According to a 2006 research survey titled “Towing Troubles” conducted by Customer Profiles Ltd. and Master Lock (, fewer than 13 percent of first-time owners were told how to safely load their new trailer. This procedure is critical to counteract the reactive forces a trailer contributes to common fishtailing.

Chip Macdonald

According to a 2006 research survey titled “Towing Troubles” conducted by Customer Profiles Ltd. and Master Lock (, fewer than 13 percent of first-time owners were told how to safely load their new trailer. This procedure is critical to counteract the reactive forces a trailer contributes to common fishtailing. While most trailers are designed to transfer 10 percent to 15 percent of the gross trailer load to the tongue and vehicle hitch, many operators have the proper “equalizing” style hitch which transfers tongue weight between the front and rear axles of the tow vehicle. Some manufacturers offer hydraulic towing dampers, in the form of hydraulic cylinders, to be attached from the equalizer hitch to trailer tongue to dampen the tendency of the front-loaded trailer to fishtail. These are sophisticated towing aids and should be matched carefully to the individual vehicles and properly adjusted to avoid serious accidents.

Whenever you’re loading a trailer, you should have a plan. It is often desirable to have materials loaded in a reverse sequence to the number of drops to be made a several locations, although the size and configuration of the materials will more than likely dictate their position on the trailer. Keep the load centered from side to side and make an effort to determine where the center of gravity will occur from front to rear. That point will determine the proportional tongue and axle weights. Don’t forget to consider the fragility of various pieces as they’re placed. Unless the trailer is equipped with air-bag suspension, the pounding effect of swing arm or rigid spring suspension is relatively unforgiving over rough roads. Whether you use chain or nylon tie-downs, consider buffering them with corner guards to protect the rigging and the load. Remember, in all 50 states the overall height restriction from “road to load” is 13 feet, 6 inches. Extremely tall loads are very difficult to rig to prevent shifting. If possible they should be broken down into shorter, multiple loads. Flowable materials, such as pea stone or some demo materials, should be towed with caution, as they may shift permanently in curves, causing a steering imbalance and overloading the suspension and tires.

Whether a box or a flat bed, loads on or within trailers require adequate rigging means and methods to tie them down. After all, it’s the tail that usually wags the dog when hauling a trailer. The forces involved while evading a white-tailed deer in the middle of a corner can wreak havoc with the six square of shingles piled on your trailer if they’re not properly and adequately secured. Consider the size and configuration of your trailer’s load before selecting a suitable type of tie down. Nylon ratchet straps are very handy when your load is fragile, but consider corner guards when a load has sharp cutting edges. Grade 8 chain and binders (lever or ratchet) may be required to fasten down the axles or pick-points of heavy equipment. Remember that pneumatic tired vehicles must be allowed some “bounce” if the rigging and anchorage (chain pockets) are to be protected from damage. “Equal and opposite” is the best rule of thumb for most load tie-downs. Make sure all buckets and blades are in the lowered position after loading and before rigging. Measure the tallest point of the load to pavement, to ensure the maximum bridge height limit of DOT 13 feet, 6 inches. If you are not sure of your route, inspect it first or consult with one of many commercially printed bridge books listing every state’s low-clearance bridges. Always keep in mind, whether you were issued a private or commercial driver’s license, in all 50 states the driver is always considered responsible for securing all loads carried on or in a vehicle or trailer. Loads on or in a trailer will be continuously shifting as the trip progresses, so a competent driver will expect it. It should be a standard operating procedure for your employees to regularly locate a safe area to pull over and re-inspect the load, tires and lights en route. An experienced driver knows whenever something “doesn’t feel right” to always stop and check it out when safe to do so. Checking the mirrors does not constitute inspecting.

The most common non-moving accident involving trailers is falls to a lower level. Musculoskeletal injuries while jumping from tractor or trailer is the No. 1 workers compensation claim for professional truck drivers. It is no different from the occasional trailer hauler. When you climb onto a trailer to adjust tie-downs or secure a tarp, be very aware of your feet and posture. The load often leaves little of the trailer deck exposed to walk on. Chains and straps run out to the tie-down pockets or rub-rails at various angles, causing trip hazards. Jumping from trailer to ground is always discouraged. If it’s over 19 inches, OSHA requires the employer to provide a ladder to ascend/descend. Entering and exiting box trailers requires equal attention to your posture and foot placement. Wear the proper footgear for this task and never hurry. I know drivers with 100 percent disability injuries who would love a “Mulligan” on the day they fell off the trailer. Whether or not the wheels are turning, patience is always the key to safe trailering.


