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Pic: The Wanderer's first trip to Scotland in 1885, showing what can happen when a 2 tonne caravan goes off road.

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Mixed Messages

Why do we need a single set of national towing rules? Read on.

by Collyn Rivers and Andrew Woodmansey

Different Benchmarks

Firstly, because there are different 'light trailer' benchmarks in road rules around the country. NSW, VIC and WA use the weight of the tow vehicle (a GVM of up to 4500 kg) to set their light trailer towing rules, whilst QLD, ACT and the NT use the trailer's weight (an ATM of up to 4500 kg). SA thinks both are important whilst TAS believes trailer mass is the right benchmark but should be set at a GTM (not ATM) of up to 3500 kg.

So are we talking about the dog or its tail?

Mixed Towing Speed Signals

Secondly, there is no consensus within Australia, either on whether trailers should be towed at lower speeds than non-towing vehicles or on what a safe maximum towing speed should be. WA is the only state that sets a lower highway speed limit when towing trailers (100 km/h), for all other states and territories it's the posted speed limit. There is also a 50 km/h variation in highway maximum speeds across Australia, that (excluding WA) also apply to towing. These range from unsealed highways in Tasmania (80 km/h) to certain parts of highways in the NT (130 km/h).

The physics of towing dynamics are well known, so why do we still have a 50 km/h variation in maximum highway towing speed limits across Australia?

Should Learners and P-Platers Tow?

Thirdly, talking of mixed messages, learner and P-platers will receive no shortage of these when finding out whether they can tow a trailer in their state or territory. In TAS neither learner nor provisional drivers may tow a trailer, but in SA and the NT there are no towing restrictions at all on either learner or provisional drivers. Elsewhere it's a mix of the two. Given that many experienced drivers find towing a trailer challenging, RV Books suggests that new and inexperienced drivers listen to TAS.

Maximum Towing Weights - Are we Clear?

Fourthly, because state and territory road legislation is not always consistent on maximum towing weight terminology and which weights count.

Manufacturer-specified weight limits now form the basis of maximum towing weight legislation across Australia. Whilst there still needs to be legislation in place for old trailers that were made prior to manufacturer-set limits, it needs to be made abundantly clear that these (generous) weight rules do not apply to modern trailers. Some new caravan owners think that towing legislation allows them to tow a caravan weighing 50% more than the tow vehicle (this is wrong).

The maximum weight rules for modern trailers are in fact the same across Australia, but are explained differently. There needs to be simplicity and clarity in this critical area.

There are eight manufacturer-stipulated weight restrictions in the towing field which must not be exceeded. Five of these relate to tow vehicles (GVM, GCM, maximum towing capacity, maximum tow bar mass and maximum tow ball mass) and three relate to trailers (ATM, GTM and maximum coupling load). Other weight limits, such as tyre and axle weight limits, are generally taken into account when manufacturers set these other limits. We think eight is too many, but that's what we have for now.

Legislative wording on these weights varies considerably across the nation. Terms used in maximum weight legislation include ‘carrying capacity’, ‘coupling’, ‘towing apparatus’, ‘maximum trailer mass’, ‘towing mass’, ‘towing limits’, ‘any component in the vehicle/trailer combination’, ‘the lesser of’ and so on. Some of these are not defined.

And why are we still using the old-fashioned word 'aggregate' instead of the much clearer 'maximum' when describing maximum laden trailer weight? Let's use the new but very clear term 'MTM' ('Maximum Trailer Mass') instead of 'ATM' or 'GTM' so there can be no confusion.

For that matter, why do we need two different maximum weights (ATM and GTM) for a trailer? How many trailer owners known that a trailer must be disconnected from the tow vehicle to measure ATM, but connected to measure GTM? Further, Tare Mass definitions can mislead caravan owners and there are no stipulated minimum payload requirements for caravans.

RV Books has found several weight-related errors in a number of towing guides published by Australian organisations and manufacturers, including some reputable ones. Some do not understand the difference between actual and maximum weights, others think weights can only be explained by formulae. If they can't get it right, what chance the towing public? RV Books thinks towing weights should be explained everywhere using simple diagrams like these.

