Caravan Crashes – Our opinion why
- 16 May 2017
We have been asked countless times why our Major Incident Response team seem to attend so many caravan crashes and each time what caused them. There are always thousands of different opinions but we are going to step out and explain some major points we think contribute to these incidents. This may cause a stir with the “experts” and contradict some online information; as we all know just because it is on google doesn’t mean it is right. We will stress though this is our opinion, we are not engineers, nor do we have special tickets (other than semi-trailer licences), so take it as you like. This opinion is by a group of us who, outside of work, all travel with large vans and have also attended hundreds of caravan crashes at work.
With each crash, as we a have interest in caravanning, we look at what we think caused it and often chat to the drivers about their experiences, what they did, look how they set their van up, how different vans are manufactured. Often we see and hear similar problems. We never wanted to express our opinion online of what we thought caused individual accidents, as in some cases manufacturer and aftermarket suppliers may be inclined to sue us for those opinions. Basically this post is not about one particular caravan crash, it is an overview.
Vehicle size and capacity
A vehicle loaded correctly of a decent size is safer than a vehicle that has a bit of paper saying it can. A large 4wd wagon is a fair lump of a car, but a lot of these lighter utes out there have a higher towing capacity. Just because it says on paper, it can tow 3.5 tonnes it doesn’t mean you’re going to be all good to pull even a 2.5-tonne van. For example, a standard Toyota Prado weighs 2.22 tonnes and can legally tow 2.5 tonnes but a standard D Max ute weighs just under 2 tonnes but can “legally” tow 3.5 tonnes. The main point is to ensure if you are using a ute to tow a large van, it needs to have a decent load in it, and we don’t mean a couple of fold up chairs and tables.
Utes also have longer overhang compared to a wagon so when they start to get the wobbles up it’s like a counter lever, it’s going to push your backside around a lot easier. Of course large 4wds crash, but we generally see them with larger vans behind. There is no doubt the heavier towing vehicle is, the better. Legally we still say half of the 4wd caravan combinations we see out there would be over loaded, especially over their GVM and GCM weight, but that’s a whole new subject we could write a book on.
This is a big one. You need to aim to have around 200 to 250 kgs weight on your tow ball with larger vans. 10 percent of the caravan weight is a good rule of thumb for whatever size van you tow. Of course, you need to have the rear of your tow vehicle set up for this load, and ensure it is legal. If you have no or limited weight downwards from the van going onto the tow hitch of your tow vehicle you’re asking for trouble.
Some vans are manufactured with nearly no tow ball weight; some are scary, do your homework before you make your investment. Some work on the front tunnel being loaded with gear and water tanks being full. In some cases, an empty or light loaded van ends up being more dangerous.
It is crucial to check where your water tanks are and understand as they get emptier the tow ball weight is changing. If you have two full water tanks in front of the axle, they can make a significant difference to tow ball weight. But if you have one tank at the front and one at the rear it can act as another risky counter lever if you have the front empty and back full. Also, some caravans have waste water holding tanks at the back, so you could have camped and unknowingly just moved a 100 plus kgs of weight from your front drinking water tanks and put it in the rear waste tank. This causes a see saw effect and could change your tow ball weight, to nothing, or even place a lift effect on the rear of the tow vehicle.
Buy yourself a tow ball weight scale (about $70), and check your weight, take note of where your items are in the van and your water levels. Learn how your caravan works at different times, some people will be shocked. Lots of usually we collect after accidents (when they stay together) we do see evenly balanced with the tow bar up in the air, or able to pick the drawbar up with one hand. This is a recipe for disaster, and we consider the biggest factor for a lot of crashes we attend. Toy hauliers that cart motorbikes etc. in the back (yes we get them crashed) you really have to think a bit more about what you are doing.
Towing Wobbles Leading to Caravan Crashes
A typical comment we often hear and is actually in a lot of training manuals is if you get the wobbles, speed up and it will pull out of it. We have to pick this statement apart. Over three-quarters of the people, we rescue say, “it got the wobbles, I gently accelerated to get out of it, and it all got worse quickly”. People get the wobbles up when they are going a bit quicker than their combination can handle and often slightly downhill (will cover this soon). So going faster in these situations will only make things worse. An exception would be if you are positive that you can lock your trailer brakes up via your trailer controller, acceleration “may” only then help.
We still think the better emergency option is to press your emergency electric brake button or slightly press your brakes, so the trailer electric brakes activate, as going faster in these scenarios often doesn’t go well.
Electric brake controllers
When you’re on the highway turn them up high to provide solid braking to the trailer if you need to emergency stop you want the trailer to be pulling up faster and avoiding possible caravan crashes. If you go through town and turn them down due to brakes locking up at the lights, don’t forget to turn them up or they won’t be there when needed.
The older style controllers had a large solid lever you could grab the slide button to lock the trailer brakes on. The new controllers have a push button; critical thing is the button on lots of models only activate the brakes to what you have them set on. If you have the brakes turned down from in town, the button won’t help if an emergency occurs.
Lots of vans now have automatic emergency electronic stability control, these are great if operating correctly but make sure you don’t fall into a false sense of security, they are only one piece of the puzzle that may help. We have seen people go into emergency situations where they depended on the emergency stability control to help and appeared it didn’t. They run out of time to go back to the manual method of pressing the button on the brake controller, or slightly touching brakes, to activate the trailer brakes.
It also needs to be mentioned trailer brakes of any type needs to be regularly checked, no matter what type you have fitted. If they aren’t operating correctly, you have an issue. It only takes a simple wire off to stop the process. A good tip too is when you have a brake controller fitted to your vehicle, ensure it is in a very easy to access position while driving, it could be your lifeline.
Anti Sway bars and Weight Distribution Hitches
Another touchy subject. First off they are two totally different things but people appear to get them mixed up. Sway bars are designed to help with swaying, weight distribution hitches take weight off the tow ball, and level your vehicle. Most caravan crashes we attend we see weight distribution hitches fitted. With a heavily loaded tow ball they can help. If you have low tow ball weight, we personally consider weight distribution hitches make things worse. With their tension they really could provide the opposite result and have a dangerous lifting effect on the rear of your vehicle.
If you are getting any of these accessories, make sure you know what you are doing, know your weights or go to reputable companies who can give you the time to assist in having the right ones. These should not be used as a solution to a problem, only another tool that may help your towing experience. Big point though is if you have lower tow ball weight, or even correct tow ball weight, we consider if you want to have a back up safety feature check you have “Anti Sway Bars” not a “Weight Distribution” system.
Why are there so many accidents in our area?
A big factor we see is that we have sections of highway that are downhill, with slight bends, 110 km zones, with some cross winds involved. Downhill, people’s speeds unknowingly come up in these sections a bit higher than they normally travel. The extra speed, downhill, winds, plus one or more of the above things discussed can lead to disaster. In real terms with the number of caravan crashes on the road there are no more crashes than other vehicles, but the mess/disruption as well as stress they cause, as they are often people’s homes puts them in the lime light. We do tend to see every accident has at least two of the above factors involved.
As we said to start with, this is personal opinion. Feel welcome to contact us if you agree, disagree, any questions you may have and we will try our best to give our thoughts. In the end, if we share our real life experiences and even if we can help prevent even one caravan crash with our fellow caravanners our job is done.