How hard can towing a trailer really be? After all, it’s locked on a hinge pin in the center of the vehicle’s frame. It simply has to follow. Or does it? The longer your ball-to-axle length, the shorter the track radius taken by the trailer tires in a turn. The tighter the turn, the greater reduction in radius. Just because your company driver’s truck misses the fire hydrant or customer’s hedge is no guarantee your trailer will. With fewer than one in five operators you encounter on the road experienced and trained in towing a trailer, assumptions of competency can be very risky.

It always takes more time and energy to start, stop and pass with a vehicle towing a trailer. As a result, operators should add a reasonable amount of time to complete any road trip. Factor in rush hour traffic around cities, school bus hours, highway repair season, steep grade climbs and descents, as well as more than a passing glance at the weather station. A three-hour trip without a trailer can easily take me more than four hours with a trailer attached. An eight-hour cross-country trip becomes a 10- to 12-hour haul.

Winter commercial driving is risky enough, but hook a trailer onto your hitch and you can assume your risks have more than doubled. Slower speed and greater separation distance is key. Whenever you can see tire tracks on the road, reduce your speed 50 percent and keep two truck-trailer lengths per 10 mph from a lead vehicle. Use lower gears to maintain descent speeds on icy grades. Trailer braking is a skill that is best taught by professionals under controlled conditions before practicing on the road. Your company should also establish maximum summer and winter speed limits for towing any trailer, and make sure they are clearly indicated in the operator’s training manual. Due to the icy weather we experience here in the upstate Hudson River Valley, I install a set of stud tires for all of my trailers as well as my tow vehicles from Oct. 15 to April 15. I always keep an inexpensive NOAA weather radio in my vehicle all year to remain alerted of any local forecast problems (along with a cell phone, road flares, Mylar survival blanket, energy bars, water and a change of clothes). I also carry a small covered pail containing crushed oyster shells from my local feed store to use for traction assist. It’s better than sand, never freezes and can be relocated easily.

Crosswinds are another concern. Ridges, bridges and ramps are three locales where winds of indeterminate speed and direction may be encountered. The prevailing direction of winds may be indicated by the roadside foliage before the highway leaves the protective cover of the terrain at the headlands of a bridge abutment. If possible on interstates, position yourself in the middle lane (if available) to provide yourself some lateral range should crosswinds strike. When traveling the interstate highways in urban areas, there are often three or four lanes of travel. If you are passing through, it is good advice to remain in the middle lane to avoid the traffic compression that occurs at most interchanges, thus eliminating many unnecessary lane changes to avoid merging traffic. Otherwise, remain in the right-hand lane, allowing for the breakdown lane to possibly absorb your trailer’s initial buffet of cross wind. Should the winds become too dangerous to drive in, the driver’s should pull off the road and seek shelter in a rest area or travel plaza. Most violent weather is fast-moving, and wind shear tends to occur briefly ahead of the front. Driving defensively when hauling a trailer load requires awareness sometimes a mile ahead of your position in traffic. Identifying where crosswinds will likely occur is a skill most experienced drivers acquire.

Another item of awareness is truck wash. This is the high-pressure wave created ahead of and in the wake of a passing tractor-trailer as it plows through the air at 60 mph. Mirror scanning can keep surprises to a minimum. Most professional drivers realize that driving in their mirrors may occupy as much as one-quarter of their visual awareness in heavy traffic. Typically, a driver will regularly look to the right-hand mirrors (flat and parabolic) first, comparing any changes in traffic position since last observed. Next their forward gaze passes through the windshield and then down to their instrument panel for a rapid overview. After a second or two, their vision passes back to the windshield before resting briefly on the left-hand mirrors. In this cyclical manner, the driver is always aware of his/her position in an ever-changing field of drivers, vehicles and road conditions (even weather). Noticing one or more tractor-trailers moving up slowly from the left rear will give the operator the advantage of controlling his vehicle’s position and speed in the minute or two it takes them to eventually pass. Depending on the style and length of your trailer, the truck wash may have a variety of effects, from an inevitable pull to the right to momentary draft acceleration. I drive one of several 20-foot trailers with a 1-ton van, so the pressure wave usually occurs in two distinct stages. Being passed by a wagon train of trucks while crossing over a canyon bridge on a winter glazed road can be a stimulating event. Avoid the natural tendency to oversteer in turbulent crosswinds by expecting the upcoming forces and riding the turbulence out with a “light not tight” hand on the steering.