So let's agree what the weights are, how they are defined and how they can be easily checked by owners. And then let's get insurers to give drivers one free weighbridge check a year for each trailer policy to encourage regular use of weighbridges.

Towing Equipment - Do I Need it or Not?

Fifthly, different states and territories have small but significant variations in the towing equipment required.

Towing equipment that trailer manufacturers must install is stipulated by law under VSB1 and a range of Australian standards. But once the trailer is sold it becomes the owner's responsibility to ensure the equipment is present and in good working order.

Safety chains (sometimes cables are permitted) are required throughout the country, but whether they are crossed (if two are present), must not touch the ground or must prevent the A-frame from hitting the road varies. The critical need to have them long enough to permit turning is rarely mentioned. And why rated shackles are not legislated is anyone's guess.

Rear viewing rules for RVs are set out clearly in Australian Design Rules, but must wing mirror extensions be retracted or removed when not in use? Positions vary.

NSW appears to be the only state requiring a warning device to be fitted in the tow vehicle to warn the driver if the trailer battery charge is not adequate to fulfil automatic breakaway requirements. So does everyone driving through NSW need one of these?

There are a range of views in state and territory towing legislation on 'load distributors' (more commonly known as 'weight distribution/distributing hitches'). NSW and QLD say they 'can be used when towing large caravans' and WA say that 'a load distributing device may also be needed' when towing heavy loads. RV Books believes that weight distributing hitches solve one issue but introduce another, and that the use of what are in effect 'metal crutches' to tow heavy loads should be discouraged. Our forthcoming book 'The Australian  RV Handbook' will explain.

And if anyone knows whether new caravans made in VIC are required by law to be fitted with smoke alarms, please let us know.

Number Plates - Hard to See

Sixthly, number plate visibility requirements are different depending on where you are.

The road rules regarding the size, position and contents of vehicle number plates are similar throughout Australia. But with trailer number plates, there is a catch in some states related to number plate visibility.

NSW and TAS require number plates to be read (primarily by road cameras) within an arc of 45 degrees above or to either side of the vehicle, whilst the NT uses a 15 degree arc from above for vehicles less than 4.5 tonne GVM and 45 degrees otherwise.

The 'arc visibility' rules create problems for trailers with rear plates recessed under the cut-away of an 'off road' trailer or partially obscured by other towing equipment such as spare wheels and jerry cans. Number plates of trailers made in VIC but registered in NSW, TAS or the NT are particularly susceptible to this catch, since VIC has no 'arc visibility' rules.

Long Vehicle Variations

Lastly, variations in long vehicle legislation.

If your tow vehicle and trailer combination is over 7.5 metres long, it is a long vehicle. Amongst other things, long vehicles must travel at least 60 metres behind another long vehicle on a single lane highway that is not in a built up area unless overtaking. That is, unless you are in NSW where a 'built up area' is replaced by 'roads without street lights', or in WA and the NT where the minimum distance is not 60 metres but 200 metres, or in TAS where the minimum distance is 60 metres unless you are in a 'road train area' where it is 200 metres.


This blog is not a criticism of those in state and territory road authorities who set and enforce road rules. They are just doing their job, and there are clearly some variations in local circumstances that must be considered when road rule-making.

But the federal nature of Australia can sometimes hamper the development of uniform road rules that are simple, clear and therefore safe. This is particularly the case when it comes to towing legislation, and particularly relevant as more of us travel interstate.

Whilst towing rules are still localised, the physics of towing are universal. The number of caravan rollovers on our roads each year suggest towing principles are poorly understood by drivers, occasionally with disastrous consequences.

Recent media articles on towing safety have rightly highlighted the obligation of drivers to understand and comply with the towing obligations where they are registered and wherever they drive. But a driver who wants to tow a caravan around Australia must locate, read, understand and comply with over 20 legislative instruments, guides and inspection bulletins related to towing. Is that either fair or safe?

Surely a single set of national towing rules would be easier and safer for all?

Have a look at our suggestions on what a new set of national towing rules might look like here.

Tell us what you think.


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