In­crease your tow­ing safety

Winnipeg Free Press - Section F - - AUTOS - JIM KERR

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.

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