When a friend’s car breaks down, it’s tempting to offer them a tow with your pickup truck. Why not? They’re only a few miles from home, and you’ve towed people around plenty of times. You’ve towed boats and trailers with cargo. You’ve pulled friends out of muddy ditches. Why not tow someone a few extra miles to their home?
Towing is serious business
There are serious technicalities you should know before towing anything with your truck. For instance, all vehicles have weight limits set by the manufacturer and exceeding those limits can damage your truck. Unfortunately, many manufacturers claim figures much higher than the legal maximum that can be towed, so use discretion.
The law also determines what and how you can tow. While it might be easy to tow other vehicles, it’s not always legal or safe. In fact, self-towing another vehicle even five feet is generally illegal and doing so can have dangerous consequences. Aside from getting arrested and fined, someone could get seriously injured.
Don’t tow cars with your personal vehicle
Make no mistake about it, if you aren’t a trained and licensed tow truck driver, don’t tow cars. Towing cars using your personal vehicle is illegal and dangerous. Even pulling someone out of a ditch with your personal vehicle is dangerous; you should call a professional for the job instead.
Despite the dangers, illegal towing is a big problem in some areas, and Sheriff Brian Heino from Flathead County Montana recently issued a warning about this dangerous practice. “A lot of instances have occurred where, when towing a vehicle the straps could break and cause injuries to yourself or the vehicle,” Sheriff Heino said.
Sheriff Heino’s warning also carries a reminder that professional tow trucks have a safety advantage personal vehicles don’t have: bigger trucks are more noticeable on the side of the road, and they have signs and bright lights to provide ample warning to oncoming traffic. They’re also operated by trained professionals with high-quality gear that is designed to withstand extreme pressure and bear extreme weight. The straps you have in your toolbox aren’t the same straps carried by a tow truck driver.
If it’s not street-legal, don’t use it for towing
Another issue with towing is the use of non-street legal vehicles. If a vehicle isn’t street-legal, it shouldn’t be driven on a public road and using it to tow another vehicle should be completely out of the question.
For example, most people wouldn’t consider driving a mobility scooter down a public road, even in the bike lane. Still, some people do. Worse, an Australian man named Shane Swancott was caught towing a 17-foot boat down the Pacific Highway in Belmont with a mobility scooter. The reason? His driver’s license had been disqualified, and apparently he thought he could get away with driving the scooter.
Swancott could have called for a legal tow. Instead, his decision led to being charged with driving while disqualified, operating an unregistered vehicle and trailer on a public road, and operating an uninsured vehicle on a public road.
Towing properly is like rocket science
Towing any kind of trailer is a difficult task requiring skill and precision some say is akin to brain surgery and rocket science. First, you need to know your weight limits because if you end up in a crash, your insurance claim will be denied if you’re overweight. Weight limits include gross vehicle mass, gross trailer mass, and gross combined mass. Mess up on any of these three and you could be given a ticket for breaking the law.
The math isn’t easy, either. Gross combined mass (the weight of your vehicle and trailer hitched together) must be less than the sum of gross vehicle mass and gross trailer mass. For instance, you can’t go by what the manufacturer claims to be the maximum towing capacity since that might break the law. You have to do all the math yourself, and hopefully you can do those calculations before purchasing your trailer. Every pound counts.
Weight isn’t the only factor that gets factored into the legality of towing. You also need to think about towball download, which can be between 10-15% in the U.S. and is 75kg in Europe regardless of the weight of the trailer. Exceed 10% and you’ll need a weight distribution hitch, which will distribute the load but might void a warranty.
Leave the complexity to the pros
It’s worth every cent to get a roadside assistance membership. Calling for, or performing an illegal tow is not worth putting yourself or others in danger.