All roads are constructed with a crown, or domed cross section, to allow for runoff toward the shoulders and drainage ditches during heavy rains. Some roads certainly have more crown angle than others. The crown may be modified somewhat by the engineers in the banking design of high-speed curves only to be re-encountered as the road straightens again. Heavily crowned roads can produce a slight steering strain as the trailer tends to “run downhill” off the slope. While normally not a serious problem, when combined with heavy traffic flow, driver fatigue and even boredom, this tendency to drift down and to the right can be problematic. Tired, inexperienced drivers often allow the trailer to drive the tow vehicle in this situation. Becoming aware of this phenomenon helps the operator to steadily cope with the situation rather than react to it.

Backing trailers is more often likened to an art project than a physics problem. In my opinion, it is a lot of both. Include inadequate mirrors, poor visibility, crowded construction sites, poor traction, disturbed grades and the usual co-worker harassment, and things only get worse. My first commercial instructor told me, “Respect your spotter, but trust your mirrors. They can’t lie.” Parabolics are excellent for second check mirrors after you’ve scanned port and starboard flat mirrors because they can help you pick up compact cars, kids and bicyclists that have snuck into your blind spots. If you trailer in the Great White North, a pair of heated mirrors is not really considered a luxury.

Always know where you’re headed first. Pulling onto a jobsite without inspecting the route and conditions first can create additional problems for the driver, often necessitating backing out onto busy streets or highways. A general trailer rule I learned late in my career is that you will always be able to drive out of any access you have backed into, while you may not be able to back out of any access you’ve driven into with a trailer.

Driver Training

As you might well imagine, I believe that competent person training is the minimum essential safety procedure required to trailer any load. The results of the Master Lock survey are quite disturbing. It seems that most drivers (71 percent) don’t believe they require even the most basic training to safely tow a trailer. Apparently they consider it’s an innate gift we’re all born with. It’s never a good idea to send an untrained, unevaluated employee/driver out with your valuable trailer and load to operate on public highways among other drivers in vehicles that may or may not be in safe condition. There are relatively few conditions under your control as a contractor these days, so take firm control the ones you can. Institute a defensive trailer hauling course and mandate that all of your state licensed operator/employees complete both classroom and field training. Evaluate everyone and prohibit those with less-than-acceptable evaluations from hauling your trailers. Given another chance, those drivers may then endeavor to improve their trailering skills prior to a re-evaluation. List the names of all drivers you’ve designated as authorized to tow on the safety placard on the driver’s visor or every tow vehicle. Don’t forget to write a trailer towing safety program to your written corporate safety and health manual, which you revise annually and distribute to each employee.

A primary part of any trailer training course is always backing up. Issues such as mirror management and use, reverse video cameras and spotters/flaggers should be covered thoroughly. While many commercial driver safety programs no-fault certain forward motion accidents, backing accidents are always chargeable by the trucking firm and potentially result in layoffs. Just as important while driving, visibility is the key to backing a trailer safely. Under restricted or high traffic conditions, a spotter who is trained in backing trailers himself is often the minimum requirement. He knows where the mirror range of driver’s vision is at all times, has a thorough knowledge of acceptable hand signals, and never puts himself between the trailer and any solid object or oncoming traffic. Train your copilots to spot for the driver and you’ll maximize your delivery team.

As I have mentioned in other articles, consider putting all of your licensed employees through a National Safety Council Defensive Driving Course every few years. You may then enjoy a substantial savings in your commercial auto insurance premium. Ask your insurance agent when classes may be held at your facility. Don’t procrastinate on this. Pick up the phone and call now. Your accountant will tell you that any insurance savings is considered just like a tax-free profit.

