trailer-sway control make for much safer towing.
Trucks and full-sized SUVs like this 2015 Chevrolet Suburban dominate as tow vehicles. They are large, powerful and have strong frames to connect trailers to.