Why Caravans Roll Over - updated November 2019

Pic: NT Police

Pic: NT Police

Why Caravans Roll Over

Updated November 2019

Why and how caravans roll over or jackknife is now totally understood. The cause is basic and readily avoided. It is substantially associated with the towing vehicle. This constantly updated article you are reading here is a brief precis of what happens, why and how to limit or prevent it happening.

Our full (plain English) book Why Caravans Roll Over - and how to prevent it explains all.

Caravan Roll Over Videos

In these caravan rollover videos, each caravan has become unstable with catastrophic results. They are unlikely to have occurred at a lower towing speed, but once they began to sway, they could not be recovered by driver correction (no matter how skilled or experienced).

Causes outside the driver's control include road conditions, wind resistance and gusting side winds (including those from trucks passing - or being passed).   

Factors within the driver's control include speed (particularly), weight of the caravan relative to the tow vehicle, distribution of weight in the caravan, tow ball mass - and tyre pressures of the towing vehicle. The use of a Weight Distribution Hitch too is involved.

That vitally required however is knowing how and why rollovers (or jack-knifing) occur.

Both videos show the accidents happened whilst towing on a flat road in a straight line. No bends, hills or obvious cambers. This is quite common but a particular risk is descending a steep windy hill at excess speed, and overtaking (or being overtaken by) a semi-trailer at high speed.

For the very first time, a full plain-English (plus a full technical explanation) is in our all-new book 'Why Caravans Rollover - and how to prevent it'.

The not-for-profit Caravan Council of Australia describes its as 'Essential reading for all caravanners!'

If you have any difficulty watching these videos on our site, you can see them here, and here .

Caravan Roll Over Factors

A caravan roll over is rarely the result of one issue. There are usually several involved. The ultimate cause - of the tow vehicle losing control - is outlined here.

A snaking caravan imposing side forces on the tow vehicle's rear tyres that can build up and cause them to lose all grip. This may happen if the rig is travelling at or above a critical speed (unique to each rig and its loading). These side yaw forces can trigger a violently escalating snaking that typically ends in a jack-knife. This typically results in the caravan overturning - and often also the tow vehicle. 

Excess speed (for that particular rig) is almost always involved. The tow vehicle and trailer is usually travelling at high speed when a roll over happens, often when overtaking another vehicle, or being overtaken. The forces involved increase with speed. A rollover at 110 km/h involves forces over four times higher than at 50 km/h. It is unlikely that the accident would have occurred at less speed. Regardless of speed limits never exceed 100 km/h when towing - especially when overtaking.

Critical Speed

There is a critical speed (unique to each rig and its loading) above which a tow vehicle and trailer is impossible for the driver to correct if subjected to a strong disturbing force. There is little or no warning. Yaw (sway) builds up within a few seconds, the rig almost always jack-knifes and is likely to roll over. 

Be aware that a tow vehicle that pulls a trailer that is unevenly loaded - or worse - rear-end heavy (and/or has too low tow ball mass) is likely to have critical speeds well below the towing speed limit. 

That critical speed does not imply that an accident will happen if that critical speed is exceeded. It means that if travelling at our above that speed, if hit by a strong disturbing force (often a side wind gust or emergency swerve) a jack-knife may likely result. 

The following are factors that increase your risk:  

Incorrect Trailer Weight Distribution

Heavy loads at the top and (especially) at the extreme rear of a long caravan make it potentially unstable. Keep all heavy items as close to the axle/s as possible. If possible, carry rear mounted spare wheels in the tow vehicle - not on the rear wall of the caravan. (That some makers inexplicably do this does not change the basic laws of physics). 

Tow Ball Mass

Inadequate tow ball mass decreases the rig's critical speed at which jack-knifing is likely. With many locally-made caravans over about 5.5 metres with tow ball mass below about 7.5%, that critical speed is very likely to be as low as 70-80 km/h.  

Excess Tow Hitch Overhang

Excess tow hitch overhang increases both download and side forces on the tow vehicle's rear tyres. Excess hitch overhang is virtually a recipe for swaying. Choose a tow hitch with the shortest possible overhang, not a longer one that may be marginally easier to couple and uncouple.  

External Factors

These are factors over which a driver has no control. Most are harmless for passenger cars, but when towing, can be dangerous. These include:

  • a wind gust, which can be natural or caused by a vehicle coming in the opposite direction
  • a wind gust (or increased or decreased (side) air pressure) as a result of overtaking or being overtaken
  • steep road camber, which may ease a trailer off to the side of the road. Over-compensating for this can send a tow vehicle and trailer sharply towards the middle of the road
  • adverse weather and road conditions.

The issue is not how a rig feels and acts in normal driving. It is how it behaves in abnormal driving. This may include swerving at speed to avoid a head-on crash, or a strong-enough side force on a bend and/or being passed (or passing) closely at speed by a semi-trailer.

Many owners of fundamentally unstable rigs have not experienced this simply because they have not been subject to such issues. But (increasingly)many are - over 300 rigs jack-knifed in 2018 alone. Many of those also rolled over.

Police and rescue staff commonly report the driver as saying 'it always felt so stable until then .....'. 

Our book Why Caravans Rollover - and how to prevent it  explains (in plain English) exactly how and why caravan rollovers happen. A invaluable section enables owners to estimate their own rig's stability - and suggests how to improve this. It also has a separate fully technical explanation - and many references.

The book is based on truly extensive research and (author) Collyn Rivers' having spent much of his life studying and working in this area. Collyn is an ex Vauxhall/Bedford motor industry research engineer. 

Why Caravans Rollover - and how to prevent it is downloadable from this website. Do it now!

Avoiding Caravan Roll Overs

'Why Caravans Rollover - and how to prevent it'  explains all

Major issues include:

  • never exceed 100 km/h with any rig where the laden caravan weighs more than the laden tow vehicle (especially when overtaking). 
  • do not overload your caravan (particularly at the rear)
  • make sure your tow ball mass is between 8-10%.
  • avoid having a laden tow vehicle that is lighter than the laden trailer. If it is, keep speed lower accordingly. 



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This article is based on content from Why Caravans Roll Over - and how to prevent it.

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