Trailer Courtesy

How your employees drive and where they park your trailer is a matter of choice. Your company name is typically on your equipment, so their choices reflect directly on your reputation. Never park in front of a bar, even if it’s the only spot large enough. It just doesn’t look good. A lot of trucks parked a diner doesn’t necessarily mean their food is good, but it does mean their parking lot is large.

Any driver cut off by your company’s trailer will only remember the name of your company. Passing vehicles on primary, secondary or interstate roads while towing is always a risky operation and should be undertaken by a driver defensively trained in risk assessment and decision-making. There are certainly places, times and conditions where passing may be mandatory, but proper passing methods should be defensively taught and evaluated with regard to those specific factors requiring a pass. Forward and rear visibility must always be considered first and foremost. Then factors of speed, distance and escape routes should be evaluated. Most commercial over-the-road drivers realize that the driver who passes everyone in front of him is seldom more than one cup of coffee ahead of them at the next truck stop.

Parking the trailer with respect to others is also important. Blocking driveways, alleys, handicapped spaces, fire lanes, hydrants, parking lots or double parking denying access to other vehicles are always unacceptable practices. While many urban jobsites are typically less accommodating than suburban or rural sites, drivers operating trailers have no more parking rights than anyone else in a crowded environment. Patience is just as critical when you park a trailer as when you tow one. If patience and courtesy aren’t basic constituents of your personality, you probably shouldn’t be operating a company vehicle at all.

Another trailer courtesy regards the practice of adequately covering loose loads with a tarp to prevent littering of materials and demolition debris. It is a practice that is not only mandated by every state’s commercial transportation safety regulations, but also an environmentally sound practice, preserving the dignity of our common roadsides. The advent of the 1-ton hydraulic/electric dump trailer in the residential construction market has made waste truckers out of just about everyone who thinks it will eliminate one more subcontractor. No one wants to run over a pile of roof demo full of nails or be struck by flying debris, but most of these trailer loads I’ve witnessed are overloaded and completely untarped. Load rigging training doesn’t stop with heavy equipment and building materials. It should also include securing loose material loads, such as construction debris.

Know Your Needs

In an effort to define the scope of competent trailer hauling methods I have mentioned only a few, non-inclusive safety practices. By no means are these the only ones to consider. Additionally, this article is not the only source of information on the subject. There are many other trailer safety programs, complete and customizable, in the training market today. My sincere concern is that the employer make his training both equipment-specific and operator-specific as possible, avoiding the tendency to use only generic training recommendations.

Although most of my readers are in the roofing industry, every contractor’s operations are ultimately unique. Many equipment items in construction are, in themselves, integral trailers. Towable conveyors, kettles, aerial lifts, material handlers and mast-climbing platforms may be designed and constructed with axles and tongues suitable for highway towing. The operator should read and thoroughly understand the manufacturer’s operating manual before towing such equipment.

Perhaps the most important advice I would offer is to ensure your operators become familiar with their trailers and their particular towing characteristics, Enable them to take a short, local “shakedown cruise” before heading out on the highway. Trailer hauling practices may be considerably different for workers who primarily travel the interstates than for the contractor that seldom works beyond the county line. Foremost is the employer’s responsibility to train and evaluate the drivers the company expects to haul a trailer, loaded or empty, on public highways.

Assuming that a driver’s license means an employee is knowledgeable in the safe operation of a trailer is a high-risk business practice, but it is done thousands of times every day across the country. As we all handed our car keys over to our children soon after they acquired their driver’s license, we had a much different confidence level in events to come than they did. Teaching all of your employees about trailer safety will also prepare them for driving among other trailer-hauling operators in traffic. An employee who is untrained and inexperienced at hauling a trailer is a liability to himself, his co-workers, the general public and the company. A conscientious employer should thoroughly analyze his trailering needs, produce a comprehensive trailer safety program and designate a competent person to implement it - the sooner the better. Every trailer mile logged by an untrained, inexperienced driver brings a potential disaster that much closer to reality.