It’s common on Irish roads to see a car towing a trailer while clipping along at the 120km/h speed limit, despite the fact that the legal speed limit for towing a trailer is just 80km/h.
Speed is just one of the regulations concerning trailer use that are frequently flaunted. The laws and licensing for trailer use are complicated and at times confusing. The reality is that many drivers are towing trailers without the proper licence, despite the risk of incurring penalty points and potentially voiding their insurance cover. With trailer use, weight is the key.
What can I tow on my car licence? On a standard B car licence you can tow a trailer that has a maximum authorised mass (Mam) of 750kg; this includes the weight of both the trailer and its load. (A trailer's technical specifications are stamped on a metal plate attached to it.) You can also tow a trailer and load weighing more than 750kg as long as the combined weight of the vehicle and loaded trailer does not exceed 3,500kg. A "type 01", "unbraked" trailer does not need a braking mechanism. This trailer is likely to be small – when it is empty you could manhandle it with little effort – with, usually, just one axle.
Can I tow a horsebox on a car licence? According to the Road Safety Authority, "As a general rule a category B licence does not entitle the holder to tow a horsebox or a livestock trailer, because the combined Mam would exceed 3,500kg." But this is not always the case. Again, as long as the total weight of the car, trailer and load carried does not exceed 3,500kg you can drive it on a B licence. For example, a Skoda Octavia family estate towing a "type 02" trailer – one with a Mam of more than 750kg – with two bulls weighs in at 3,085kg combined, but the same trailer and livestock towed by a Toyota Land Cruiser SUV weighs in at 4,440kg, well over the 3,500kg B-licence limit.
Drivers of large SUVs on a B licence need to take care, as their heavier vehicles can often push the total weight above the 3,500kg limit, then requiring a category BE (car and trailer) licence.
This seems inherently silly, as a large SUV would generally have more power than a car, to make towing easier, but that’s the way the rules apply.
Of course, before you attach a hitch to a Ford Ka it’s worth noting the towing vehicle must be certified to tow the weight of the trailer and load.
What if the vehicle, trailer and load together weigh more than 3,500kg and I don't have a BE licence? To gain a category BE on your car licence you must have a full B licence. You are required to get a learner permit and take a practical driving test. You must sit a theory test in category BW (if you haven't already to get your B licence) to gain a learner permit. You must display an L-plate on the trailer and when practising with it must be accompanied by a driver with a full BE licence. Lessons are not mandatory for a BE test, but the RSA recommends them. During the test, drivers are given the option of reversing to their left or right around a corner. Can I use any trailer for my BE test? No, it must be a permanent boxed trailer, such as a horsebox, at least as wide and as high as the vehicle towing it and at least 2.4 metres long. The trailer must be presented with 30 four-inch cement blocks as a load.
What does a BE licence allow me to tow? With BE, the trailer and load can weigh up to 3,500kg and your vehicle can weigh up to the same maximum of 3.5 tonnes, bringing the combined weight to 7,000kg. A BE-licence holder can tow a car, whereas a B-licence holder cannot.
Can I buy a new trailer from anyone? Since late October 2012 the days of buying a trailer built by a local lad who is good with his hands are gone. All new trailers for sale must have "European Community whole vehicle type approval". The National Standards Authority of Ireland is responsible for testing and issuing national approvals for trailers made in Ireland. The law is unclear on older trailers and their use, but ultimately the driver is responsible for the safety of his or her trailer and load.
An example of the scale of the towing market in Ireland is evident by orders for cars fitted with hitches. Skoda Ireland says that last year 22 per cent of the new cars it sold were ordered with factory-fitted towing systems.
The benefit of a factory-fitted system is that it’s equipped with compatible electrics connections, while the car’s stability control and other driving aids automatically adapt to having a trailer attached.
The car’s alarm also recognises that a trailer is attached and monitors it; light bulbs in the trailer are monitored, too; stop/start is switched off; and the ABS adjusts for the trailer. Factory tow hitches aren’t cheap but are worth it. Skoda’s start at €499 and rise to €899.
We were invited to put our towing skills to the test at a novel event. We had a Skoda Octavia Combi (from €32,710) to which we hitched a general-purpose twin-axle trailer.
The first challenge was to collect and load a round bale of straw and then drive on a mix of roads. Securing the load, in this case with ratchet straps, is the responsibility of the driver. It is an offence to have an unsecured load. The motorway section of the route was incredibly dull, as we stuck to the 80km/h car-and-trailer speed limit.
At times we felt a little anxious, as cars and buses would appear rapidly behind us and then overtake. Our trailer was braked, so it had internal brakes that were applied whenever the car slowed down. The trailer was new, so it didn’t tug or jerk at all – something older or poorly serviced trailers can do.
At the end of the trip a car park was coned out and a number of reversing tasks were set for us by John Kearney, an instructor with Hynes Quinn driving school.
“Professional training can make the difference between passing and failing your test. More often than not people tend to oversteer; with professional training you can get the best advice to get the trailer going where you want it to go,” he said.
We managed quite well, but reversing with a trailer is a skill you really only master with practice.
Reversing a trailer is counterintuitive, but once you get a feel for it your confidence grows. With a growing number of cars fitted with hitches taking to our roads, it’s a skill that more motorists should formally learn rather than hope to pick up along the way.